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Google promises mobile software platform to challenge Windows

Getting in to Gears

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The ability to work locally or online and synchronize the two later - something Microsoft has supported only halfheartedly with applications like Groove - will be very important in a world where web services are the major way of operating, but where connections are not always available or adequate.

This means that Gears, although not itself mobile specific, will form an important part of Google's mobile platform going forward. The company's CEO Eric Schmidt, speaking last week at the All Things Digital conference in California, played down the ongoing speculation about Google-branded cellphones or networks, and said the mobile strategy centered on creating a software development platform on which its own and third party applications would run.

This would potentially lead to a user environment that would be optimized for mobile usage of the type of services that drive Google's advertising revenues, giving the company access to a base of 2bn users and rising.

So far Google has adapted various applications, such as GMail and Maps, for mobile platforms and is working with cellcos to offer these to a wide base, and it has embraced the potential of combining locationbased services and advertising on a portable device. But despite some work on widget-based interfaces - and area where Yahoo is more advanced - it has not made a significant contribution to the effort to create a specifically mobile software environment that will make the small-screen internet a reality.

That could change when the first fruits of the project Schmidt outlined appear, and it is clear the plan is an ambitious one, aiming to set de facto standards and force other mobile software majors to play along. It is likely, for instance, that Google would support all major operating systems - rather than trying to create a new one, as some have rumored - and work with Java and Ajax.

But it will undoubtedly take on the companies behind those systems at the higher software levels where the battle for power is most crucial - the user interface, mobile browser and content frameworks.

As such it could support Java but also go head-to-head with Sun's JavaFX Mobile, an integrated platform that combines OS, browser, user interface and other key elements of the mobile internet experience, all delivered in pure Java. Another key target, apart from Microsoft, would be Nokia's rapidly growing software platform, centered on Series 60, and also likely to support multiple OSs soon.

With its very different business model, Nokia will find it vital to hold the reins in how the mobile internet interface evolves, to ensure it is geared to the Finnish giant's own revenue streams and business approach, not to Google's.

Schmidt said Google is working with various telcos, initially on new point applications and then on the broader platform. He reiterated the key point that the form factor of cellphones meant that mobile internet services would have to be different from those on PCs, and that new apps would be critical. Apparently the company has been working particularly closely with AT&T and Sprint Nextel, and several European operators.

Despite the rumors of the Google phone, it seems increasingly likely that, rather than follow in Apple's footsteps, Google will try to come out with a software platform that is sufficiently attractive to consumers and operators to be widely adopted on many devices and networks - which would explain Sprint's interest, since the cellco is determined to launch its WiMAX network with as many differentiated internetfocused functions as possible.

Rather than designing phones, Google will look to partner with manufacturers to have them release certain high profile models with the full Google experience - and sources say it is already in talks with some Asian players about this.

Much will depend, for Google, on whether large players like Sun and Motorola want to work with it or against it. Microsoft and Nokia are logical enemies, although the latter will want to accommodate the search leader on its handsets even as it encroaches on Google's turf with its mobile internet strategy. But other majors are less known quantities, and Google will do well to play down any talk that it might take on new competitors by announcing phones or building networks. The mobile software giants will be a sufficiently big challenge, and the company will need the major cellcos on its side, not worried that it might become a new rival.

Copyright © 2007, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of the week's events in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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