Free as in Android

razorNot since Apple stunned a developer/media crowd by giving away free iSight video cameras has a company gone to the heart of what Jonathan Schwartz calls the tendency of not just software but hardware to trend to free. Google’s giveaway of 4,000 Android phones and 30 days of 3G answers the musical question: is that an Android phone in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?

Google’s HTML 5 pitch got a whole lot more interesting when developers realized the company was moving into the kind of viral marketing Apple seemed to own until recently. The App Store has created an always-on version of the developer evangelism connection, and we’ll see how effective Google is in building on the momentum created by the phone toolkit. The iPhone 3.0 release continues to keep Apple ahead in lining developer pockets with money through increased monetization scenarios. Now the differentiator will come on the media side of the equation.

Google has maintained good relationships with both mainstream and blogger press, but free phones will need to be backed up with the only coin media respects, namely access. Tim O’Reilly released a wrap-up post that quoted several of the keynoters before they actually delivered those remarks. Scoops are scoops, but this takes the concept of live blogging a step further. But that kind of media sequencing is not how Apple turned the press into a subsidiary.

Instead, they did it by capturing the imagination of the bit-stained wretches. As users, we’ve accepted years of incremental development – the long evolution of Windows from a band-aid on top of DOS to NT to something indistinguishable from most of OS/10. Then the browser – from a crippled container firewalled off from Office to an iteratively updated application framework that, with HTML 5, makes Java an irrelevant stub on the desktop and Flash in big trouble on the phone. Today’s free phone is the razor for creating the HTML 5 habit, and video is the nicotine.

Battery life will continue to be the great leveler here, but even that bolsters the free phone as a backup when the iPhone dies, or vice versa. As planes adopt WiFi, I’ll use my MacBook Air as a charging station, and switch between the smaller devices for as much of the communications time as I can lay off. Streaming video servers will become the gas stations of the near future, parking enough bits to finesse the look-ahead of new video as it hits the network, perhaps caching your favorite sites or follows based on your and your affinity cloud’s behavior.

Though much is made of open versus closed in the messaging around these technologies, in fact these are all very savvy serious commercial players. All is not exactly as it seems. Google challenges Apple, but releases advanced versions of Gmail on the iPhone to build demand for that type of app as it proliferates across the other platforms. Chrome is the overt browser play, but Firefox is the stalking horse through which Google seeds the broader market. Microsoft may seem to be the odd man out, but there is ample room for Redmond to adopt enough of the HTML 5 characteristics as to make staying with Windows Mobile attractive to the larger audience. Again, Java… look out. Nokia too.