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4 May 2007, 11:59PM PT

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WANTED: Predictions For A Google-Made Mobile Device


Closed: 4 May 2007, 11:59PM PT

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Now that Apple has finally announced the iPhone, plenty of attention has shifted to the potential for Google to make its own revolutionary mobile device. If you were in charge of such a product at Google, how would you design such a device? What features would it include? How would it work? What would you do to make it a valuable addition to the Google product portfolio?

6 Insights


To begin, I don't think Google should be making such a device. I'm not sure if the company posting this IS Google or not, and I suppose it shouldn't matter. Certainly, there have been fertile rumors that Google is working on a phone, but there is plenty of reasonable doubt. Most of my doubt stems from the fact that Google is increasingly active in the mobile Internet, and is involved in many projects around content. Who knows, perhaps they are talking to ODM handset maker HTC of Taiwan, but just in regards to bundling applications on an upcoming MSFT OS device. This activity is noticed from the outside, and is mis-interpreted as "mobile device" activity.

Why don't I think Google is getting into the handset business? Why the heck would they!? Google operates in a sector with terrific margins, and their share price reflects a high multiple over earnings. The handset business is expensive, cut-throat competitive, is rife with powerful players, and also swarming with cheap Asian ODM brands. Multiples are much lower. Why would you expand into such a terrible environment? Does Eric Schmidt want to be under siege by Carl Icahn like his fellow Sun Alumnus Ed Zander? Apple is different. Apple already IS a hardware maker in a highly commoditized market (PCs), and has proven successful because of superior branding, UI development, and industrial design. Google will have to compete with existing phones which are given away free to customers with a carrier subsidy. If they have a carrier partner, they may have access to the subsidy, but if they are turning the carrier's business models on its ear, don't expect distribution help from the carriers. No subsidy, no distribution help = marketing nightmare.

Rumors that Google will offer some kind of ad-supported free phone and/or wireless service is unrealistic. Ad revenue is great when costs are very low. But offering cellular service as a network operator or MVNO entails real, hard costs. This is tougher to amortize with ad revenue than serving a few web pages with clusters of PCs. Giving a phone for free to users is even more far-fetched. Phones that are capable of good data services cost easily over $150. If Google offered free services after giving a way a phone at this cost, it would take a long, long time to recover the Subscriber Acquisition Cost (SAC). Payback is unlikely. Bottom line, giving away cheap services for free is manageable, but giving away expensive services for free puts you in the red.

Some people might think that since Google is into the Muni WiFi sector, that their device would be a WiFi device like the Mylo or the Nokia N800, and would use VoIP instead of circuit switched phone. Well, that certainly makes more sense from a service cost perspective, but the N800 sells for some $400, so if you tack on some marketing and distribution costs the total SAC gets pretty high. Furthermore, Google is having trouble making a working business plan out of Muni WiFi, and has scaled back their efforts there. Why should Google provide the hardware for Muni WiFi users, when they can capture the ad revenue even when Muni WiFi subscribers bring their own terminals? If they are having a hard time making a working business plan out of Muni WiFi where subscribers bring their own N800s, Mylos, and laptops, how are they going to make it work by also giving out the terminal devices?

So, basically I have said that Google shouldn't get into the handset business, which doesn't answer your question at all. So in the odd case that Eric Schmidt hired me to run the project for a Google handset, here's what I'd do:

My Google device would be designed not just to survive on ad revenue, but to attack the fixed and mobile phone companies. The device itself would be a loss-leader with the intention of pulling more users to Google Talk, and getting more people to pay money for PSTN connections through the IM client (like Skype Out, etc). The device itself would be mainly a WiFi based tablet device, but would also have a speaker and microphone placed like the Danger Sidekick to allow voice calling.

The device would login to any public Google WiFi network, and any open WiFi network...which means not a whole lot. But at least it would work in the user's office and home. Deals would be made with iPass and Boingo to allow seamless login at as many public WiFi hotspots as possible. This roaming deal incurs real costs, so customers would have to pay an extra fee to have access to "Google Wifi Roaming".

It would be a consideration to put a GSM radio in the device, and an unlocked SIM slot. Thus the user could shed their existing cell phone. Although for earlier iterations of the device this might drive up costs too high, and be too big a step. If/when it happens, I would charge more for the hybrid WiFi/GSM device than the WiFi only. I might bulk purchase the MOUs from a carrier, and re-sell them as an MVNO with my own SIM card, but that depends on bulk rate negotiations with the GSM carriers. For the record, it would NOT be a UMA device or a device that allows seamless hand-off between cellular and WiFi, but instead would simply allow the two phone types (VoIP and GSM) to co-exist in the same device. The costs of the seamless service outweigh the benefits. If a Google SIM were used, only one phone number would be used for both the VoIP and the GSM identities and it would be a consolidated single account.

