I, robot: The man behind the Google phone

With battle lines being drawn in the smartphone market, Google is placing its bets in the hands of Andy Rubin.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.-- A retinal scanner emitting a blue glow monitors the entrance to Andy Rubin's home in the foothills overlooking Silicon Valley. If the scanner recognizes you, the door unlocks automatically. (The system makes it easier to deal with former girlfriends, Rubin likes to joke. No messy scenes retrieving keys--it's just a simple database update.)

Those forced to use the doorbell are greeted with another technological marvel: a robotic arm inside the glass foyer grips a mallet and then strikes a large gong. Although Rubin won't reveal its cost, it may be one of the world's most expensive doorbells.

"It's not about the cost," said Zarko Draganic, a former colleague of Rubin's at Apple. "It's the classic Rubin thing: You do it for the sake of doing it and because it's cool, and as a result there's a childlike innocence about it."

Rubin is one of the primary architects behind another product that also smacks of potential uber-coolness--the Google phone. As Google's "director of mobile platforms," Rubin oversees dozens of engineers who are developing the software at the company's sprawling campus here. The software embodies the promise of extending Google's reach at a time when cell phones allow consumers to increasingly untether themselves from their desktop computers, as well as the threat that greater digital mobility poses to Google's domination of Internet search.

The Google phone--which, according to several reports, will be made by Google partners and will be available by the middle of 2008--is likely to provide a stark contrast to the approaches of both Apple and Microsoft to the growing market for smartphones. Google, according to several people with direct knowledge of its efforts, will give away its software to hand-set makers and then use the Google phone's openness as an invitation for software developers and content distributors to design applications for it.

If the effort succeeds, it will be the most drastic challenge to date of the assertion by Microsoft--the godfather of the desktop PC--that Google and other members of the so-called open-source world can imitate but not innovate.

And as the cell phone morphs further into a mobile personal computer, a new software standard is likely taking shape. Whoever takes the lead in this market may become a technological gatekeeper wielding the same power, and reaping the same profits, that Microsoft does through its Windows operating system.

As the industry shifts, Google doesn't want to fall behind, and the Google phone reflects its bid to remain at the center of things. It plans to do that, industry executives said, by offering free mobile software and then presumably cashing in by providing a menu of services linked to those products, like e-mail, photos, news and other services.

"Instead of making money on software, you have someone who is saying they're trying to make their money on services," said Michael Kleeman, a technology strategist at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology at the University of California at San Diego. "The interesting question is whether the carriers will authorize the Google hand-sets on their networks."

All of these developments and uncertainties underscore why visitors to Rubin's office here get an immediate sense of his project's importance for Google. Large signs in the corridors leading to his laboratory warn that only employees are allowed to pass.

The company refuses to comment on the Google phone, but Rubin's responsibilities, as well as recent leaks from the as-yet-unannounced alliance that Google is building to develop the software, indicate that the company plans to do more than merely develop an operating system for cellular phones: it plans to muscle its way into the center of the business at a time when people worldwide are searching the Web from just about anywhere they happen to be.

Consumers are using smartphones to find directions, meet their friends and locate nearby stores, restaurants and movie theaters. That simple business and cultural shift has touched off an information-age gold rush, as Google, its search competitors, hand-set makers and cell phone operators all try to stake their claims to the mobile Web.

Already this year, Apple has redefined what people expect from a cell phone by introducing the , just as it did previously with its Macintosh computer. Microsoft is making progress as well, projecting that 20 million phones will be sold with its Windows Mobile software next year. Nokia, Palm, Research in Motion and a number of other hand-set makers are fashioning ever more datacentric phones.

With these battle lines drawn, Google is placing its mobile bets in the hands of Rubin, 44, an engineer who has proved adept at designing the highly integrated hardware and software ensembles that are the hallmarks of Silicon Valley companies.

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