Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/10/13/google_phone/

Google phone, Google phone OS, Google apps – or just Google Ads

Which is it?

By Faultline

Posted in Mobile, 13th October 2007 12:02 GMT

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.

So we were never talking about hardware, although hardware that is already available may need to be tweaked or be a reference specification to accommodate the minimum that a service needs. And it was never going to be an operating system – who wants to re-write Linux or Symbian again or re-define how the inner workings of a series of storage, processing and radio elements work together.

At the very least these are linked applications – because in a handset the smallest kernel possible, taking up the least power possible – means that as few applications should be running at any given time, as possible. So not one big monolithic block, but tiny feature function add-ons. But when your handset signals your whereabouts to a friend, it shouldn’t do it at the expense of your voice processing, or have your video playback stall, so it has to do two things at once, in a very controlled way, where quality of experience is guaranteed at the device level.

So there we are reaching down into the hardware and operating software with QoE imperatives that are little more than tweaks, to ensure that a phone’s virus software doesn’t take up all the processing cycles, as it does on all our PCs, when we are trying to watch today’s best goals on the phone. So perhaps it’s a more of an embedded or multilayered common application platform, a little more like when Microsoft first incorporated Word and Excel into a suite on the PC, which from memory was around 1985/6.

Now many of the applications are already written for the PC. It would be a shame (and impossible) to re-write the browser – we tried that with WAP and no-one would build WAP sites. IM has been widely embraced as a replacement for MMS and perhaps SMS, on the handset already. Google search on a browser is now an applet, but it needs expanding and re-writing to take advantage of Google Maps and GPS chips (which in turn show how inspired the purchase of mapping service Navteq was by Nokia, which underpins the Google service).

In fact most of these applications are already alive and well on Google and they are also already integrated through the use of a browser, what is missing is the adaptation to a device which knows where it is, and the enablement of that device as a generic web viewer.

Rules of engagement

But it can take some imagination. What are the rules deciding who can know where you are physically. What are the rules about who can know what it is you are up to right now and how much more difficult will these be to manage than PC applications. What are the rules to be about allowing advertising a location sense, along with some understanding of who is viewing the adverts?

But after those decisions, essentially the job of creating a phone these days is to ensure that the hardware is up to the job, and to preload a number of widgets and apps that appear like they are all part of one environment. In Google’s case it can mean the creation of a few more web based, server driven, applications - which is what Google is known for.

The acquisition this week by Google of a Finnish company, one that has grown up in the shadow of Nokia, called Jaiku, gives another part of the picture, which is a mobile presence sharing system which also works with PCs. It tells people, where you have authorized it, your whereabouts, what you are doing, how you are feeling and your availability for chat or other activities. These messages are shared with other users, who can add comments. The system uses SMS messaging on a Nokia Series 60 client or any Java device, to send these updates.

All of this, apart from the Jaiku acquisition could have been deduced by just trying to picture what you would do with handsets if you were Google.

And yet still The NY Times refers to this as an operating system, rivaling the largely failed Windows Mobile. But it goes on to say that it will be Open Source and free to handset vendors with no licensing fee – as long as they use it to deliver Google advertising.

We know that Nokia has already stated that it wants to go down this route, but with Ballmer’s claims it means that Microsoft too has to go down the same route. But with both Nokia and Google perhaps ahead in the mobile advertising game, how on Earth is Microsoft going to find $14bn of advertising revenue in the mobile and fixed internet?

Copyright © 2007, Faultline

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