The device would include the obvious apps: Browser, RSS, Google search, Gmail, Google Maps, Picasa, media player, games. But the most important apps would be IM, Address book, presence, and general PIM. That's because the overall strategy would be to get people to start making this device their main communicator; the place they store and manage their contacts. Contact lists are the starting point for communications services, especially with IM and PIM integration. Thus, this device could work in concert with Google desktop implementations of calendar, address book, IM, VOIP. People could ditch their Outlook or other PIM tools, and consolidate on Google. Google could capture an increasing share of the communication services an individual uses. And even at VoIP prices, that can produce a significant new revenue stream for Google.

Other apps: world clock, calculator, notepad, tasklist, PDF reader, Google docs and spreadsheet,  YouTube viewer, newsgroups/headlines, Blogger client, possibly Google Desktop Gadgets, and lots of other Google apps tweaked for the device.

OS, hardware: Linux would be used as a cost-saving measure. The hardware would include a screen at least as nice as the Sidekick, and perhaps as nice as the Nokia N800. The processor would have to be respectable, and expandable SD memory would be the core storage (putting the ability and cost of upgrading on the user). Speaker, speakerphone, noise-canceling microphone, touch-screen, recessed hardware buttons, and a simple Google UI. Bluetooth for stereo music and headset also required. A slide-out thumbpad would be best, but for cost sake, we might stick with an on-screen keyboard.

Anyway, I wouldn't do it, but if I did, that would be the start of the discussion.


Derek Kerton.

Derek Kerton
Wed Jun 23 12:46pm
Years later, I ask: Is the Nexus One a "google phone"?

- Although we call it the "google phone", really, it's another HTC made device. Google did take on the role of badging it, and retailing it, but they contracted the device out to a branded device maker.

- And, even though I love my Nexus One, it's safe to say that by mid-2010, we know that Google's N1 sales have been poor, fraught with distribution and support issues. Mass-market customers want a brick-and-mortar store to buy and support their phones, not a web page and an FAQ.

- I still consider the N1 experiment a success for Google, since the investment, I speculate, was tiny (based on how little they marketed, advertised, supported, etc.) The Nexus One served an important role in demonstrating what a good, unlocked Android device COULD do, when not limited by a carrier. Thus, we promptly saw a bunch of devices like the HTC Incredible from carriers, which matched the Nexus functionality. So, the Nexus One, with limited sales, pushed the carriers along. I'd call that a success...just not in the conventional measure of "sales".

If you were in charge of such a product at Google, how would you design such a device?

Google is in a spectacular position to launch a mobile device for many reasons, here are three:

1) Branding power.   Google is already verb "to search online" and could become a noun with the "Google" handheld broadband/phone/pda.

2) Speed of development due to corporate structure.

3) Existing prototype.
Apple's iPhone already exists as a new standard for this type of device, effectively saving years of prototyping.   The Google device will have all this functionality PLUS better web integration (thanks to Google's greater familiarity with online systems and also will have a LARGER touchscreen, which will ultimately determine the winner in this category because browsing ease is the greatest appeal of these devices.

Apple has hyped and branded this type of device already.   However, it will have poor initial adoption due to cost and competition from inferior but similar devices.     Google can subsidize the devices in part by letting this device Google's mobile advertising platforms, undercutting Apple's cost by hundreds of dollars per device.

Features and functionality:  Much like the Apple iPhone, the device would have a relatively large touchscreen interface (but larger than iPhone -  a key marketing point for the Google).  Flexible web browsing without mobile programming required for sites.   The device will provide a quality phone, high quality camera, and have PDA functionality.   Pictures, voice, and PDA functions will automatically integrate with an online control panel the user can access from the device or from any computer.   Google mail and Calendar online entries would synch with the device to allow offline mailing and calendar access.   This feature would also serve to enhance Google's existing Calendar and mail which suffer from "only available online" challenges.

What would you do to make it a valuable addition to the Google product portfolio?

Mobile advertising is an explosive market, and without hardware control Google may lose market share to companies that have hardware advantages.   Also, for reasons stated above Google could create a superior device, thus winning both as a hardware and as an advertising provider.

Good luck Google.   As a stockholder in Yahoo I sure wish they would create this type of thing but I fear ... they won't or can't.   Google can. 

If I were to be in charge of designing a revolutionary mobile device at Google, I would first make sure that this Google device is a "feature-packed-yet-utterly-simple-to-use mobile phone" sporting a design that would leave the rest of the phone makers (Apple included) gasping and panting.


