Google Enters the Wireless World
SAN FRANCISCO, Nov. 5 — Google took its long-awaited plunge into the wireless world today, announcing that it is leading a broad industry alliance to transform mobile phones into powerful mobile computers that could accelerate the convergence of computing and communications.
Mobile phones based on Google’s software are not expected to be available until the second half of next year. They will be manufactured by a variety of handset companies, including HTC, LG, Motorola and Samsung and be available in the United States through T-Mobile and Sprint.
The phones will also be available through the world’s largest mobile operator, China Mobile, with 332 million subscribers in China, and the leading carriers in Japan, NTT DoCoMo and KDDI, as well as T-Mobile in Germany, Telecom Italia in Italy and Telefónica in Spain.
The 34-member Open Handset Alliance, as the group is called, also includes many of the leading makers of mobile phone chips, like Broadcom, Intel, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments, as well as SiRF Technology Holdings, Marvell Technology Group, Nvidia and Synaptics. EBay (which owns the Internet calling service Skype), Nuance Communications, NMS Communications and Wind River Systems are also members of the group.
The technology is expected to provide cellular handset manufacturers and wireless operators with capabilities that match and potentially surpass those using smartphone software made by Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, Palm, Research in Motion and others. In contrast to the existing competitors, Google’s software will be offered freely under “open source” licensing terms, meaning that handset manufacturers will be able to use it at no cost and be free to add new features to differentiate their products.
As speculation about Google’s efforts trickled out over the last several months, expectations that the company would build what has been called a Google Phone or GPhone have mounted.
But for now at least, Google will not put its brand on a phone. The software running on the phones may not even display the Google logo. Instead, Google is giving the software away to others who will build the phones. The company invested heavily in the project to ensure that all of its services are available on mobile phones. Its ultimate goal is to cash in on the effort by selling advertisements to mobile phone users, just as it does on Internet-connected computers.
“We are not building a GPhone; we are enabling 1,000 people to build a GPhone,” said Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms, who led the effort to develop the software.
Mr. Rubin said the open-source strategy would encourage rapid innovation and lower the bar to entry in the highly competitive handset market, where software accounts for an increasing share of the cost of making a phone.
Google’s long list of powerful partners illustrates the substantial inroads that the company has made in the highly competitive industry as well the challenges still facing the giant search engine firm. For example, the two largest cellular carriers in the United States, AT&T and Verizon Wireless, which together account for 52 percent of the market, are not part of the alliance.
Still, alliance members, which contributed technology to the project, said they had high hopes for it.
“Just like the iPhone energized the industry, this is a different way to energize the industry,” said Sanjay Jha, chief operating officer of Qualcomm, which makes chips used in wireless phones. Mr. Jha said the Google technology would bring better Internet capabilities to moderately priced phones. He also said that innovation could accelerate, as developers would be able to enhance the software as they saw fit.
Users would have the ability to load up their phones with new features and third-party programs.
“Today the Internet experience on hand-held devices is not optimized,” said Peter Chou, chief executive of HTC, one of the largest makers of smartphones. “The whole idea is to optimize the Internet experience.” Mr. Chou, whose company makes several phones based on Microsoft’s software, which are largely aimed at business users, said the phones based on Google’s technology would probably be marketed primarily to consumers.
The alliance represents a bold move by Google and its partners that mirrors the company’s efforts in the desktop computing industry to give away software and services and gain revenue through targeted advertising. As such, the new software strategy is a potential competitive threat to Microsoft and other mobile software and hardware designers.
John O’Rourke, general manager of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile business, said he was skeptical about the ease with which Google will be able to become a major force in the smartphone market. He pointed out that it had taken Microsoft more than half a decade to get to the stage where the company now does business with 160 mobile operators in 55 countries around the world.
“They may be delivering one component that is free,” he said. “You have to ask the question, what additional costs come with commercializing that? I can tell you that there are a bunch of phones based on Linux today, and I don’t think anyone would tell you it’s free.”
Microsoft is expected to sell about 12 million Windows Mobile phones this year, accounting for about 10 percent of the smartphone market, according to IDC. Apple, which began selling its iPhone last summer, accounts for 1.8 percent of the market.
The Google-led alliance also presents a potential conundrum to cellular operators, who have invested billions to build their networks and acquire customers. As phones become more like computers, they fear they will miss out on the potential bonanza of mobile advertising as Google and others take their share of the revenue.
Mr. Jha, of Qualcomm, said he believes that Google is working with carriers to reach common ground.
Google’s entry into the phone software business could present prickly issues for at least one other person: Eric E. Schmidt, the company’s chief executive. Mr. Schmidt sits on the board of Apple, and while Google is not making or selling phones, it will be providing a phone operating system to Apple competitors.
A brief demonstration of the Google software recently suggests that phones made using the technology will have features and design similar to the Apple iPhone. Mr. Rubin demonstrated a hand-held touch-screen device that gave an immersive view of Google Earth, the company’s three-dimensional visualization software.
Mr. Rubin, who is 44 years old and is a veteran Silicon Valley designer, said the software system that Google has designed is based on the Linux operating system and Sun Microsystems’ Java language. It is designed so programmers can easily build applications that connect to independent Web services.
As an example, Mr. Rubin said the company’s StreetView feature of Google Maps could easily be coupled — mashed up, in technology speak — with another service listing the current geographical location of friends.
Mr. Rubin also said that a program like Gmail could attach a photo to an e-mail message, regardless of whether the photo was stored in the phone’s memory or on a Web site.
A week from today, the alliance plans to make available tools for third-party programmers, called a software developers’ kit, Mr. Rubin said. But the group’s core technology itself will not be made available under an open-source license until it is commercially ready sometime next year, Mr. Rubin said.
Mr. Rubin also said that in the future, the Google technology could be used in other portable devices, including small hand-held computers and car navigation systems.
Google’s phone software is named Android. Mr. Rubin, formerly an engineer at Apple and General Magic, was involved in the design for the Sidekick cellphone while running a company called Danger. Mr. Rubin later founded a company named Android, which Google acquired in 2005.