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Google phone - it's for real

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A Google executive has confirmed the existence of one of its best-kept secrets. The advertising giant is designing a mobile phone, according to the company's Iberian chief.

Spanish IT site Noticias quotes Isabel Aguilera, Google's chief for Spain and Portugal, as explaining the move as a way of extending the "information society" (translation: Google's advertising business) into less developed countries.

As the personal project of co-founder Larry Page, Google's phone is also one of its best-protected secrets. When a report surfaced in the New York Times discussing the possibility of a mobile phone project, the famously grumpy Page threw a hissy fit, and the suspected leakers took the bullet.

We've been making enquiries too, and a picture is beginning to take shape. In August 2005 Google acquired a stealth-mode startup called Android, founded by Andy Rubin. Rubin was a veteran of Apple and General Magic, but is best known for leading WebTV and subsequently Danger Inc. Danger produced one of the most-photographed phones of recent years, thanks to Paris Hilton: its Hiptop was marketed by T-Mobile as the Sidekick.

According to sources, Android takes a similar design approach as the Sidekick, drawing on lessons learnt at Danger. A tiny real-time operating system runs the signalling stacks and a Java Virtual Machine, with a Java based application suite.

(The industry has seen several similar efforts. Sun Microsystems' own JavaOS for embedded devices didn't see out the 1990s, and the much-trumpeted SavaJe, which received investment from Vodafone and Orange after it emerged in 2002, expired last year.)

So Android was described as "SavaJe done right". Earlier this month VC Simeon Simeonov suggested that Rubin had a 100-strong team working on the Google Phone.

But plans have become more ambitious, as the recruitment of Apple veteran Mike Reed and Canadian mobile app company Reqwireless suggests. Graphics expert Reed worked on the ill-fated QuickDraw GX and on font technology at Apple. Google acquired his start-up Skia, which produced a vector graphics suite for resource constrained devices.

Reqwireless, based in Waterloo, Canada, has the job of providing the applications. Google already offers a number of online office applications, which it bundles with its Gmail service and online storage space and sells to SMEs for $50 per seat per year (Google already offers a well-received, Java-based email client for mobiles, and a similar application for Google Maps). Google's mobile centre in London has already recruited an impressive roster of engineering talent from, among other companies, Symbian.

Why, then, employ a graphics expert for a JavaOS? We'll have to wait and see, but such technology questions are secondary to the main objective, which is to expand Google's advertising franchise.

A handheld referral system

(Google has announced some fairly conventional advertising programs recently, including "dead media" such as print.)

Mobile advertising placement offers marketeers all kinds of incentives for punters to visit a store. Rather than taking a cut from the click throughs, Google could bargain for a slice of the transaction. So, you search for "coffee", find a cafe, and redeem a virtual coupon. And the marketer has a relationship with the customer.

This is a familiar, almost ancient scenario, and it's failed to take off for several reasons. But not least the retailer (in this case, our cafe) is reluctant to cede control to the referrer (in this case, Google). Google has already experimented with coupons for people who find a store using its regular Maps service. But that's not specifically mobile.

Google's phone is unlikely to generate the media hype induced by the iPhone - which outside the style-starved USA looks like a toy in search of a wealthy fool. But if Google can strike the right commercial balance, it may well prove to have a far deeper and longer lasting significance for commerce. ®

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