You've probably heard that Google is working on a mobile phone, and that everyone is calling the Google Phone or even the gPhone. You may also have heard that they're not working on one. Well, which is it?
The "evidence" is compelling in both cases:
- A pervasive rumour suggests that Google operates a secret lab staffed with 100 engineers and led by former Apple executive, Andy Rubin, the designer of the Sidekick mobile gadget who now works for Google.
- The Guardian reported late last year that Google held talks with Orange, the giant European carrier owned by France Telecom, on a "multibillion-dollar" deal involving a co-branded mobile phone made by Taiwan's HTC.
- Recently, someone claimed in an online post to have taken part in a market research survey in which he was asked questions about a possible Google phone made by Samsung. The poster says the phone bill for this device would be subsidised by advertising.
- Google's top executive in Spain, Isabel Aguilera, told Noticias.com that "some of our engineers' time is dedicated to the development of a mobile phone", according to a translation on the Ars Technica website.
- Venture capitalist Simeon Simeonov of Polaris Venture Partners blogged recently that Google is working on a "BlackBerry-like device" code-named Switch, powered by an operating system and optimised Java that supports VoIP (voice over internet protocol).
- Nomura analyst Richard Windsor reportedly told clients last week that Google confirmed at CeBIT that it's working on a phone designed to "bringing Google to users who don't have a PC".
All that sounds pretty convincing. But other facts suggest that Google is not working on a handset:
- Google spokeswoman Erin Fors said last week that Google remains "focused on creating applications and establishing and growing partnerships with industry leaders to develop innovative services for users worldwide. However, we have nothing further to announce".
- Richard Kimber, an executive in Google's South-East Asia group, told The Australian Financial Review that: "At this point in time, we are very focused on the software, not the phone."
- Vint Cerf, internet legend and Google's chief internet evangelist, said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that "becoming an equipment manufacturer is pretty far from our business model".
I think one reason why people believe Google phone rumours is that comparable Apple iPhone rumours circulated for years, and most turned out to be true.
But Google isn't Apple. The difference is that Google doesn't make hardware. Google makes software and services that deliver advertising.
A year ago, rumours circulated that Google would unveil a Google PC. It turned out that the company was planning a software pack for the PC. Likewise, I think Google phone rumours are nothing more than wild speculation based on leaks that can be traced back to two major projects.
The Google handset
Google's goal is to make money from advertising, not on some niche phone hardly anyone will use, but on as many phones as possible.
Google appears to be lining up partnerships between carriers and handset makers to build and sell free or very cheap Google-branded phones supported by advertising. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been quoted previously as saying that mobile phones and mobile phone calls could both be free if the industry developed the right advertising model.
These cheap phones would most likely be manufactured by a third party based on design direction from the carrier and Google, and would serve the low end of the market where people may not have PCs for using Google.
This model is more about expanding the reach of Google's search and other features into new markets, not developing some amazing, high-end phone that will compete with the iPhone, Treo and BlackBerry.
The handset Google is working on won't be built by Google and it won't be targeted at you and me.
The big story is software, not hardware.
The real 'Google phone'
I've looked closely at relevant analyst reports, rumours, leaks, company quotes, speculation and patents, and have come to believe that Google is working on the mother of all mobile web browsers.
Some will say that a browser is less exciting than a handset. In fact, it's more exciting - far more.
First, it's likely that because Google is sticking to its roots and offering cross-platform software to connect to web-based services, you and I will actually get to use this product. If it were just another phone dropped into the massively overcrowded market, the odds would be very low that you'd select a Google phone over all other handsets.
Second, and more importantly, this isn't just a browser. It may be THE killer app for mobile devices.
Most mobile phone users pay for internet service on their phones, but don't use the web browser very often. They want to, but don't. The reason is that the experience isn't very good. The screen is too small. It's too slow. You search and the results take forever to sort through. Using a mobile web browser just isn't very satisfying.
Google's secret project aims to fix all that. The browser it's working on will be super fast. Best of all, search will be so good it will actually seem like the browser is reading your mind. And, in a way, it will.
Some columnists, bloggers and analysts have jumped to the conclusion that because Rubin designed the Sidekick, Google employs him to design a new Google phone. But he left the company that makes the Sidekick five years ago. In the interim, he founded a company called Android. The secretive Android project is the key to understanding what Google is up to, not Sidekick. Android was developing location-aware mobile phone software, possibly an operating system.
A patent filed by Google probably related to the Android acquisition involves predictive searches based on location, date and time, and previous searches.
A phone enhanced with this technology tells Google where you are, and Google changes the results accordingly. So if you land in a city and search for "taxi", it won't give you the Wikipedia entry on "taxi" nor will it give you high-ranking taxi companies in other cities. It will give you contact information for local taxi companies - just what you're looking for.
It will work like the predictive text feature of your existing desktop browser, which guesses what you're going to type as you're typing it.
Desktop browser predictive search is based on a dictionary of words made up entirely of what you've typed before. The innovation with Google's new app is that it will add more words to the dictionary based on where you are, what time it is and other information.
Beyond clear searches such as "taxi", the system will use personal information to return quality results from ambiguous searches. A search for the world "Pearl", for example, might bring up different results for different people. A 25-year-old in West Hollywood on a Saturday night might get contact information for the Pearl nightclub topping the list of search results.
A 50-year-old searching for "Pearl" in Honolulu might get results that lead with a link to the Pearl Harbor memorial. A 35-year-old searching from a BlackBerry Pearl might get results related to the phone. And so on.
Google's secret software will remember things about you, such as who you call, what stocks you're interested in and where you work. It might also base predictive results on demographic information, such as age, gender and home postcode.
Another likely innovation is that searches will be retained, pooled and redistributed by Google to help all users. For example, if people tend to search for something specific at a given location, Google will automatically add that search to your predictive dictionary if you search from there. It will work sort of like Amazon.com's predictive book recommendations, where it sees what you've ordered and assumes that you'll want books favored by other people who have ordered the same books.
The application may get location information from mobile phone mast triangulation, GPS if the phone has one, or simply ask the user to provide that data.
The browser will probably do other neat tricks, too. For example, it might identify phone numbers in search results, and tell the phone to autodial the number when you press a button.
A gold mine for Google
Google's super-browser technology represents a kind of "perfect storm" for the company.
The very technologies that will make mobile web browsing usable and appealing are the same technologies that make contextual advertising Google's next killer app.
The predictive, incredibly easy-to-use web browser will need all kinds of personal data - the same information that maximizes the impact of contextual advertising. So a query for "pizza" that will give you the nearest Italian restaurant may also give you an ad for the nearest Italian restaurant that advertises on the Google network.
Do you see the genius in all this?
The phone itself already knows things: the location, time and date, and other information. The user is motivated to improve the quality of searches by providing additional data. All this personal information enables Google to serve amazingly relevant ads and Google can charge a fortune for them.
And you can bet that the Google phone app will be controversial among privacy advocates, because it will constantly gather personal information about you, including your location and store all that data centrally. That information could be subpoenaed by the government, stolen by a hacker or used by Google for other purposes.
Looking at the big picture, however, the real story isn't some Google phone handset or even the browser. The big picture is that Google wants to own mobile advertising, and it's secretly building the technologies and partnerships that will make that happen.
Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or his blog.