Note: Gphone concept sketches by Lorin Wood.
If done right, the Gphone and not the iPhone will be the one to change the face of the wireless industry.
Apple’s iPhone, at least in its initial release, has not upended the wireless industry, particularly in the United States, as much as hoped. The iPhone certainly has pushed the cell phone envelope a bit further, and it hints at what’s to come, but so far the iPhone is still playing by the rules.
See also: Video: GPhone Android demonstration
Google, if it enters the fray as expected with its so-called Gphone, may truly rewrite the rules. What it plans to do is an ongoing topic of discussion and speculation on the Internet, not unlike Apple’s plans for the iPhone before its release at the end of June. The Gphone may be announced as early as next week and may debut as early as the first quarter of 2008. The anticipation will be as fervent as it was for the iPhone, without the Steve Jobs showmanship.
Why Google? Why A Phone?
Google is positioning itself for the future. It’s conquered search on the Internet, revolutionized advertising with AdSense, and opened the door for the development and acceptance of Web applications like Gmail and Gcal. At the same time Google is leading a media renaissance with the acquisitions of YouTube, Blogger, Picasa.
Google could sit tight and count its pennies, not unlike what Microsoft did during its heyday, or it could push forward, beyond the desktop and into the mobile world, where content and information are meeting voice communication and the cell phone.
It’s a natural fit. Google takes what it has pioneered on the desktop and through the browser and applies it to mobile lifestyles, providing a seamless transition for people on the go. At the same time it opens up new opportunities for search and advertising, expanding the “Googleverse” (and bottom line) even more.
Unlike Apple, which positioned itself as hardware-focused and consumer-friendly with the iPhone, Google is diving much deeper into the world of telecommunications and many wonder if it plans to become a wireless carrier just like Verizon or AT&T. Google has been lobbying the U.S. government for changes in wireless policy. While it did not achieve as much as it wanted in the planning for the upcoming 700 Mhz spectrum auction in January, it did push for the fact that consumers in the U.S. can buy any phone and use it on any carrier in the future.
Google is also expected to bid on the spectrum, pledging upwards of $5 billion in an auction that may net the government between $10 billion and $12 billion. What Google plans to do with the spectrum, and how it might fit in with Gphone plans, is the focus of media and Internet speculation.
So what will be Gphone be?
If done right, the Gphone will change the wireless industry, at least in the U.S. If not done right, the Gphone will be just another cell phone with some advanced features. Here’s what it might look like, if done right:
The big rumor is that Google is working on its own operating system, which would make sense if Google is to tie all of its applications and properties together in a cell phone. Back in 2005, Google purchased the mobile software company Android, started by Danger cofounder and former president Andy Rubin. The Android/Google team supposedly has developed a Linux-based mobile OS, which one expects will integrate tightly with Google’s interests to provide a satisfying user experience.
To be truly carrier agnostic and international, the Google phone will have to support CDMA and GSM standards. Could these be built into the same phone or will there be several models available for the different carriers? Come to think of it, if Google is successful in its bid for some of the 700 Mhz spectrum, what will it do with it and how will it affect the Google phone?
The Google phone most certainly will support Wi-Fi and most likely 3G for wireless data transfers. Apple has come under fire for not supporting 3G immediately in the iPhone, although this is expected to change with the phone’s next release. The use of 3G also will make the Google phone attractive internationally.
Google’s Gtalk is a VoIP service, allowing people to hold phone conversations over the Internet. Many are hoping and praying that the Google phone will support Internet telephony, either through Gtalk or maybe even Skype.
The Physical Phone
While larger-screen cell phones have been around for many years, the release of the iPhone has drawn attention to an elegant, crisp display that measures a generous 3 inches by 2 inches, eclipsing all cell displays to date. With the amount of data expected to be accessed on a Google phone, it would be stupid not to include a large quality display.
People are split on the subject of input. Should the Google phone have a touch screen interface like the iPhone, should it have a tiny QWERTY keyboard like a BlackBerry, should it have a stylus/touch interface like a PDA, or should it have a slide-out keyboard found on newer cell phone models?
No matter which direction Google goes, somebody will be unhappy. What Google should keep in mind is this: make input as easy and enjoyable for the user as possible. Remember: People will be interacting with the Google phone in many ways, accessing and using a large amount of data, and creating content, so crummy input will severely impair the device.
The Fun Stuff
The iPhone sports a 2 megapixel camera. Google should at least match this, or maybe go one better if it’s feasible cost-wise. One way Google could differentiate its camera from others is not through megapixels but through image stabilization, which is now found on many point-and-shoot cameras and high-end lenses for digital cameras. Camera shake is prevalent in cell phone cameras — especially, it seems, on the iPhone — and including IS would do wonders to minimize shaky, soft, and slightly blurry images.
