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Could the Googlephone herald a mobile revolution?

Posted by Jack Riley
  • Wednesday, 16 December 2009 at 01:56 pm
Since the first pictures and tweets of the Nexus One started emerging, the mythical Googlephone has been the source of some intense speculation, much of it surrounding the two new symbolic developments it portends; firstly, that Google is now in the hardware business, and secondly, that it is (allegedly) planning to release the phone network-free.

The first thing I thought of when I heard about this plan was an obscure patent filed by Google in September of last year.  The patent contained a plan for mobile networks to be freed from network-tethering, called the "Flexible Communication Systems and Methods" (see the diagram above left), and proposed a system by which mobile phones would be able to operate on a variety of networks at different times, with the choice about which network decided by the phone based on price, service etc. In the words of the patent:

"As one example, when in a home, the device may use a broadband communication method for which the user already pays a fixed monthly rate. When the user leaves the house, they may be transferred to a metropolitan network... When the user exits the metropolitan area, where free or low-rate pricing may not be possible, the system and methods may permit the user to transfer to a pay-for-use network. In addition to cost as a factor in selecting appropriate telecommunications providers, users may opt for alternative auction models based on maximal bandwidth offered, best coverage/reliability, or some combination of options."

To be clear, this is not what's going to happen with the Nexus One, which is essentially just like any unlocked handset. Moreover, there are reports that the phone is going to be sold in two versions in the US, one unlocked, and one with a T Mobile contract. But the crucial difference about the unlocked handset is that it is, at the least, a move in the direction of openness on Google's part, and an attempt to disintermediate the mobile phone market in a way which makes a lot of sense when you consider the context. There's certainly a culture clash between Google's tacit philosophy of encouraging as much openness as possible to help growth (and then steep the free, open content in advertising) and the world of mobile phones, where as it stands you can only get certain devices on certain networks at certain tariffs, with the market led by decisions made on the part of the network operators - the recently-dropped HD2 for example.

But what US commentators haven't cottoned onto yet is that there is an emerging precedent for this in the release of the much-touted Droid in the UK, as the unlocked and network non-specific Motorola Milestone. I've had my review unit working since this morning, and it's really good. But supposedly no network would touch it in the UK because there was no room for it in the European market. Google will be watching UK sales closely as a kind of guide to what kind of uptake they could except with a network-agnostic Google phone in the US.

There is some speculation that the phone may be discounted for long-time Google account holders, but I can't see that happening - as usual, Google is going to be trying to bring down the barriers for entry as low as possible, and charging people what will look like a tax on not being a prior Google user of $100 of more would put a lot of people off. It's worth noting that Apple are already doing their bit to weaken the mobile phone networks with the iPhone, which, if this graphic is to be believed, makes no money for it's US network AT&T until the 17th month of the contracts if high data-users.

Also, in case you're wondering why we're seeing so many Google releases at the moment, that mystery's been solved; it's because the company has a freeze on products lasting for the next three months, so lots of releases have been rushing to get to the market before it hits. Top picture from patent, lower via Engadget
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