What Will the G-Phone Look Like?

GooglePhoneIf it’s going to be successful, the answer is “like any other phone,” for starters.

We’re talking, of course, about the new Google mobile phone venture officially announced yesterday by the Google-led Open Handset Alliance. After months of speculation, the big “G” has officially signaled its intent to create mobile software that can access advanced Internet services—and, of course, carry its lucrative advertising.

The platform, futuristically dubbed “Android,” will include several layers of software for phones: an operating system, a user interface, and applications such as advanced web-browsing software and mobile widgets. It will be free for use by carriers and handset makers who can customize the open source software as they see fit, and Google says it will provide software developers with an early version next week.

But to the disappointment of all the rabble-rousers in the blogosphere (especially the ones with the PhotoShopped mockups), there’s no Google-branded phone in the offing. And thank goodness, because the idea of a branded handset is a wrong one.

A big part of the reason why ESPN Mobile failed—though seldom talked about—is that I don’t know a single grown man who felt good about whipping out his red-and-black plastic ESPN phone while his peers were brandishing sleek Treos and RAZRs. It’s the cellular equivalent of still having baseball-themed sheets on your bed.

That’s that. The meatier questions, instead, are how will it work and who’s behind it?

As a bit of background, carriers have traditionally decided what applications most consumers see on their mobile phones: setting rules and negotiating fees for software developers to gain access. Google has struggled at times in recent years to get its products—including Google Maps, Gmail, and of course its search engine—on to mobile phones in a way that’s easy for people to use. With Android, software makers can theoretically write applications that run on any user’s phone, and consumers can freely browse the Web.

Which makes it all the more newsworthy that T-Mobile and Sprint—the number 3 and 4 carriers in the U.S., respectively—are part of this 33-member alliance. For its part, T-Mobile (which expects to have a Google-powered phone in the market by the second half of 2008), is interested mainly in new social-networking applications: leveraging information like a user’s location, communications history, contact list, and on / off status.

But Google is toying with the idea of bidding on the 700Mhz wireless spectrum set to go to auction in January of next year. If they do bid and do win (which they will and will), this positions Google to become one of the biggest mobile carriers overnight… Ahem.

That point aside, the Google software initiative arrives in a field already crowded with mobile phone software platforms, including ones from Microsoft Corp. and Palm Inc. And companies that aren’t part of Google’s alliance question whether Android actually represents a major breakthrough.

Nokia Corp., the world’s largest handset manufacturer with more than a billion current users, said it has already embraced an open approach with its high-end mobile phones, which use the Symbian operating system and have a large community of application developers. “It’s great to see others following the trail we’ve been blazing,” jabbed Bill Plummer, a top Nokia executive in North America, in response to the announcement.

Google’s big bet here is that easier access to the Internet from mobile phones will lead people to use its services more, as has been the case with Web access on the PC. Google, in turn, would likely share revenue from ads with wireless carriers, who could then reduce the cost of handsets or wireless fees for consumers. Google might also make money in other ways, including selling a rate plan for a package of applications.

It’s taken a while, but Google’s presence in the mobile space is both inevitable and important. Mobile search is going to hit in 2008 in a very big way—and you can bet that Google won’t be late to that party.