In search of the Google phone

Experts see Google partnering with a handset maker for bundled software that will enable everything from IM and maps to monitoring blood pressure. Image: Looking for clues in Google patent

Searching for the Google phone is a lot like hunting for Bigfoot.

Rumors of a Google phone, or "Gphone" for short, have circulated since late 2004 and hit a fever pitch over the last few months, according to a handy timeline on the Search Engine Land blog.

There's speculation that Google might drop some hints at its analyst day on Wednesday, but until now Google executives and spokespeople have refused to comment, or even confirm, if Gphone is the name of a product many believe the search giant to be working on.

Often, where there's smoke there's fire. And what do the smoke signals--and Google patents--say? Unlike Apple's iPhone, the Gphone probably won't be an actual hardware device. Instead, it's more likely to be a bundle of software and supporting infrastructure that allows a phone manufactured by someone else to access Google services, experts say.

Google will probably partner with France Telecom's mobile-telephony division Orange and KDDI in Japan, says Stephen Arnold, author of The Google Legacy and a new book, Google Version 2.0: The Calculating Predator. Arnold has researched Google's patents and found more than a dozen that relate to mobile telephony.

"There is going to be a Google phone as a reference device, probably more than one," Arnold told CNET "They will hook into the Googleplex to deliver functionality that ranges from 'search without search' (information that anticipates what someone may be looking for), to mapping and calendar services. Google is positioned to move different ways in response to market behavior."

UBS analyst Arthur Hsieh believes that Taiwanese handset maker HTC will ship 50,000 or so handsets by year's end to developers with the Gphone operating system, according to a recent research note. That's a sliver of the nearly 1.4 million iPhones that have been sold so far, of course, but it's a start.

It's likely the Gphone will be advertising-supported given that the company has filed a patent application for advertising-supported telephony, Arnold said. Not only has Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt expressed interest in the notion of subsidizing the cost of phones with advertising, but the company offers ads on its mobile applications today, said Greg Sterling, principal at Sterling Market Intelligence.

Look for applications like "search, mapping, communications like Google Talk instant messaging," with ads, said Charles Golvin, an analyst at Forrester Research. "That's their business model, selling ads."

Don't expect a fancy touch-screen interface that would compete with Google partner Apple's iPhone and drive up the cost of the Gphone, experts said. Google may try to do a better version of the Windows Mobile device, only cheaper. If the iPhone is a Lexus, the Gphone will probably be a Honda, particularly if it's supported by advertising.

Offering a low-cost or subsidized device would also fit in with the company's strategy to leapfrog with wireless technology in emerging markets, analysts said. "There are going to be a billion or more mobile-phone subscribers in the next few years, and these are people who not only have never used a mobile phone before, but also have never used the Internet before," Golvin said. "Their first experience of the Internet is likely to be on a mobile phone, not a PC."

"I tend to feel it will be an operating system and they'll partner with a handset company," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land. "There will be a Google phone. It will be mini-computer-like, the same way that the Windows Mobile Device is."

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