The More Gphones, the Better

gphone.pngRumors of an impending Google phone coming out early next year have been heating up since late summer. Google is thought to be in talks with several phone manufacturers, including HTC and Samsung, to create mobile phones around its platform. Search Engine Land has a handy timeline of most of the rumors up through late August.

Today, the NYT weighs in, suggesting that Google’s large mobile effort (stemming from Google’s 2005 acquisition of Android) is less about competing with Apple’s iPhone than it is about competing with Windows Mobile. Remember, Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on Apple’s board of directors. Google’s focus seems to be more about creating a reference design with a new Linux-based mobile OS than entering the highly-competitive mobile handset market itself.

By creating a reference design and working with existing phone manufacturers, it appears that Google may be hoping to create an entire new class of smart phones, rather than a single, super Gphone. In this view, each manufacturing partner and cell phone carrier could develop their own set of unique features around the Gphone platform. One might create a killer GPS phone around Google Maps, for instance, while another might try to develop a YouTube phone with a great video camera and lots of on-device memory. The benefit of many Gphones would be the possibility of a lot more experimentation, but the downside could be that no one manufacturer implements all the best features in a single phone. Here are some of the features Google’s phone partners may have to work with:

—Free (or incredibly inexpensive) ad-supported phones.

Mobile versions of Google apps like Gmail, Google Maps, Google Reader, Google Calendar, and YouTube, pre-loaded onto the device.

—Integration with GTalk, Google’s IM and VOIP software (this one is controversial because it would potentially bypass the carriers’ more expensive voice minutes, especially if combined with WiFi, but it could also mean more heavy usage of mobile data plans).

GPay mobile payment software that turns each phone into a wallet.

—A true open-source platform on top of which anyone can develop their own apps.

This last one is key. Google can really distinguish its mobile effort from the iPhone by not locking it down to a set of pre-approved applications. The more applications (and the more types of Gphones to put them on) the better. There could be some sort of open-source certification or vetting process to make sure new apps don’t crash the phones, or at least to separate unproven beta apps from those that have been tested. (Maybe each carrier keeps its own list of approved apps, and anything else is downloaded at the consumer’s own risk).

If Google can get enough Gphones into consumers hands, the apps will follow. Because Google has a secret weapon here that no one else has—not even Apple. It’s called AdSense. If Google were to tie its mobile application development platform to its existing advertising platform, it could share future mobile advertising revenues with developers the same way it splits ad revenues with Web publishers today. Mobile app developers would flock to a platform that let them share in some of that Google ad money. Of course, the carriers and phone manufacturers might want their cut as well. But in a mobile scenario, it makes more sense to let each app developer help determine how and what types of ads are shown.

Here’s why: To the extent that such marketing messages can be targeted based on location or what the consumer is trying to achieve at that particular moment, the greater likelihood that those ads will be clicked on. So if I am looking at restaurant reviews on my Gphone, I might not mind seeing coupon offers for nearby restaurants, but a mortgage ad would be annoying. The individual developers have the best chance of making such ads a seamless part of the overall mobile experience rather than a distraction.

What features would you like to see on the Gphone?