Video cameras on cell phones are nice to have, and are becoming more relevant in the era of YouTube. But cell phone video cameras suck. The “film” is grainy and its hard to do anything with the content other than watch it on the phone. A cell phone that could shoot 640 x 480 video, in an acceptable standard (like H.264), and allow people to do something with the content (email, download to a computer, upload to YouTube) would usher in a new wave of mobile content development.
Finally, the Google phone must include GPS, which is another complaint of the iPhone. The iPhone uses Google Maps, a nice-to-have application that falls short of being truly useful without GPS capabilities. Imagine GPS on the Google phone: Addresses in Gmail or in Gcal are automatically mapped and plotted for real-time travel. Another benefit of using GPS is the coming of location-based services and proximity-based notifications.
There’s been very little speculation about the Google phone having a built in MP3 music player and video-playback features like the iPhone and iPod. Music playback is not unlikely, and one can be certain that YouTube will be built into the phone. Whether it can play other video is uncertain.
It’s doubtful Google itself will design the phone. Google is expected to use overseas OEMs like HTC or maybe farm design to handset manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, or Danger, freeing Google to work with HTC on the manufacturing.
Google’s track record — as seen through its Web application development — is no thrills and minimalist. Expect the phone to be innovative and full of promise but not nearly as pretty and awe-inspiring as the iPhone.
There’s no doubt that Google will showcase its suite of applications and properties: its many varieties of Search, Gmail, Gcal, Gtalk, Gchat, Documents and Spreadsheets (part of the so-called Goffice), Google Groups, Google Notebook, Google Maps (and maybe even Google Earth), YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, and so on.
But let’s hope that Google doesn’t go all “Googlely” on us. In other words, promote the “Googleverse” as much as possible but leave the Gphone platform open for third party developers, something that the iPhone lacks. If someone wants to use AOL’s Instant Messenger or Yahoo Chat instead of or in addition to Gchat, let them download and install applications so the phone truly fits their needs.
Google needs to be smart. It has an opportunity here to redefine the relationship between a mobile device, applications, and the customer experience. For the most part, mobile applications today are just extensions of desktop programs. Google should take the opportunity to rethink and tweak its applications to work well in mobile and desktop settings. For example:
Gmail and Gcal, as previously noted, can integrate more closely with Google Maps when people are mobile.
Docs could be integrated with Blogger, so when users are mobile and are using Docs they can update easily their blogs without having to use a separate program.
The digital camera application, Picasa, should not only upload photos directly to Picasa but also be flexible enough to upload to non-Google properties such as flickr. Picasa might also provide a few rudimentary editing and image manipulation tools.
The digital video camera application, whatever it may be called, should also upload directly to Google’s YouTube and maybe even supply rudimentary editing tools as well.
By the way, editing — cutting and pasting on a cell phone — should be as easy as possible because people will be moving information between all sorts of Google applications, including Google Groups and Google Notebook. Cutting and pasting is currently not available on the iPhone.
To be truly revolutionary, the Google phone should play nice with the other kids, especially in a social setting. Not everybody is using Google’s social network, Dodgeball; in fact, many people use more than one social network — MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Bebo, Twitter — and these should be available on the Gphone through third party developers. Google is rumored to be working on a social aggregator as well, which could certainly work on the phone.
It’s the giant smelly monster sitting in the middle of the room. If there’s going to be a Google phone, and it looks like that’s a distinct possibility, expect advertising along the lines of AdSense and the recently introduced “ticker ads” Google is now placing on certain YouTube videos.
Mobile advertising revenue is another billion-dollar cash cow for Google. Some people could care less if there is advertising on the phone, as long as their monthly bill and the cost of the phone are cheaper than they are today. Some people hate advertising and swear that if there are ads on their phone they will not use Google. They’d rather pay higher prices for the phone and their service.
It’s doubtful, but perhaps Google comes out with two flavors: one with advertising, lowering initial purchase costs and monthly bills, and one that has no advertising but costs more to purchase and has higher monthly fees.
So what if Google doesn’t deliver the right Gphone? What if it has only some of the features and functions discussed above? The Gphone could still revolutionize the wireless industry, but not by itself.
What if Google and Apple are in cahoots? Google’s Eric Schmidt already sits on Apple’s board of directors. And there’s cozy integration between Google and Apple in the iPhone, AppleTV, and in iLife ‘08. Could Google and Apple — two outsiders — take on the wireless industry and change it? We’ll find out, as soon as Google delivers the Gphone.
Concept Credit: The Gphone concepts were contributed by Lorin Wood, a previsualization designer who specializes in concepts and ideation for Hollywood. His portfolio and art direction can be found at his Web site (he also maintains a blog). Wood’s concepts for last100 explored how Google applications, and its advertising, might look like on the Gphone.