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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."

There also has been much speculation that the Gphone will run a Linux-based operating system. "Google's inclination would be to make it more useful than just a phone with Internet access," Sterling said. "That seems culturally consistent with the interests of the Google founders. They want to see lots of interesting uses and extensions of it."

And what might those extended uses be? According to patent filings, Google is aiming to allow the phone to become a virtual machine that would connect to a keyboard and display, Arnold said.

The Gphone could also eventually be used to help locate and monitor movements of troops in battle and transmit maps and other critical information to them, he said referring to another patent. And imagine a phone with medical uses that could monitor your heart and pulse and call emergency personnel if you have a heart attack or alert you to less severe activity, he said.

In another patent, Google envisions phones serving as individual nodes on a large mesh network that can be used to receive and transmit all kinds of data in all directions, according to Arnold.

Whether Google wants to merely extend its lucrative advertising business model to the wireless space, or whether it wants to create software and services that underlie a multifunction device, there's no doubt the company sees mobile telephony as a vital market.

"Google is a bit anxious about accelerating its mobile market," Sterling said. "Their multifaceted approach with voice applications, the potential (bidding for wireless) spectrum licenses, lobbying on behalf of open networks, the development of software, the potential emergence of a Google Phone, all represents a pretty aggressive push which would suggest that they see urgency here."

Google's threat to bid on the 700MHz wireless spectrum poses a serious threat to mobile telephony carriers who worry that the search company will transmogrify into a service provider. "It feels like Google is trying to be a disruptive force in the cellular industry in the U.S. to potentially drive behavior change," said Derek Brown, an analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald.

Of course, that's a bit of speculation as well, at least until a Gphone actually turns up in the wild.