This is how I would go about it!



The Design 

No matter how feature packed a phone is, the first thing that appeals to a consumer is quite obviously the design aspect. As they say, the first impression is always the best impression. The outlook of a phone says a lot about the device and about the person holding it. First and foremost, I would make sure that the device boasts of a design that resembles no other mobile phone in the market. 

Going by the current trend, I would be inclined to turn my mobile phone into a “multi-device franchise.” In other words, it would be that “perfect blend of a business smart phone and a multimedia phone” packed into a compact unit. With the cream of consumers more or less in the demographic group of 25 to 40, you can be sure that they would appreciate such a cutting edge all-in-one phone.


My Google phone will feature a one-of-a-kind dual-slider design with a 3.0-inch touch screen LCD display to boot. Slide it left to turn it into smart phone revealing a full fledged QWERTY keyboard. Slide it right to turn it into a full fledged multimedia and gaming console. All this would come in a titanium enclosure.



The Features 

When your mobile phone’s claim to fame is as a multi-device franchise, it is more or less understood that it is feature packed to the core. The phone would pretty much include all smart phone and multimedia features like camera, music player, video conferencing, Wi-Fi, 3G, HSDPA, etc. all adding up to make quiet an astounding spec sheet. But these features are found in other phones as well and, more importantly, in the iPhone. So what I would like to see in my cell phone in addition to all the above mentioned features would be something that's absolutely cutting-edge.

I would like to make sure that the hassle of a teeny-weeny on-device keyboard (although one is invcluded) and also the trouble of dealing with those embedded ones in the touch screens are completely eliminated. Instead, I would incorporate a “Virtual Laser Keyboard” in the cell phone. So when the need arises, all you have to do is just unleash the Laser Keyboard and away it goes projecting a full fledged keyboard on a flat surface so that you can just go about typing like you normally do with any other keyboard. Another feature I'll be including is the GPS system with Google Maps and also Google's very own Google Earth software to assist the user. With portable GPS systems becoming as invaluable as cell phones, it only makes sense to have a decent GPS system with at least 500 navigation waypoints with Google Maps readily available for download.


Since battery backup is another issue when it comes to muti-device cell phones, I would also install “solar/light sensors” into the phone that would act as battery chargers when exposed to any source of light. It was about time that someone thought of incorporating such a concept into a mobile phone. Want to push talk-time a few notches higher? Definitely possible.


Other Ho Hum Features at a Glance 
  • WCDMA (UMTS)/GSM (850/900/1800/1900) quad-band
  • Dual Camera: 3.2 MP camera with auto focus and a VGA camera for Video conferencing
  • Multimedia player/recorder (Mp3, AAC, WMA)
  • Connectivity: Wi-Fi (IEEE 802.11b/g/whatever) Infrared, Bluetooth 2.0 EDR, 3G, MicroSD for Expansion
  • JAVA applications, Internet Browsers, XHTML Browser
  • QWERTY keyboard
  • Lots and lots of user applications

Last, but not the least, the Google OS 

The device would get a specially designed Operating System that can handle all the requests and operations efficiently. With so many features incorporated, there is bound to be confusion on how to navigate/activate a certain feature. In order to avoid such confusion, the phone would have a startup screen pretty much similar to that of Google’s homepage with more or less a similar interface. All you need to do is type the name of the feature you are trying to activate or navigate to and rest is up to the OS to make you sure you are directed to the thing you are looking for. Voila! 

This phone will indeed set a benchmark in design and features and would certainly take the mobility experience to a new level.


Finally, I wouldn’t shoot myself in the foot by tying up with Cingular as the only option.

If Google does create a phone, it will be a major departure from their core values:

1. It's value to their portfolio will be in allowing people to access Google products more readily/easily, but this will require Google services to be heavily favored over Yahoo! or Microsoft. Though they have set Google as the default through work with Mozilla on Firefox, they have lambasted Microsoft over the use of Live.com as the default search engine in IE7.

Further, Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been speaking about the importance of not locking in users. This philosophical approach to web services makes it a bit hypocritical to favor Google over other mobile search providers.

2. Though they have a core competency in hardware - they design the servers which handle billions of queries a day - they have never created consumer hardware. The closest they come is Google Mini which is an enterprise search tool. 

3. Motorola, Samsung, LG and others can and must through billions of dollars at research and development. They can afford to fail on certain phones while Google cannot.

If Google does create a phone, it will most likely be a co-branded enterprise:

1. They have worked with partners to provide Google search including LG (http://www.engadget.com/2007/03/28/lg-announces-phones-with-google-not-google-p hone/) and Apple.

