Google has developed a prototype cell phone that could be in the hands of consumers within a year, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. The Journal indicated that Google plans to offer free mobile subscriptions, subsidized by ads in search results and software applications.
As the Journal story goes, Google is shopping the prototype with cell phone manufacturers and network operators while it fine-tunes the technical specs to offer a mobile Web browsing experience that outdoes current software.
The Google phone story sounds like the iPhone rumors all over again. Of course, the iPhone rumors turned out to be accurate. However, some analysts have expressed skepticism about a Google phone and its viability in a competitive mobile market.
Where's the Prototype?
"Could Google potentially become a handset vendor? They could. IBM could potentially become a handset vendor, too, but it's a brutally competitive business to get into," said Avi Greengart, a mobile devices analyst with Current Analysis.
Greengart said he is reserving judgment on the potential success or failure of a Google phone until he sees the prototype that the Journal is heralding. Of course, many technology companies are working on internal projects, and Google Labs is known for its prolific innovation. But many of Google's projects remain in beta testing for long periods.
"I have no doubt that someone at Google is working on a phone," Greengart said. "Google works on all kinds of projects. How will those efforts become commercialized or will they become commercialized? I have no idea. It's fun to speculate."
Would a Google phone mean that users would have to listen to advertising messages before making each call on their free, ad-subsidized phone? How would Google divvy up the advertising revenues with the service providers? Would Google buy wireless spectrum from the FCC to become its own wireless carrier? Would Google become a broker for mobile advertising?
There are plenty of questions and yet few answers. What is documentable is the history of an ad-supported wireless Web. Municipal Wi-Fi networks that serve up free Internet connections to citizens who don't mind wading through advertisements while they conduct online searches haven't taken off, despite a decade of experiments.
"It's one thing to say that Google could make a phone. It's another thing to figure out how it's going to be distributed, if it will work over WiMax, if Google will make a phone for Verizon, if Verizon would agree to offer the phone," Greengart said. More questions, still no answers.
Doubtless, Google's plans will unfold in the months ahead and, judging from the company's moves to offer scaled-down versions of its services for handsets, likely will include additional strategies for taking dominion in the mobile realm. For now, Google remains tightlipped, with the sources the Journal is citing not going on record. And so the rumor mill continues to churn.
Google was not immediately available to comment for this report.