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Shut up about the Gphone already

Yesterday Google revealed its plans for mobility: a software stack that would allow it to proliferate its Web services throughout the wireless world. Through Android and the operator and handset vendor alliance it is creating, Google plans to get to its customers from the Internet, not through the device. Sure, Google left some questions unanswered, but the overall strategy seems pretty clear-cut.

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Yet, during the question-and-answer period at Google’s media event, the same question kept popping up: “What about the Gphone?” CEO Google Eric Schmidt seemed exasperated by the question, and I can’t really blame him. Admittedly, he never confirmed one way or another that Google would ever create a Google phone as such, but he was trying to paint a bigger picture, one that I’m not sure people are quite getting.

Google is a Web services company. It offers browser-based applications to consumers, and it collects its revenues from advertising. For mobility, its objective is to put its applications in front of as many people as possible, which means getting them on as many mobile devices as possible. And that is accomplished through software, not by building your own handset. (Check out the Telephony 2.0 blog for Executive Editor Rich Karpinski’s excellent analysis of Google’s Android strategy.)

I hear you saying it: What about Apple? Apple’s a hardware company, people. It sells Macs, iPods and iPod/Mac derivatives like the iPhone. Sure, Apple makes some innovative services and applications, but they’re intended to drive people to Apple hardware purchases. Google is trying to drive people to its URL. Even if Google followed Apple’s lead and managed to sell a million Gphones in a quarter, that’s only 1 million people with ready access to its services, not the 2 billion mobile users Google clearly views as its audience. What’s more, the potential appeal of the Gphone is somewhat overblown. I like Google Search, Gmail and YouTube plenty, but I’m not quite prepared to let them dictate what phone I purchase and what operator I play with.

Schmidt never ruled out making a Gphone, and there is still a possibility Google would make one. But I think the industry would have to devolve into a much more pathetic state for that to happen. Android would have to fail, and the operators would have to ban Google products from their networks entirely. Google would have to feel there was no other outlet except its own handset -- and likely its own 700 MHz network -- to gain access to the mobile assets. Admittedly there is inertia in the mobile market against new entrants, but not that much inertia. Schmidt acknowledged yesterday that Google does have to change up its thinking and would have to share revenues with the operators, whether those revenues come from subscriptions or advertising. That seemed to be just what the operators wanted to hear -- T-Mobile and Sprint have jumped on board, and even Verizon Wireless doesn’t think it’s that bad an idea.

So if the heavens fall and pigs start deep-sea diving and Google does make a Gphone, the Google has a ready-built software platform to build it on. But until then, let’s let the Gphone drop.

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