2. They already have created a Google Maps Mobile version for the iPhone and Blackberry.

3. This will allow them to focus on software, but they will have to work with the phone providers and telecoms who do not share the majority of Google's philosophies.

Other thoughts:

Google has a deep interest in providing its services for free to expose users to the advertising which currently provides literally 99% of their revenue. They will have to absorb the costs (or a majority), but with nearly a billion cell phones in existence already, the number of accessible people who are not willing to pay for a phone seems small.

Also, to not limit the accessibility of the phone, they would prob. like to provide it "unlocked" which means that it is not limited to a certain provider. This is hardly ever done by major cell phone companies and the fact that Apple couldn't get Cingular to do so means that it will be very difficult for Google.

As for design and features:

1. Search will be the focus, obviously, but they will need to provide a compelling way to deliver mobile ads.

2. GMail is currently available as a Java download for phones and this will most likely be used, but Google Calendar, Reader and other services will need to be redesigned for smaller screens/less power. 

If I were in Google I would naturally be keep in augmenting their business model -- the CEO was recently quoted as saying that "Mobile Mobile Mobile" was the next big area for the search business.

One the one hand you could imagine a device that enables deeper social interaction with friends in ways that support search and Adwords - search your "network"'s shared photos and tags, manage SMSs and voicemail like Gmail does Conversations and GTalk -- the Adwords angle being a way to offer greater rebates on the devices / services.

However, applications alone dont make a consumer device succeed -- given the enormous investment, the strategy would be to utilize one's assets as much as possible in the function of the device.


However, I think a mobile device from Google would have one important role - to attack the Microsoft + Tello stack headon.

Google has great assets to work with on this, with Google Local Search, Maps and Google Earth. If google were to create a device, I predict it would have GPS built in, and a shortcut button (like a walky-talky) to let you say what you're looking for. So you're in Seattle, press the button and say 'haircut' and it will show you the nearest places and their numbers. They already have experience now with designing that app for the iPhone.

The other important sets of assets are Google's core network of Dark Fibre, and their heavy investments in MetroFi networks -- had there been more traction there I would have predicted Google making the first Wifi-only cellular device that disrupted the cellular marketplace.

A third clue comes from the YouTube acquisition and Google's experimentation with video advertising. Video is attractive because (i) the segments who use Youtube are ideal marketing demographics (teens), (ii) videos spread virally and an Ad gets a lot more traction and (iii) video audience are more likely to accept short advertisements (which Google are already testing with AdSense).

It is thus in Google's interest to increase the volumes of videos being added to their databases, and a mobile device is the perfect way of "shooting and uploading on the go".  This is similar to what companies such as PixSense are doing.

In these ways I think Google can "bring to full circle" some of the rather 'open-ended' massive investment sprees (metroFi ; YouTube etc.) 


All this said, however, it is still not clear to me whether Google will choose to make a device, as I do not know what specific relationship Google has with Apple and the restrictions such as relationship adds. 

What made Google trump Yahoo, Lycos and the others?  It wasn't the code, though I'm sure their search process is very cool, it was in the simplicity.  When you go to google.com all that's there is a box where you can search for stuff.  Their mobile device needs to be just as basic.

Making calls, listening to music, and other such things are already covered by other mobile technology (or the iPhone will soon have strong hold of).  What can google do?  Google can offer the simplicity of google search in the palm of your hand.

What do people want when they're 'on the go,' that isn't already done for them (or isn't easy to do).  They want directions to where they're going, they want to know about stuff around where they are (hey, I want ice cream, where should we go?), they want to find parking, avoid traffic, and figure out stuff thats bugging them (what other movies was that guy in?).  Google, currently, could help with all those things...if you're at a computer.

 Why not have google help with all those things in the palm of your hand.  You can already check gmail, search google, get news, and access maps through the internet on your wireless device, but why not CHANGE how the device is used so that it's built for google, rather than built for the existing hand held.

Have a flip open device thats horizontally oriented (think Tmobile Side Kick) that when you open is nothing but google and a search box.  You then have basic functions, you can search traffic, restaurants, parking spaces, and trivia (these would have to be outlawed at bar trivia nights) as well as the other basic things people want to know.  If then shoots results to the device based off your GPS positioning as well as bringing results from the web too you.  It's not just google web results shrunk down though, it's an entirely new interaction with google that show you only what you want to know, rather than a bunch of links to scroll through and wait to load.  Need to know the nearest parking?  You google 'closest parking,' or any other set of commands needed and google web interacting with google mobile tells you the nearst lots, their prices, and you can click through to get directions from google maps.  Same thing for nearly anything else.

 Google provides answers to questions on where to find stuff on the internet.  Google mobile should do the same thing in the real world.