Web & communication software

The Google Phone: Has a Wireless Upheaval Begun?

The Google phone is inching closer to reality, with wireless handhelds running Google Inc. applications and operating software expected in the first half of 2008, several industry analysts said today.

Some see Google's model as revolutionary in the U.S., where nearly all customers buy their cellular phones from a wireless carrier and are locked into a contract with that carrier. But Google's entry could signal a more open system where a customer buys the Google phone and then chooses a carrier, they noted.

The Wall Street Journal today cited unnamed sources and said that Google is expected to announce software within two weeks that would run on hardware from other vendors. The Google phone is expected to be available by mid-2008. The company did not comment.

Last week at the semiannual CTIA show in San Francisco, several analysts said they had heard rumors that Google would be offering software to Taiwan-based device maker High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) for the Google phone.

Today, Gartner Inc. analysts Phillip Redman said the rumor was still that the Google phone "is coming from HTC for next year, [with] 50,000 devices initially."

HTC could not be reached for immediate comment.

Lewis Ward, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based market research company IDC, said Google is clearly working on software for a phone, but after making a presentation at CTIA on emerging markets last week, he said, "It didn't sound like it was on HTC after all."

Unlike several analysts who said that Google could face a fight from carriers opposed to open networks and open devices, Ward and Redman said some carriers will cooperate with Google. "It's possible some carriers will work with Google," Ward said. "AT&T seems to be more open already with its iPhone support and other things, while T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel may be more open than Verizon Wireless."

Redman said that Google's "brand is attractive, so I think there will be takers" for building hardware and for providing network support.

At CTIA, Ward said a Google phone would make a wireless portal out of what Google already provides on a wired network to a PC, such as maps, social networking and even video sharing.

"This is about Google as a portal," Ward said last week. "This is fundamentally about wireless and wire-line converging."

Ward said Google's plans for its phone software are still up in the air. "What's unclear also is whether it will be a Linux free and open [operating system] running on top of the hardware, with applets and widgets and search and all the advanced stuff that Google has done in the past."

Jeffrey Kagan, an independent wireless analyst based in Atlanta, said many questions are raised by Google's proposition, including what the phone could be named. "Will it be a regular phone, or will it be more like the Apple iPhone? How will customers pay for it? Will it be different from the traditional way we use and pay for wireless phones? There are so many questions," Kagan said.

Like Apple Inc. with the iPhone, "Google could be very successful if they crack the code." Kagan added. "The cell phone industry ... is going through enormous change and expansion. Many ideas will be tried. Some will work, and some will fail."

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