The G-boys' Android

It is the item that's got the blogosphere buzzing - Android. But is Google's latest effort to domina

It's difficult to not write about them. After an insanely busy few weeks, the folks at Google have capped it all off by releasing a mobile phone, the G1.

The gPhone began as one of the greatest Internet-meme, a long running rumour that was finally put to rest by a post on the Google blog last december. Google weren't going to go into hardware, rather they were going to collaborate on a mobile operating system, Android, and a strategic alliance built around it.

The G1, available in the UK in November, is the first phone to be powered by this software.

The phone itself looks pretty much like any of the HTC smartphones of recent years - most of which ran Windows Mobile.

Sure, it's towards the elegant end of the spectrum, but still some way from the competitor that all the product designers are attempting to better - the iPhone. Most of the reviews are inevitably comparing it to the Apple device on functionality, tech specs and of course, aesthetic design. It's here of course that the Apple device wins out, mostly because it possesses the one thing that no competing device can possibly have - that intrinsic Apple-ness which renders it an object of frenzied nerd desire.

To the consumer then, the comparison might be as simple as a grid of tech-specs and how it feels in your hand, but the real differences between the two devices are more fundamental than that.

The Open Handset Alliance, announced at the same time as the Android, is an effort to bring manufacturers together to create a shared and open software platform for mobile development. This means a phone that is wholly user-configurable, where any Android software can be installed on the phone at any time and importantly, that software can be developed and released by anyone.

Whilst the iPhone feels like it's about freedom (and that owning one will somehow align your thoughtstyle with that of a West Coast millionaire who loves profit almost as much as he loves hanging out at Burning Man), the reality is becoming rather clearer for developers.

The Apple App store which launched alongside the iPhone 2.0 update has been serving some wonderful software, but the flow of that code has been controlled with the kind of aggressive paranoia that only Steve Jobs can muster. Recently there have been cases started to emerge of applications being barred from the App store because they 'duplicate functionality' of software that Apple already make. When developers started to air their dissatisfaction with this, Apple reminded them that their rejection letters also fell under their developer Non-Disclosure-Agreement. It seems that Apple loves innovation as long as it doesn't compete with them.

Why should Google bother with mobile phones? With three billion of them out there in people's pockets, the device is hands-down the ubiquitous computing platform of the future. Both Microsoft in Windows Mobile and Apple with the iPhone OS X have invested heavily in their share of that market with a proprietary operating system. An open platform for mobile development would be disruptive indeed.

As the always-on platform grows and network access becomes easier, the services the internet provides will become central to mobile phone functionality. Whilst on the surface this might appear to be a battle of who sells the most phones, for Google there is something far more
valuable at stake.

As Google Apps, Google Mail and Google Maps (served to you through the Google Browser) all ascend to being credible replacements for expensive desktop software, the networked software space as delivered on phones becomes a goldmine of untold potential and the G-boys know this well. After Page and Brin roller-bladed into the launch of the G1 in New York they made a few statements to the assembled press.

Brin commented, "being able to do a search with all the flexibility that you are used to having on a laptop is really, really worthwhile and we are really excited about it." Then he smiled, dreaming of the ad- revenue from 3 billion Android phones using Google as their search page.

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.