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GPhone aims to conquer mobile net

Miguel Helft
October 11, 2007, New York Times

For more than two years, a large group of engineers at Google have been working in secret on a mobile-phone project.

As word of their efforts has trickled out, expectations in the tech world for what has been called the Google phone, or GPhone, have risen, the way they do for Apple loyalists before a speech by Steve Jobs.

But the GPhone is not likely to be the second coming of the iPhone and Google’s goals are very different from Apple’s.

Google wants to extend its dominance of online advertising to the mobile internet, a small market today but one that is expected to grow rapidly. It hopes to persuade wireless carriers and mobile-phone makers to offer phones based on its software, according to people briefed on the project. The cost of those phones may be partly subsidised by advertising that appears on their screens.

Google is expected to unveil the fruit of its mobile efforts later this year, and phones based on its technology could be available next year.

Some analysts say that the Google project’s effect on the wireless industry is not likely to be as profound, at least initially, as that of Apple’s iPhone, whose revolutionary look and features have redefined consumer expectations for mobile phones.

“The iPhone was a milestone in terms of how people use a mobile device,” says Karsten Weide, an analyst with IDC. “The GPhone, if it does come out, will help Google with distribution for their online services.”

At the core of Google’s phone efforts is an operating system for mobile phones that will be based on open-source Linux software, according to industry executives familiar with the project.

In addition, Google is expected to develop mobile versions of its applications that go well beyond the mobile search and map software it offers today. Those applications may include a web browser to run on mobile phones.

While Google has built phone prototypes to test its software and show off its technology to manufacturers, the company is not likely to make the phones itself, according to analysts.

In short, Google is not creating a gadget to rival the iPhone, but rather creating software that will be an alternative to Windows Mobile from Microsoft and other operating systems, which are built into phones sold by many manufacturers. And unlike Microsoft, Google is not expected to charge phone makers a licensing fee for the software.

The essential point is that Google’s strategy is to lead the creation of an open-source competitor to Windows Mobile, according to one industry executive, who did not want his name used because his company has had contacts with Google. They will put it in the open-source world and take the economics out of the Windows Mobile business.

Some believe another major goal of the phone project is to loosen the control of carriers over the software and services that are available on their networks.

“Google’s agenda is to disaggregate carriers,” says Dan Olschwang, the chief executive of JumpTap, a start-up that provides search and advertising services to several mobile-phone operators.

Google declined to comment on any specifics of its mobile-phone initiative. But its chief executive, Eric Schmidt, has said several times that the mobile-phone market presented the largest growth opportunity for Google. “We have a large investment in mobile phones and mobile-phone platform applications,” he says.

Industry analysts say that Google, which has little experience with complex hardware, faces significant challenges.

“Running a website and a search engine is one thing,” says Weide of IDC. “But developing a phone is a whole different game. It will not be easy for them.”

Weide adds that Google’s impact on the industry will depend to a large extent on its ability to sign deals with wireless carriers that distribute hundreds of millions of phones each year and often control what software and services run on them.

Some carriers, especially in the United States, are likely to give Google a cool reception. Companies such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T have spent billions of dollars building and upgrading their networks, establishing relationships with customers, subsidising handsets and creating their own mobile internet portals. Now they want to make sure those investments pay off, in part, through mobile advertising, and they see Google and other search engines, which are after the same ad dollars, as competitors.

As a result, most carriers in the US have chosen to shun the major search engines for now. Instead, they have promoted the search engines and ad systems of small technology companies such as JumpTap and Medio Systems, whose services they can stamp with their own brands.

Most carriers declined to comment on Google’s plans. But Arun Sarin, chief executive of Britain’s Vodafone Group, which offers the Google service on its phones, says it is not clear what compelling functions Google will offer that are not already available.

“What is it that is missing in life that they are going to fulfil?” Sarin says. “It is not a no-brainer. You can reach Google already through a number of devices. You don’t need a Google phone to do that.”

Google’s desire to loosen the carriers’ control over their networks has hardly been a secret. The company recently lobbied the Federal Communications Commission to impose rules on any carrier that wins a coming auction for valuable wireless spectrum. The rules, which the FCC adopted despite opposition from Verizon and others, require that the network using a portion of that spectrum be open to any handset and software applications from any company.

Google says it is considering bidding for some of that spectrum. But regardless of who wins it, phones based on Google’s software will be able to take advantage of it.Google’s lobbying, as well as its work on a phone software platform that will be open to other applications, represents an effort to bring to the mobile internet the dynamics of the PC-oriented internet, which is free of control by network operators. Google is hoping that it can beat competitors in an open environment.

The mobile-phone project at Google is built in part around Android, a small mobile software company it acquired in 2005. An Android co-founder, Andy Rubin, had founded Danger, which created the popular T-Mobile Sidekick smart phone.

Rubin works at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, but another part of Google’s team is reported to be in Boston, where Android’s co-founder, Rich Miner, another veteran of the mobile-phone industry, is based.

Some analysts say there are no guarantees that Google will be able to replicate its online success in the mobile world.

“The wireless market does not have the same global scale and scope efficiencies, nor the lack of transactional friction, of software on the internet,” says Scott Cleland, a telecommunications industry analyst who recently testified before the US Senate against Google’s proposed acquisition of DoubleClick.”

It is a completely different world and completely different set of economics,” says Cleland, who has opposed Google on a number of policy issues.

Microsoft, whose mobile operating system has been available for years, has distribution agreements with 48 handset makers and 160 carriers around the world. Still, only 12 million phones sold this year will be based on Microsoft’s software, giving it 10 per cent of the smart-phone market, according to IDC.

Microsoft declined to comment on potential competition from Google.”The market is huge and our partners are really motivated to bring Windows Mobile phones to market,” says Doug Smith, director for marketing of Microsoft’s mobile communications business.

Mahesh Veerina, founder and chief executive of Celunite, which makes mobile-phone software based on Linux, says Google’s offering is likely to be attractive to small carriers, which may see it as a competitive weapon.

But if Google-powered phones prove to be a hit with consumers, other carriers may feel pressure to follow suit, says Richard Doherty, director for the Envisioneering Group, a consulting firm.

“No one wants to be the last carrier to endorse Google,” he says.

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