Why a gPhone (Google Phone) is a lovely... no, an awful.. no, a lovely idea

At last count, "consumers" was the No. 1 answer to Dana Blankenhorn's survey question asking who a Google Phone (gPhone) will help the most.

At last count, "consumers" was the No. 1 answer to Dana Blankenhorn's survey question asking who a Google Phone (gPhone) will help the most. Some are speculating that the gPhone will get announced along with some other news that Google is releasing on November 5.

I hate and love the idea of a gPhone. Just the thought conjures up images that are similar in nature to the ones that inspired last week's post about taking the "inter" out of "Internet" where, among other things, I talked about how the natural evolution of Google Apps will lead to Google to offering its own del.icio.us killer. Google really has no choice and to the extent that the November 5 annoucements are supposedly about a bunch of social tools, maybe we'll see a social bookmarking service like del.icio.us. For now however, I've renewed my interest in del.icio.us thanks to the awesome FireFox plug-in for it.

In many ways, it's my love affair with del.icio.us and its frictionless Firefox extension that make me hate the idea of a gPhone because the gPhone will never be about frictionless mobile access to del.icio.us. That honor, is of course, reserved for the yPhone (the Yahoo Phone; del.icio.us is a part of Yahoo proper).

Today, mobile access to popular online services is pretty hit or miss. Occasionally, you'll bump into what Sun's Jonathan Schwartz referred to as a religious experience (it was Google Maps on a BlackBerry Pearl). But these experiences are few and far between. More recently, cell phone makers looking for a leg up on the competition have programmed a potpourri of default widgets (and sometimes just bookmarks) into their handsets so that users can get better than average access to some of the more popular services on the net (ie: Google's YouTube, Yahoo's Flickr, etc.) not to mention nearly seamless access to the carrier's services (eg: Verizon's VCast).

Recently, while at the Digital Life Show in NYC, Palm CEO Ed Colligan told me about how accessing your favorite services is often a painful experience and how Palm's new $99 Centro looks to eliminate some of that pain when it comes to some of the more popular services. For example, Palm has gone the extra mile to make it easy to post that picture you just took with the Centro into Flickr.

But, let's be honest. When it comes to mobile access to our favorite online services, we are waiting for that same religious experience that Schwartz had when he first experienced Google Maps on his BlackBerry (OK, what we really want is to be able to leave our PC's behind as much as possible or maybe even to be able to ditch them altogether). The question is, who can deliver it? Apple certain delivered some of that in the iPhone. When connected to a WiFi network, no other handset comes close to the iPhone's Web browsing experience. Via AT&T's slower EDGE network? That's more like the mobile Internet that Apple's TV ads say the iPhone isn't about.

The truth is we all want a religious experience with the services we use. What you use and what I use may be different. But no phone on the market delivers a religious experience for the collection of Google services that make good sense to show up on the phone. Google Maps is of course an obvious candidate. Using a Java applet, the Helio Ocean that I have that I'll be showing off at Mobile Expo marries its GPS system to Google Maps (although the closest it comes to pinpointing my location is pinpointing the Sprint occupied cell tower that the Ocean is connected to). But I would't call it a religious experience.

As core applications go, Gmail is an obvious candidate but I'm not so sure that the POP3 mail clients found on other phones (Palm devices, Windows Mobile, iPhone, etc.) can be that improved upon. Mobile browsers are known for not dealing with Javascript (embedded in the Gmail UI) very well. But if the gPhone can manage it, one feature of Gmail that I would very much look forward to on a mobile device is GMail's ability to view attachments as HTML or, even better, as editable and innately shareable Google Docs-based documents. For many business people, that would be a game changer.

"Search" clearly goes without saying (particularly local search which can be found in Google's existing base of mobile apps under Goog-411). Although I wouldn't deem it a religious experience, the Live Search team at Microsoft has done a very slick job with the search application it has built for the Windows Mobile operating system. Of all the apps that I use on the Motorola Q that I carry around with me, that's the one app on the Q that I can honestly say I actually like to use. Provided the phone can record videos and still images, mobile YouTube (up and download) is another obvious candidate as would be a mobile version of Google's Picasa (already exists, but a gPhone version would be much better) that could sync with both a desktop copy of Picasa as well as Google Picasa's Web-based photosharing service (called Web Albums). And, no gPhone would be complete without a mobile version of Google Reader.

I could continue to list off Google applications that I wouldn't mind to find beautifully executed in a gPhone, but I don't need to go any further to make the point that this sort of complete mobile portfolio of Google's apps and services doesn't exist -- at least not as a religious experience -- in any handset that I know of. As a user of many of those services, I'd relish the idea.

But on the other hand, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't also say that I hate the idea. Going back to that dangler I left behind (the one where I mention taking the "inter" out of "Internet"), it is precisely this sort of tying of Web services to hardware (ie: Real's Rhapsody to TiVo, a gPhone to Google's services, etc.) that will ultimately turn the Internet into a bunch of loosely coupled intranets. Yes, the providers of these solutions will tell you that you can still get there from here (for example, to Yahoo's del.icio.us from a gPhone). But you won't want to because the experience simply won't measure up to the way the phone so frictionlessly integrates with Google. Instead, you'll make a decision as to where your loyalties lie and, pretty soon you'll have your gPhone and your friend will have a yPhone and your other friend will have an iPhone, and, well, you get the picture.

Three final points. First, as I think about the idea of a gPhone becoming a reality, I realize how badly someone (Apple? Google? Both?) screwed up on the iPhone. Apple has already taken some heat for not being very developer friendly. But Apple and Google could have absolutely nailed it if the iPhone was the gPhone as well. Think about it. Apple has all the on-line services that Google doesn't and Google has all the on-line services that Apple doesn't. Paired up, the igPhone would have been 10 times more formidable than it already is.

Second, since Google hasn't teamed up with Apple or any other entertainment "provider," it will be very interesting to see where the gPhone goes from an entertainment perspective. No serious smart phone (particularly one with the built-in ability to play YouTube videos) can come to the market without some sort of music play. The only question is whether or not Google will finally enter that game or, to the extent that the gPhone platform is an open Linux platform as many are reporting it is, will that "feature" be left to third parties. Universal is clearly looking for a major player to help it and the rest of the record industry slow down the Apple juggernaut. How could it not be talking to Google with so many reports of a Google-powered handset coming to the market?

Finally, when Google finally releases a handset, it will be the second company after Apple to have such sizeable clout in certain digital circles that it, instead of the typical cell carriers, will get to call the shots. With most phone manufacturers, the carriers decide what features work on the phones and how. With the iPhone, the iTunes customer base afforded so much leverage to Apple that Jobs had his pick of the carrier litter. Google has similar clout and will equally get to call the shots. If and when this happens, your guess is as good as mine as to how serious a game changer it will be. For example, delivering video to handsets is a big business. YouTube is already a channel that's being used by movie and television studios. That business could increase 100 or more fold once Google has access to the millions of pockets and pocketbooks it might eventually have access to.

How do you think it will be a game changer?