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Google Bids to Unchain Mobile Phones

Can Google make a thousand portable Internet gadgets bloom?

The Internet search giant announced plans last week to provide open-source software for multimedia mobile phones in a global project that has support from 33 wireless carriers, handset manufacturers and other companies.

The Open Handset Alliance — whose members include Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, Motorola, Samsung Electronics, Intel and Qualcomm — this month will release software, code-named Android, for developers to begin creating mobile Internet applications, said Google director of mobile platforms Andy Rubin.

The Android platform is a Linux-based integrated mobile “software stack” comprised of an operating system, middleware, user interface and applications, according to Google. So far, only Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile has committed to commercially launching wireless Internet services and devices based on the Android software, in the U.S. and Europe, sometime in 2008.

Google chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said Android will overcome the top problems mobile developers have encountered in writing applications for cellphones and other devices: high cost and complexity.

“Industries develop with some amount of proprietary technology,” he said during a press conference announcing the initiative. “The best model to get volume is to be open. That's what the Internet has taught us.”

With Android, Schmidt added, “you'll be able to do amazing things on your mobile phone that you never thought of.”

The operating system is designed to provide developers, carriers and manufacturers an alternative to proprietary software from Microsoft and Symbian, a licensing venture whose owners include Nokia, Ericsson and Siemens.

Verizon Wireless — which, like AT&T, is not currently part of the Google alliance — has claimed that “open” mobile handsets would introduce security risks to subscribers.

“Viruses and Trojans are part of the unlocked handset experience,” Verizon Wireless vice president of corporate communications Jim Gerace wrote in an Oct. 24 blog post, responding to an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal about opening up mobile handsets. “ 'Open' devices simply lower standards.”

Google, meanwhile, deflected questions about a rumored “GPhone,” supposedly a wireless phone tailored to Google's online applications. Schmidt wouldn't say whether Google will sell its own device but noted the Android software will provide the tools “if you were going to build the GPhone … or thousands of GPhones.”

Schmidt said the problem with most mobile phones today is that “they don't have full-power Web browsers.” Android includes a full-featured HyperText Markup Language browser, he said: “No longer will you have to shoehorn your application into a mobile environment.”

Rubin predicted Android-based handsets will be available in the second half of 2008.

Schmidt said the real test of the Android project “is whether [developers] are going to be able to build applications and do the amazing things you can do on the Internet on mobile phones as well.”