What does Google's Open Handset Alliance announcement tell us about iPhone third-party apps?

I’m listening in on Google’s press call about the Open Handset Alliance, which Google announced today. It’s hilarious to hear all of the big wireless companies speaking about open platforms and software. Good for Google.

This announcement and the focus on open platforms make me think back to Apple’s recent, seemingly rushed announcement that it will finally be supporting third-party apps on the iPhone. If Apple had made that announcement after Google made this one, it would have fallen very flat. By announcing beforehand, they were able to tell an “open platform” story while they still had the whole stage to themselves. Did Apple announce iPhone third-party apps as an aside in their “Hot News” column (instead of on Steve Jobs’ home court, a conference keynote) in order to get the news out fast — before Google?

It’s interesting to note that Google and the Open Handset Alliance are starting out by shipping the platform first, and shipping phones with that platform on it a year later. Andy Rubin mentioned that an SDK will be available in one week (Apple won’t have an SDK until February), and that it will be shipped with the Apache v2 license. Starting with developers — what a great way to compete with Apple. Someone asked if a manufacturer could create a “completely locked-down Android device,” and Andy Rubin responded, sure, the Apache license lets you do whatever you want, but Eric Schmidt chimed in, why would you bother? The point is having access to the applications. As he said later, “This is fundamentally a developer platform announcement.”

It’s also interesting to remember that Apple was rumored to be considering a Sidekick-like model of application delivery — that is, all apps would need be downloaded through something like iTunes, that Apple would control, rather than being installed by the user directly, as on Palm OS. Rubin, co-founder of Sidekick maker Danger and now leader of the Google effort, must be rooting for them to make that mistake. It certainly didn’t seem to make developers excited about the Sidekick. Maybe this competitive pressure will spur Apple and AT&T to give that up, if they were considering it; here’s hoping.

All in all, very interesting. It’s remarkable to see Apple once again in the position of selling a whole-stack platform (software and hardware, at least — network sold separately), competing with a broad coalition of commodity hardware companies using a common software platform. I think they’ll repeat history — they are already repeating history — by not doing whatever they can to bring developers to their platform. I wonder if Google will teach them what they should have already learned from Microsoft.