What gives AT&T and Verizon real power over the wireless world? It is their control over spectrum, retail, and government, three areas where Google, as of now, is very weak, and where it must depend entirely on its allies. Spectrum is the one physically scarce resource in the wireless world, and those who control the airwaves have the power to call the shots by denying access to those who do not behave. That's why so much turns on the loyalty of Google's carrier partners, T-Mobile and Sprint, for they are serious players with spectrum. If, as is likely, AT&T and Verizon refuse to allow any Gphones on their networks, the reach of Android may be limited.
Nor is the problem of retailing Android phones trivial. Anyone with an Internet browser can use Google search or Gmail, but in the American mobile world the main barrier to market entry is reaching consumers. Today, more than 90 percent of Americans buy their wireless devices from their carriers. It is true, again, that Google has T-Mobile and Sprint provisionally on its side. But if only some outlets will sell a Gphone, fewer people will buy them.
Finally, the Bells are strong enough in Washington to try to use government as a tool against Google. The exact mechanisms can be hard for anyone but a seasoned telecommunications attorney to understand. But where there's a lobbyist, there's a way to make life difficult for a market entrant. Don't be surprised if Google's wireless division or Google itself begins to face new pressure from the FCC, antitrust authorities, or other sympathetic government bodies.
If these challenges sound daunting, they are. They explain why a once-radical company like Apple, when it launched the iPhone, bowed to the carriers instead of trying to fight them. But you'd also be crazy to underestimate Google and its incentives for waging this war. Unlike, say, book search, or some of Google's other stalled ventures, conquering wireless may very well be do or die, if the long-term future does indeed lie in mobile computing. And to the extent that Google is already a part of the broader war between open and closed systems, attacking the wireless world gives Google and its allies a chance to go on the offensive. It means that Google can spend less energy defending the Web from the Bells and cable companies in the ongoing struggle for net neutrality.
What Google has on its side is lots of money, smart employees, and some important allies. But most important is its conviction that it is on the side of history. Google believes that the ideology of openness must win out, and that the Bell system will collapse under its own contradictions. For a firm, Google has an astonishing sense of its manifest destiny. As one Google executive told me recently, "We don't do something unless we are convinced we will do it an order of magnitude better."
That's why it must be understood that Android is just an initial step. Next, Google or its partners must do whatever they must to get their hands on more spectrum to establish a beachhead of true openness in the wireless world. Provided Google continues to have the nerve and resources, we'll likely remember the Android announcement as the beginning of a long, drawn-out battle for ideological supremacy in the world of wireless.