What Will Google Mean to Phones?
To Entice Others to
To Exploit the Mobile Web
November 5, 2007
What new tricks does Google Inc. have up its sleeve for changing mobile phones?
With its expected announcement as soon as today of the details of its ambitious plans, the Web search and advertising giant hopes to induce software companies to develop an array of new features for cellphones, from more widely available location-aware services that automatically link users to reviews of nearby restaurants to ways to almost instantly share photos with everyone in a user's address book.
If Google succeeds at rallying developers previously turned off by the hassles of developing for mobile phones, it could open the way for consumers to start doing more easily on their phones what they can already do on the Web. Phones are also likely to become more personalized, with screens that can show customized content.
Services available on cellphones overseas but rarely or not at all in the U.S., such as multiplayer mobile games or high-definition television, could emerge. Other changes will be more subtle: Cellphones may be able to run several functions at the same time more easily, for instance.
The mobile industry has long been tightly controlled by carriers and phone makers who strictly limit features that can be offered on cellphones. Google will still have to depend on the cooperation of those wireless gatekeepers; just how many features a Google-powered phone can support will depend upon how much control the carriers and handset makers yield in their deals with the company.
Key to Google's plans is a proposal to make cellphones' software "open" right down to the operating system, the layer that controls applications and interacts with hardware, say people familiar with the plans. Opening up the operating system means independent software developers would get access to the tools they need to build additional phone features. Google didn't respond to requests for comment.
As a result, Google's announcement is expected to set off a race among Silicon Valley developers, long shut out of the wireless industry, to come up with new applications for cellphones. Speculation over the past few months about Google's intentions already has developers excited over the possibilities.
Open standards "are a huge boost of motivation for us," says Max Levchin, chief executive of Slide Inc., which makes media-sharing software for online social networks such as Facebook Inc. and News Corp.'s MySpace. The 60-person Slide has recently begun to look into several ways to extend its services -- which include making slide shows and personalizing Web pages -- to mobile "on the assumption that things will change," Mr. Levchin says.
Internet start-ups have been reluctant to commit their limited resources to mobile. But Google is enormously popular with developers. For example, after Google announced a new set of common standards for building services for social networks last week, start-ups were brimming with questions about whether they would translate to mobile. "It seems like a natural progression," says Michael Dalesandro, chief executive officer of Where I've Been LLC, maker of a service that allows people to show off which countries they have visited on their social networking profile page.
Mobile video and music companies say open platforms would make it far easier for them to build features that allow users to share content with their friends on different carrier networks. And because open software can make it easier to tap the Internet from a cellphone, developers say Google's push is expected to boost the amount of content they can provide to mobile users.
Google "is setting a new bar," says Steven Goh, chief executive and co-founder of mig33, a mobile social-networking community with more than eight million users. Mr. Goh says more open standards will give companies like mig33 access to information "trapped in the [carrier] network" like messaging and location information. "Consumers will be able to capture what is happening in their lives at any point in time," he says.
Google won't be the first to provide common tools and standards for building cellphone applications. Makers of existing mobile operating systems like Microsoft Corp. and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. give developers tools to build applications for their phones. Apple Inc. plans to release tools to broaden the range of third-party features allowed for its iPhone.
Google is expected to target a broader slice of the cellphone market, which could spur developers to come up with more features.
The big question is just how much ground the carriers will give. While people familiar with Google's plan say the open platform is expected to be supported by at least two carriers in the U.S., Deutsche Telekom AG's T-Mobile and Sprint Nextel Corp., others aren't expected to sign on at this stage, in part because they worry that open-software standards could expose users to software attacks or security breaches.
That means developers will still have to design applications to carrier rules if they want them to work seamlessly on the most popular networks. Many mobile companies who are already finding ways to build services by working with carriers, or in some cases, around them, say that the introduction of new open platforms is good for fostering developer interest but won't dramatically change the industry right away.
Sam Altman -- founder of Loopt Inc., a mobile service already available through Sprint that allows a user to pin down the location of friends on a map and share messages and photos with them -- stresses that it will be a while before open platforms can gain enough market share for developers to be able to build to them exclusively.
Michael Robertson, founder of SIPphone Inc.'s Gizmo Project, which makes software that allows people to send Internet-based calls and instant messages from their mobile phones, says he would love to take advantage of open standards to enhance Gizmo's service with features like Global Positioning System technology, allowing users to know where their contacts are.
Mywaves Inc., a mobile video service, says open standards could help it expand its business model. Trying to comply with different carriers' standards has made billing on any aggregated level "virtually impossible" says Rajeev Raman, the company's chief executive and founder. But open standards could allow new mobile payment options to gain scale. "That's where life really gets interesting," he says.
---- Amol Sharma contributed to this article
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