`GPhone' calls blogosphere

Bloggers feel certain Google is about to unveil a cell phone

Plugged In

September 06, 2007|By Jessica Guynn | Jessica Guynn,Los Angeles Times

The Google phone is like the Roswell UFO: Few outsiders know if it really exists, but it has a cult following.

Just months after Apple's iPhone mania gripped Silicon Valley gadget heads, suspense is building over reports that Google Inc. plans to release its cell phone.

The blogosphere is buzzing with rumors that the search giant might announce Linux-based mobile software as early as this week and a Google phone, which observers have cheekily dubbed the "GPhone," by early next year.

The latter is the most tantalizing to Silicon Valley, which is just getting over the June 29 launch of Apple Inc.'s multipurpose iPhone.

No one has displayed indisputable proof the GPhone exists. But one thing is certain: Google, which made nearly $11 billion last year from Web advertising, is investing heavily to target the potentially lucrative and hotly contested mobile-search market.

The vision: mobile-phone service offered free of monthly charges to consumers willing to put up with advertising.

The goal: for Google to broker advertising on mobile phones the way it has on the Web.

The fear: Wireless carriers worry that Google will muscle its way into the young market and capture their wireless advertising dollars.

The official line: "Google doesn't comment on rumor or speculation," company spokeswoman Erin Fors said.

In recent months, the company is rumored to have aggressively sought to partner with mobile carriers and manufacturers to make its search engine, maps program and other software available on more mobile handsets and networks.

If Google does make an even more forceful move with Google-branded handsets to be offered by multiple wireless carriers, it would mark a seismic shift in the mobile industry.

"For Google, maintaining itself as a search leader as wireless Internet access grows is extremely important since this is one area with extremely high growth prospects," said Weston Henderek , senior analyst with market research company Current Analysis Inc.

At stake is the intensifying skirmish for the mobile-phone advertising dollar.

Research company Frost & Sullivan in July estimated the U.S. mobile advertising market would hit $450 million this year and exceed $2 billion by 2011. Another company, Gartner Inc., is even more bullish, predicting $3.9 billion in North America and $14.7 billion worldwide by 2011.

"Everybody is really focusing on advertising as a source of revenue, especially in the United States," said Vikrant Gandhi, a strategic analyst with Frost & Sullivan's mobile and wireless group.

The mobile phone is poised to become one of the most prevalent ways to access the Internet, analysts say, raising the stakes for Google. That is why the company is exploring ways to get its services on all such devices and why it might undertake the risky but ambitious gambit of producing its phone.

Google would not confirm whether a GPhone was in the works, but the company said it was "collaborating with partners worldwide to bring Google search and applications to mobile users everywhere."

Technology analyst Rob Enderle predicts the GPhone - if it exists - will be an iPhone killer. Blogs are reporting that Google is choosing among 20 models of phones to be produced early next year by Taiwanese manufacturer HTC Corp. Purported photographs of Google's touch-screen handset have gotten loads of hits on the Web.

Blogger Mark "Rizzn" Hopkins, who claims to have a well-placed source, says the phone will cost $100. Web site CrunchGear says the phone will have the Google Talk instant messaging and Internet calling program, a version of Google Maps with built-in GPS, and Gmail, Google's e-mail service.

Enderle said a Google-branded phone that made cheap or free calls and that was better-equipped to surf the Internet would be a winner with the high-tech crowd and the general public.

"For free or nearly free, you betcha I'd stand in line for it," Enderle said.

Buzz about a Google phone began in 2005 when Google bought Android Inc., a software start-up led by the same people behind T-Mobile's Sidekick handset. Android kept its plans secret, saying only that it was developing mobile software.

More recently, Google said it would bid at least $4.6 billion for wireless spectrum licenses if the Federal Communications Commission required whoever controls the airwaves to open them to all devices and wireless services. Although the FCC adopted only some of those rules for the airwave auction, Google said it was still considering a bid.

Last week, an Indian newspaper, the Business Standard, reported that Google was planning to launch a mobile phone in the next few weeks. The report, citing unnamed sources, was picked up by Indian Web portal Rediff.com and then whipped around the blogosphere.

Some are dubious that Google would tweak its highly profitable business model so radically to get into the hardware business.

Jessica Guynn writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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