Google is designing cell phone platform

Open-source software aims to make it easier to surf the Net

November 06, 2007|By Eric Benderoff | Eric Benderoff,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- It started with Apple, but here comes Google.

In the second major announcement this year by a Silicon Valley stalwart that aims to shake up the way people use mobile phones, Google Inc. announced yesterday a sweeping plan to encourage a new breed of software development designed to make it easier to surf the Internet from a phone.

But Google's not going it alone. It is working with a newly created global coalition of companies, called the Open Handset Alliance, that includes phone maker Motorola Inc. and wireless carriers Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile.

And unlike Apple's iPhone, sold exclusively in the U.S. by AT&T Inc., the Google software platform could be available on countless phones and sold through multiple carriers.

Google is not introducing its own phone but a suite of software that it will give away to phone makers and can be used on a vast array of phones starting in the second half of next year. Besides Motorola, the other phone makers participating so far include Samsung, LG Electronics and HTC.

Google's software platform, called Android, runs on open-source code so any software developer can create a program for it.

The idea is to encourage innovation, and thus improve the chances of developing an advanced mobile phone capable of enticing more people to use Web tools on their phones. It also creates new competition for handsets that use Microsoft's operating system for phones as well as Apple's iPhone.

"In order to get a tremendous new mobile phone experience, you need to attract" people who haven't had access to the mobile platform before, Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive officer, said in a conference call yesterday. "And that's software developers. This is a developer announcement. ... You can now build the great things you've done on the Internet" on a mobile phone.

By luring more people onto the Internet via a phone, Google envisions a bigger market for its sprawling online advertising business. Schmidt would not say how advertising would be displayed on a phone, but he did acknowledge negotiations with carriers and other parties would be forthcoming.

"We're likely to enter into such agreements with partners," he said. To share in the profits and the revenues advertising could generate "is in everyone's alignment. It is highly likely we will do that."

Google's push to develop a mobile phone operating system is appealing, said Aza Raskin, president of Humanized, a Chicago software developer.

"The reason why innovation has been suffering on the cell phone is because I, as a developer, have to write one application but several different subsets for each carrier," he said. "The barrier to entry is too high right now.

"Where the Google operating system is going to fail or succeed with this operating system is whether they can make those differences between phones work," Raskin said.

According to Jupiter Research, only about 15 percent of U.S. mobile phone users have even tried to use the Web on a phone, and significantly fewer do it regularly.

Google hopes to change that, first with phones that double as tools to interact with e-mail and the office, known as smart phones. But it will face stiff competition. Microsoft Corp.'s Windows mobile platform can be found on Motorola's Q, Samsung's BlackJack and several phones, like the AT&T Tilt or the T-Mobile Wing, made by HTC. Then there are popular systems offered by BlackBerry, Palm and Symbian, a Nokia-led joint venture.

Also, since June, the mobile version of Apple's operating system has been on the iPhone. Last month, Apple said it would open up its mobile development platform to allow third-party software programmers to create applications for the iPhone.

Google, too, wants those developers to work on Android. It will provide more details on the platform next week, said Rich Miner, a Google executive and key member of Android's technical staff, adding that Android "will have a great user interface."

Eric Benderoff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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