The Gphone That Could Catch My Eye
Rumors are cropping up that Google is preparing to sell its own Gphone -- an Android handset using Google-branded hardware. There are some reasons to doubt it will happen, of course, but the possibility is intriguing. What would Google have to build to make something worthy of an iPhone fan's attention?
11/20/09 4:00 AM PT
So far, I haven't seen a compelling competitor to my iPhone -- at least, for me personally -- and this includes the new Motorola Droid. It's nice enough, but is it so much better that I'd leave the iPhone? Definitely not, and that includes some Droid widescreen envy. But what about the rumored Google phone -- a Gphone, manufactured by Google, leveraging everything Google does well with the Android operating system?
Now that idea makes me pause.
Of course, it's just an idea. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington claims a Google phone is coming soon, but some unnamed sources don't make a rumor true. Ah, but the idea of a Gphone, the glimmering notion that Google would take control of a hardware device and infuse great software into its very soul -- much like Apple's iPhone -- is tantalizing.
Rumors of a Google phone are like the on-again, off-again tabloid rumors of the relationship between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. In late October, Google's Andy Rubin, head of Google's Android development effort, went on record to say that Google is not making hardware -- just enabling other people to build hardware.
In other words, Google is not making a Gphone.
And yet, Arrington seems convinced that Google is forging ahead. "Google is building their own branded phone that they'll sell directly and through retailers. They were long planning to have the phone be available by the holidays, but it has now slipped to early 2010. The phone will be produced by a major phone manufacturer but will only have Google branding ..." he wrote, noting that this is confirmed by unnamed sources.
So what about Rubin? It's not like Apple's Steve Jobs doesn't lie -- or give out white lies of distraction and omission -- about new products. Remember the iPhone? Pretty much denial all along, and then oh, wait, here it is. Companies are in a tough position when asked about specific products in development, which may or may not ever see the light of day. Sure, Dell has a smartphone, but it's only available overseas because it's only good enough to see the light of day elsewhere, apparently. Either way, if an executive doesn't have a lie ready -- or at least, an official statement of current, as in this second right now, direction -- any hesitation or odd expression is fair game for another blog post.
What's this mean? Arrington could be full of hot air, could have misinformed sources, or whatever. But he presents a couple of compelling points. The first is that Google may be dictating every single component of the rumored Google phone, which means it could work flawlessly with Android and all of Google's growing app world.
The second compelling idea requires no big leap of imagination: The so-called Google phone might be a data only, VoIP-driven device. Google already has Google Voice in the works, so a VoIP-only device starts to get interesting pretty quick.
Making Everybody Mad
The main argument against a Google phone tends to fall here: Google won't anger all the handset manufacturers that are building devices for Android. Google's main revenue driver will be mobile advertising, so it makes sense to make sure Google plays nice on every mobile device.
Meanwhile, what if Google did manufacture a VoIP-only phone? Presumably, it would need a cellular service provider on board to offer a data plan. Right now, the major carriers have a variety of data plans available for phones and notebooks. It would be fairly easy for Google to create a device that has a built-in USB port for a USB modem that would work with any major carrier's PC-intended data plans. Obviously, Google would rather have a hardware/software/data seamless service lined up, but hey, there's plenty of ways to rock the boat.
Now, assuming Google produced a phone, what's so compelling about it?
First, it would have to be freakin' elegant. I'm done with devices that creak in your hand, that have fit and finish problems that snag lint or catch crumbs. I'm not shifting from a best-of-breed tool to a toy.
Second, it would have to offer up a rich application ecosystem (and Android et al. is getting there). I'm guessing Google would add a little consumer-friendly polish.
Third, it would have to make media nearly as easy to consume as it is on the iPhone via iTunes.
Fourth, it would have to be price-competitive. Right now, the iPhone with AT&T is only marginally friendly. Same goes for the Droid with Verizon. After you add up the voice and data plan charges, it's quite spendy. I know plenty of people who would happily shell out a couple hundred dollars for an iPhone and a two-year contract ... but balk at spending a mandatory $30 per month on the data plan. If you don't have a real need for email on the go, for Web browsing on the go, that's a lot of money. No way around it.
And if you've got a family of iPhone users? The cost gets nasty, fast.
But a Gphone with a reasonable data plan? That's something that could be rolled out to an entire family.
Of course, there is an elephant already in this room -- the iPod touch. Apple could manufacture a custom add-on mobile modem for the millions of existing owners or create a new model. That would make it an iPhone without the voice plan but with the option for a data plan, opening it up to a VoIP app.
All data, all the time is where we're heading anyway ... I'm just hoping that some company steps in, does it well, and brings cost-effective innovation to my door. Oh, and tethering. Google, don't forget tethering!
MacNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at Gmail.com.