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8/24/2007
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Google Phone: Revolutionary Or Evolutionary?

Google's acquisitions and patents support the suggestion that there's phone work going on.

Now that Apple's iPhone has passed from anticipation to release, talk of a Google mobile phone has taken its place as a favorite online fixation.

The latest whisper comes from Rediff, an IT publication with offices in the United States and India, which claims that the Google phone, or Gphone, will be released within two weeks in India.

"Talks are believed to be taking place with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar, respectively India's first and third largest mobile telephony operators, and state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam," Rediff said.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google had invested hundreds of millions of dollars on cell phone development, had developed prototype handsets, and had initiated partnership talks with mobile network operators including T-Mobile USA and Verizon Wireless.

And late last year, The Observer of London reported that Google had held talks with European mobile operator Orange to offer a co-branded phone designed by Taiwanese handset maker HTC.

Google's acquisitions and patents support the suggestion that there's phone work going on at Google. In 2005, Google acquired both Android, a mobile technology startup, and Dodgeball, a mobile social networking service.

Other acquisitions, like Reqwireless, a mobile e-mail and browser developer, and Skia, a developer of mobile-friendly graphics software, similarly demonstrate Google's commitment to mobile services.

Google patent applications, like the recent "Local Search and Mapping for Mobile Devices," also mention mobile phones or mobile devices explicitly.

Google has consistently declined to comment on a phone. But it makes no secret of its interest to bring its services to mobile devices, as can be said about Microsoft and Yahoo, to name a few.

"Google is committed to providing users with access to the world's information, and mobile becomes more important to those efforts every day," a Google spokesperson said via e-mail. "We're collaborating with partners worldwide to bring Google search and applications to mobile users everywhere."

Along those lines, Google has announced partnerships with Apple and Samsung to provide access to Google services on each company's respective phones.

The fixation on a Google phone, however, may be misplaced. Unlike Apple, Google isn't known for its elegant integration of hardware and software. Google's expertise is in software, massively parallel supercomputing, and commodity hardware for data centers. It's difficult to see how Google's involvement would add value to the physical aspects of mobile handsets.

While it's certainly possible that Google could help handset makers deliver mobile phones that surpass the iPhone in terms of design aesthetics, user interface, and ease of use, it seems more likely that the Gphone will be noteworthy not as spiffy hardware but as a utilitarian device designed to lower or eliminate mobile phone bills by subsidizing network operators' costs with revenue sharing from Google's online services.

The most significant unanswered question about the Gphone is whether it will be based on an open mobile platform such as OpenMoko or whether it simply will be a suite of Google services offered by mobile network partners.

Because Google, still weathering the ire of intellectual property owners for pushing the copyright and trademark envelope, appears eager to befriend mobile network operators rather than challenge them, the Gphone will probably be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

That may not be the case if Google wins the right to use the 700-MHz spectrum in the upcoming FCC auction. At the Progress & Freedom Foundation's annual Aspen Summit on Tuesday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google would probably participate in the auction.

If Google emerges with spectrum rights, that's when the fun begins.

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