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What Google Phone Means To Cell Users

November 5, 2007 may go down in history as the July 4th of the cell phone world.

Perhaps I'm overstating it a bit, but the announcement by Google that it will work with others to create an open platform for developers to build cell phone applications is a blow to the oligopoly that dominates mobile communications.

Google finally confirmed that it is developing an open source operating system for cell phone handsets that will make it possible for independent developers to create programs to run on cell phones from a variety of handset makers running on a variety of networks.

In a sense, it opens up what has long been considered a closed system. Unlike PCs, cell phones, for the most part, have been controlled by cell phone carriers who get to determine what handsets work on their networks and what programs can run on those handsets. With the Google operating system, cell phones running on carrier networks will operate a little more like PCs running on the Internet, giving consumers more choice as to what they can do with their devices.

We don't know what will come of this but what we can hope for is more choices, such as services that make it easier to integrate cell phones with social networking sites, instant messaging and e-mail. I suspect we'll see plenty of services that take advantage of the GPS chips in most cell phones, including those that make it easier for people to find each other. Undoubtedly there will be a lot more cell phone commerce - and of course plenty of advertising, which suits Google just fine.


We'll also see new devices that take advantage of the always-on connection of the cell networks, including more smart phones and even more sophisticated ultra-mobile PCs that allow you to do virtually everything a laptop does today only with the software coming via the Internet and data being stored online instead of on the device.

We'll also see specialized devices such as GPS navigation systems and high-end digital cameras with cell phone connectivity. With any luck we'll see the ability to make and receive voice and video calls using VOIP services like Skype so you can bypass the cell phone carrier's high international calling rates.

Daniel Sieberg blogs on the gphone announcement

Google isn't doing this alone. Along with 33 other companies, the search giant announced the creation of the "Open Handset Alliance," which is developing an open platform called Android. The alliance, which includes T-Mobile, phone makers HTC and Motorola and chip developer Qualcomm, has pledged to give consumers "far better user experience than much of what is available on today's mobile platforms by providing developers a new level of openness that enables them to work more collaboratively."

The Android operating system, which is based on Linux, comes with an "open source" license that makes it available for free and also allows developers to tweak it to their own specifications, assuring that it will be updated over time and modified to allow companies to create devices with unique features.

This is in stark contrast to the propriety software that is typically used for cell phones that enables operators and handset manufacturers to maintain tight control over how the phone works and what can be done with it.

The Gphone is not Google's answer to the iPhone. Unlike Apple's innovative device, this is not a single phone or even a brand of phones. It's a platform for what Google hopes will be thousands of phones.

The announcement, said Google CEO Eric Schmidt, "is more ambitious than any single 'Google Phone' that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks." He said that Google's vision "is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models."

And don't expect these open phones any time soon. The initial development kit will be released later this month but it will be sometime next year before actual products and services hit the market.

While this alliance has some real potential, it is important to put it into perspective.

These Google-inspired phones will not be the first Linux-based cell phones nor is this the first group to encourage independent developers. Microsoft's Windows Mobile Platform, RIM's Blackberry and Palm's operating system that powers its phones all allow run programs written by independent software developers and work with services from a large number of companies.

Even regular cell phones - the kind you get for free or cheap when you sign up for service - typically run applications from third party developers, such as mapping services (for GPS equipped phones), calorie counters and fitness trackers and programs that let you send e-mail or log onto instant messaging services. The difference is that, for the most part, these applications had to be vetted by the carriers and the carriers often have their hand in the till when it comes to what consumers have to pay to use the services. If your phone has an "applications" menu or a place to download software, you'll soon see that there are scores of programs available, often at a rather considerable one-time or monthly fee.

It also remains to be seen how much free reign the network operators give to developers and services. Will they - as is now the tradition on the fixed Internet - allow anyone to do anything - or will they continue to exercise some control over what can happen on their networks?

And, if the carriers do loosen up a bit, let's consider some unintended consequences. For better or worse, cell phone carriers now tend to be very cautious when it now comes to network security and safety. They vet services and pretty much block what they consider to be inappropriate. By opening up the cellular airwaves, we risk some of the problems of the fixed Internet, including viruses and other malicious software, spam, phishing attacks and, of course, pornography. I'm not suggesting that these issues justify the industry keeping a tight-lid on their networks, but I do think that Google, its partners and the public need to keep their eyes open as they enter this brave new world of open standards.

A syndicated technology columnist for over two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid