Is Google's gPhone a threat or a promise?

Imagine for a minute -- just imagine -- that all the Google phone rumours are true and the search giant is about to bring out its own mobile device. What can Google give us that the existing handset makers can't?

Imagine for a minute -- just imagine -- that all the Google phone rumours are true and the search giant is about to bring out its own mobile device. What can Google give us that the existing handset makers can't?

This latest spin of the rumour mill has been given to us by the Wall Street Journal, which says the search behemoth is working on specs for Google-orientated mobiles and already has a working prototype which it has been spruiking to the US and European networks.

Google hasn't actually got plans to bring out its own handsets, the WSJ suggests, rather it will work with the existing players to optimise their devices for the mobile versions of Google's software offerings.

It's not the first time a 'gPhone' has been whispered about. Rumours have sprung up before -- one example being HTC is working on producing a Google-branded Linux device -- but they seem less credible than the WSJ's reports of Google's mobile vision.

After all, Google has traditionally made its way in mobile by partnering with device makers, LG, for example, is working on a YouTube-friendly mobile. Shutting out those partners now would be a very bad move, potentially prompting a backlash that could see it left out in the cold by the big names in mobile.

So, back to what we can expect: according to the WSJ: "The Google phone project goes far beyond Google's existing deals to include its search engine or applications such as Maps on select handsets, say the people familiar with the matter."

Some of the speculation over Google's plans suggest that the search giant might consider offering its users a free subscription on the condition that they accept advertising from the company.

Mobile adverts, given they reach users through a very personal medium, are apparently worth more to sponsors than the Internet-based ones we're more familiar with -- not only can you deliver an ad relating to a search query, you can make it location specific and deliver it to the palm of the user's hand.

So would you be prepared to trade your monthly cap for the obligation to receive whatever cobblers adverts the sponsors saw fit to send you? If Google went down that route, it wouldn't be the first. A European start-up called Blyk plans to launch a network based on the premise users who accept ads can get free voice minutes and text messages.

With the WSJ reporting the gPhone could come packing GPS, a step up in location-based ad services wouldn't exactly be unrealistic. The phone knows you're at home, reminds you to watch a certain show. It knows you're on the way to work, maybe it places your coffee order with the barista before you even reach the shop. It's lunchtime, you get reminded there's a deal on half price sangers down the road.

At the end of the day, your phone knows you haven't been to your local and suggests the bartender might be missing you. With a wink and a nudge, it reports three of your friends are within two minutes' walk and don't you just bet they've got a hankering for a schooner. For every time you step into the café, the pub, the sandwich shop, your phone tells Google and the ad sponsors, and Google picks up a fee for the transaction.

As we are so often reminded, the greatest potential threat to the privacy of the individual is the mobile phone. We give away our locations, our contacts, our financial details to our provider, should they choose to pry. Are we now ready to make even greater trade offs, giving providers even greater swathes of information about our lives and interests in return for a few bucks off our phone bills?

I would gamble, yes. Not everyone has the extra few bucks to spend to safeguard their privacy and Google's history in that area has not exactly been sterling. Fingers crossed that getting a phone for free doesn't mean getting gypped on freedom.


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