Google's OS dreams calling on Linux

To take on Symbian and Windows Mobile as smart phones evolve, Google will need to bring its experience with mobile applications and Linux as trump cards.

Tom Krazit
Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
4 min read

Can Google's application development prowess be transformed into a next-generation mobile operating system?

It seems increasingly likely that Google, the ubiquitous tech company, is about to throw its hat into the race to develop the next big mobile device. Google's no gadget-maker, but it does develop quite a bit of software, and reports have been building that the company is relatively close to releasing the Gphone. (Our style department says we have to spell it that way.)

Most people who have wandered onto the Internet in the past couple of years are familiar with Google. The company's various applications from Gmail and Google Docs to Google Desktop and the Google Toolbar are likewise familiar to lots of PC users. When it comes to smart phones, Google Maps is almost a must-have application, and it comes standard with the iPhone.

So Google's got experience in taking applications built for a PC and moving them over to a smart phone, which will be a key part of transforming smart phones into true mobile computers. A mobile operating system, however, is an entirely different undertaking.

It's very much a wide-open race to develop the next advanced mobile operating system. Symbian has the lead worldwide thanks to its close partnership with Nokia, the largest shareholder in the company. Windows Mobile is the second most widely used smart-phone operating system, according to Forward Concepts, and Linux is the third.

According to reports, Google wants to expand on that last category with its rumored mobile OS. The Gphone would be based on Linux and supported by advertising, which to many techies probably sounds like the ultimate Silicon Valley marriage made in hell. Try to forget, for a moment, about using a smart phone inundated with advertising messages and think about the implications of a Google-developed smart phone operating system.

It's still the very early days for this type of computing. Symbian and Microsoft have staked out opposing positions, but no company with the size and clout of Google has thrown its support behind the Linux development efforts for mobile computing.

Mobile phone makers are intrigued by Linux because of the constrained memory and power requirements of mobile computers and the ability to customize a Linux base for their products. Lots of work has already been done to make Linux modular, or to create building blocks that can be mixed and matched depending on what is desired. Tomihisa Kamada of Access told me earlier in the year that carriers and phone makers also like the idea of having their own branded interface on the phone, rather than relying on Microsoft and Symbian's branded operating system. If you go that route, that means you have to differentiate your products mostly on hardware, and that can be tricky.

But established phone makers and carriers looking for an answer to the iPhone are finding it hard to bet on a single Linux provider. Palm is floundering, with the recent news that the Linux-based version of Palm OS has been delayed again. Access, the company that acquired former Palm OS developer Palmsource, isn't faring much better. The folks at OpenMoko have gotten some buzz, but when First International Computer is your only hardware partner, you've got an uphill fight ahead of you. MontaVista has had some success with Motorola, and Wind River has been doing some interesting work, but are they in the best position to persuade the world to take a chance on their products?

Google, on the other hand, is Google. They've got open-source credibility, they've got mobile phone pioneers on board with their acquisition of Android in 2005, and some of the best and brightest engineers that Silicon Valley has to offer (not to mention enough cash to fund four or five internal projects that might have produced the eventual winner). As mobile phones start to deliver the same Internet experience as a PC, mobile search will be a vital application.

Could Google be the next mobile operating system company? It's more prepared than you might think. CNET Networks

The part that trips me up is the notion of an advertising-supported Gphone, something also reported by BusinessWeek as a key part of Google's aims for this market, along with its intention to go after the 700MHz spectrum auction. You're going to have to offer people something pretty special to have ads--even targeted ads--be an integral part of the phone experience, which has thus far been mostly ad free. BusinessWeek thinks Google could be trying to do a television model on your phone, where voice and data minutes are free when the phone user agrees to accept advertising. While that might work to a certain extent, I think people have shown themselves quite willing to pay for things that get around the increasing reach of advertising. The New York Times reported Monday, however, that Google may be forgoing a licensing fee for its software in favor of the advertising model, which could make the software that much more attractive to phone makers.

Despite a lack of smart-phone experience, Google has to be taken seriously in this market. It has the talent and the assets to worm its way into mobile phones, a consumer-friendly brand, and the industry heft to stick around through a few development cycles. The look and feel of any Gphone will be crucial to its chances, and without any solid information to that effect, it's hard to say whether this thing will be a success or a flop. But it's not hard to imagine that Google is making mobile development executives at Symbian, Microsoft, and Palm think long and hard about the current projects they have under development.

UPDATED, 10/9 5:40 p.m: Corrects spelling of Tomihisa Kamada's name.