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9/25/2007
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Waiting For Google's gPhone: What Will The Perfect Mobile Device Look Like?

If Apple's iPhone isn't quite the last word in mobile design, will Google's expected gPhone deliver a user experience melding the best of hardware, software, and network technologies?

Until it was released in late June, Apple's iPhone was envisioned as the perfect mobile phone, a sleek, elegant device designed to deliver usability, performance, and versatility at the same time.

It came close, but it wasn't perfect: It cost too much, it only worked on AT&T's poky EDGE network, it wasn't open enough to please developers or would-be phone hackers, its fixed battery promised to be expensive and inconvenient to replace, and it threatened to generate outrageous data charges outside the United States, to name a few post-launch quibbles that were deal-breakers for some.

Several of these issues have been dealt with, at least temporarily, through a price cut and the release of software that untethers the iPhone from AT&T and software that will load iPhones with user-generated ring tones. But Apple's vision of mobile music and telephony remains a work in progress.

In the absence of perfection, the technology community awaits the Google phone, or gPhone. Though unlikely to be as aesthetically pleasing as Apple's first foray into phone design, the gPhone is expected to be more widely available and more affordable than the iPhone.

It will probably be built using some version of the open-source Linux operating system, a J2ME middleware layer, and a Flash/Ajax presentation layer or something similar based on the vector graphic technology developed by Skia, which Google acquired.

That particular software stack is what venture capitalist Simeon Simeonov described in his blog as the ideal mobile phone stack.

There are, of course, other mobile OS options. BlackBerry, Palm, Mac OS X, Symbian, and Windows Mobile come to mind. But the perfect phone should be as open as possible, as least inasmuch as it aspires to be part of the "freeconomy" that has developed around Google, where the dominant business model involves ads.

What's The Perfect Phone?

Let's be clear: The perfect phone is different for different people. "There is no one answer," said Forrester analyst Charles Golvin. "A lot of people who are BlackBerry devotees would say you couldn't improve on that much."

The perfect phone for telecom companies would come with a nontransferable mobile number to maximize customer lock-in and would require a percentage of the owner's annual income as a service charge, in addition to a continually escalating monthly fee.

Phone users and developers may have a different idea of perfect, but theirs remains likewise unfulfilled. "One overarching limitation to handset nirvana are the entrenched points of influence in the form of the handset guys, the operators, and multiple, competing software agendas, as well as network limitations that conspire against this becoming a reality in the near term," said John Jackson, an analyst with the Yankee Group.

But putting aside reality for a moment, let's imagine the perfect phone. At its core, it's either Linux or Mac OS X. Sorry, BlackBerry fans.

Linux, in fact, is expected to be the fastest growing smartphone OS over the next five years, according to ABI Research. The firm projects a compound annual growth rate of 75% for smartphones and predicts that Linux-based smartphones will account for about 31% of such devices by 2012. Shipments of all smartphones during this period are expected to total 331 million.

Then there's Symbian, the operating system that represents the lion's share of the smartphone market today, according to Forrester's Golvin, and is popular among developers.

But ABI Research sees Symbian's market share slipping because of competition from Linux and Windows Mobile. In March, the research firm said, "Symbian's strong position in the smartphone operating system market is under continued and increasing threat."

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