Twisting Arms

2010 May 19
by Dave

Did you know that Android is a disruptive technology? Yeah, I thought that you might have heard something about that. Open source smart phone operating systems that allow others to compete with Apple. Not so terribly disruptive.

Android smart phones are basically about as open source as a Windows PC. You can download whatever software that you want, some of it paid and some of it free, but you aren’t mucking about in the guts of the OS installing and tweaking whatever components you’d like. So from a smart phone perspective Google has given to us the choice of an unmediated application ecosystem versus a mediated one.

Nice, but not exactly what I remember the whole point of Android being. I remember something about empowering the little guys to make smart phones with high production value operating systems that could leverage a manufacturer independent applications market etc. etc. HTC is not so small last I checked. Android has just replaced Windows mobile.

I’ll be the first to admit that this is indeed a big deal, but I’d like to point out that this story about Android that everyone knows completely obscures the truly disruptive change that Android has wrought on the tech landscape. Embedded Linux had been chugging along, slowly penetrating embedded devices of all types at a less than amazing speed until Android came along and penetrated the embedded mobile market in an unprecedented way.

It is all about chips. There was a time when, actually right now, if you go into a store and buy a cell phone that is not a smart phone it will have a baseband chip that is integrated with the radio that does the cell phone stuff and is designed and built by Qualcomm, Broadcom or some other com. This chip will have an architecture licensed from ARM that runs a custom UI painstakingly crafted by each cell phone manufacturer to meet each carrier’s specifications.

Next year you will be buying cell phones that run reference code from Qualcomm for the radio and Linux to run the UI. In a testament to corporate nimbleness, Qualcomm and ARM released the Snapdragon family of processors in late 2008 to be a solid embedded Linux solution and defend their radio/baseband dominance going into the 4G mobile rollout.

There are a lot of software engineers that are very good at writing UI code for ARM processors. They don’t have jobs anymore. They have been replaced by software engineers that are very good at writing UI code for Linux. These folks have the handy feature of being both cheaper and more foreign than the old school embedded systems programmers.

The upshot of this whole thing is that embedded Linux has been given the market penetration and low price/low power consumption processor development necessary to ensure deeper penetration into our lives. Even though it has nothing to do with Android’s target market, you are now much more likely to someday have a screen built into your refrigerator that tells you what you need to throw away based on the “sell by” dates that it reads out of the RFID chips in the stuff inside then you were when Google first bought Android. And of course you’ll be able to play Doom on it.

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