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Which is it?

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It becomes increasingly hard to work out where the control point in handset design is. Once we all thought it was the hardware, then it was the operating system, and just as we start to think that it’s the service layers above the operating system, then it’s all in the network, an finally Apple comes along and tells us it’s the hardware all over again.

It’s this shifting landscape that seems to have caught us all out when trying to predict what Skype, or Apple and now Google are doing on mobile devices and a piece in the New York Times this week showed how difficult that is to pin down, with the paper once telling the world proudly that there would be a Google phone, and now telling us that Google is working on an handset operating system.

An operating system used to mean a something very fundamental to how a device worked. Originally it meant that there was a system of how things were laid out on disk, and it defined the writing and reading procedures and it gave access to the physical parts of a computer. Later it became a way of handling graphical interfaces and a set of tools to allow data to swap freely between applications, by offering data conversion utilities so that all applications could work together.

That’s about where we are on the development curve, where the PC was in around 1981 through 1984 with the popularization and stabilization of Microsoft Windows. It was called an operating system at the time, but peculiarly it sat on top of PC DOS, the system that actually did all the system and device calls. Then it was called a multitasking system, because Window machines could do two things at once, and later it was called a Graphical User Interface.

But what drove everyone to use Windows was the ease with which applications could share data, how they all had the same look at feel (something invented by IBM in SSA). Then Microsoft entered the applications market and the rest is history.

Gaining a platform

So let’s call what Google is working on a "platform". What it needs to do is somewhat different in the internet age. It needs to be able to do two things at once, act as a window (not Windows) onto the internet, it must offer voice services which are not significantly inferior to those handsets offer today, and it needs to be a series of tools which do three things.

First it must in some way convert the internet experience for the phone, secondly it must be a suite of related applications and applets that all work smoothly together and share data, and thirdly it needs to leverage special things about mobility that users didn’t know they wanted yet, such as location. In other words it is an internet connected device, which allows voice, instant messaging, web browsing and search, document carriage, retrieval and creation, email, as well as storing and playing entertainment with perhaps a media player, and it must move presence up a notch from knowing you are available to knowing physically where you are – one of the killer apps of mobility.

It must also somehow deliver all of this, to both handsets and a PC, an do it in the exact same way for both devices, or a way similar enough that the differences are intuitive. And many of the feature functions need to be embedded in attached services – Search is a service run on a remote computer, social networking is a service stored on a remote computer, content sharing is a service run on a remote computer, and advertising insertion in a service run on a remote computer, etc...

Such a platform must also bring together the relevant elements of advertising, and open that up to the new dimensions of location, interaction and addressability.

So that’s what Google needs to be developing, but it also looks like it is exactly what Nokia is developing, and Apple has already made quite a good stab at it and according to elsewhere in today’s issue, it is what Steve Ballmer has in mind when he says that in just a few years Microsoft will make 25 per cent of its revenues – projected to be around $14bn by then – from advertising.

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