Monday, November 05, 2007

Google Cell Phones Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be...

Unless you're living in a bubble, the big news today is that Google is entering the cell phone market. Through its alliance with handset manufacturers, it plans on rolling out cell phones using Google software late next year, and is releasing it as open source. While the headlines are hyping this as utterly transformative, Google's entry into the cell phone market actually is nothing to get very excited about.

First of all, contrary to weeks of speculation, Google is not producing a "Gphone". Unlike Apple and its iPhone, Google is simply releasing software for other cell phone manufacturers to use - it is not manufacturing a new phone itself.

Second, Google may pose a "significant threat" to other creators of mobile operating systems, such as Microsoft, Palm, and Symbian, but from a consumer's point-of-view, who really cares? While it's great to expect some increased competition in operating systems software, we'll still have decidedly little choice in service providers - the Verizons, AT&Ts, and Sprints of the world. Google's announcement has absolutely no effect on the extremely limited competition among mobile service providers, and from a consumer's perspective, that's really where all the action is.

Third, Google-powered cell phones will still be carrier-locked. This means that, just as now, when you buy a cell phone it can only be used with one specific service provider. Buy an Iphone, you can only use it if you are an AT&T subscriber. Nothing changes with Google's announcement. If you buy a Google-powered phone, you'll be locked-in to one service provider, and won't be able to switch providers unless you buy a new phone. This "carrier-locking" is the main issue that consumer advocates have been railing against, and as the Wired Gadget Lab accurately points out, "there will be no revolution for you".

Fourth, some such as this Wired article have determined that "because Google's software will be free, it could undercut rivals who charge handset makers to install their operating systems. It also promises to make smart phones less expensive since manufacturers won't have to pay for software". Don't bet on it. Cheaper prices are always promised by opening markets, yet in many cases (such as the deregulation and "opening" of the telecommunications market in 1996) the drop in production cost never translated into a drop in prices for consumers.

Perhaps the one positive development with Google's announcement is that it is releasing its source code as open source, which means that anybody, including me, can view and edit the programming to create any applications for the device that can be imagined. However, even in this I'm skeptical that it will truly be open source, and not simply an API designed to interact with what is still a very closed and proprietary system.

The bottom line is that if you're expecting Google's entry into the cell phone market to bring about meaningful change to your experience as a cell phone subscriber, you should look elsewhere.
  

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