Open Source Hardware: The gPhone

  GPhone by Google 
  Originally uploaded by Stella Lui.

I don’t recall who said this to me recently, but someone told me that internal debates are raging inside Google about the wisdom of getting into the hardware business with the gPhone.

That makes sense to me. Google is barely in the software business. Instead they mostly deliver services via the web and increasingly mobile devices.

But their web services are not that useful today on mobile devices. For example the experience I have using microsoft’s outlook products on my blackberry is still vastly superior to the experience you get running gmail and gcal on any mobile device that I have seen. It’s true that Apple’s iPhone does a terrific job with gmaps and that is clearly an early look at how great web apps will be when they are delivered on a mobile device designed specifically for them.

So it makes sense that Google wants to build a gPhone. When they do, I’ll probably switch from microsoft exchange/office to gmail and gcal. I’ve been wanting to for a long time.

But how does Google deal with the big changes to their business model that will come from being in the hardware business? How do they deal with the fact that they will now compete with Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, Apple, and a host of other companies who have been making and marketing hardware for a long time?

I would love to see Google release the gPhone, market it heavily, deliver a great device, and then put the operating system software and hardware reference design out into the marketplace in a way that they continue to control the base platform but anyone can build and market a gPhone.

That way, they get the thing they want most, a mobile platform built specifically to run Google web apps, and get out of the hardware business, and build a bunch of strategic relationships with hardware companies who will work hard to promote their services.

I don’t know anything about Google’s plans for the gPhone. Although this article from engadget suggests that the gPhone is coming soon and that it may well be made and marketed by others.

It will be interesting to watch how this develops.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Kyle

    I would be absolutely shocked if google actually manufactures the phones. I think they know better than that. That said, I’m excited to see what the platform looks like.

  2. Darren Herman

    The picture that you found for the gPhone looks beautiful – and I’d certainly consider switching. I love the integration between Gmail and GCal and it would provide a nice alternative to what I’m currently using.The hardware business is an entirely different ballgame than what they are currently doing so their financials would change dramatically. I’m interested to see how the markets would respond. (Margins, etc)

  3. Matt McLaughlin

    They apparently are using the same model as they use with their Search appliances (like the Google Mini). Google develops the software and partners with established manufacturers (I think Dell in the case of the Mini and rumor is HTC for the gPhone) to produce the hardware. Although B2C in the mobile phones is a whole new scale vs. their B2B sales with the Mini I think it will be a model that continues to serve them well as opposed to spec’ing their own hardware.

  4. Timothy Post

    My bet is that Apple builds the hardware for the Google wifi device. I think part of the reason why Apple was so reluctant to offer an SDK for the iPhone is that much of Google’s future business strategy is built around web apps (think GMail, Google Apps, GCal, etc).I think we might see a new device, bigger than an iPhone but smaller than a notebook. Perhaps tablet-like so that folks can easily use it when mobile. Touch screen.The device runs OS X.5 Leopard which has direct compatibility with Google’s online services. Look for the 2 companies to work very closely together. Leopard is the missing link and why they postponed any announcements…..and for the final hurrah? Google buys Skype. It would be nothing, if not fun. No?

  5. Rob

    I would wager that Google is going to release their “gPhone” OS well before plunging into hardware development. It’s pretty much accepted that we’ll see an OS from them by Q1 08 latest. The sense I get from what their execs have said is “Yeah we could make a great phone if we wanted to, but that’s probably not necessary.” But who can deny the raw profitability of such a move if they did decide to compete directly in the Mobile market…

  6. petekazanjy

    I disagree about the comment regarding the quality of google services on non-google-manufactured devices. I have a blackberry curve, and the Gmail client and the Google Maps client both are excellent, integrating perfectly with the blackberry hardware and UI, especially the trackball.Yes, my corporate exchange links up with RIM’s onboard email client very nicely too, as Fred notes, and pulls down directory information great. But I actually prefer the blackberry gmail client to using Blackberry connect to reply to my gmail.Right now, my workaround is to have corporate and personal email flow into the Blackberry universal inbox, and then when i see a personal message that needs a reply, I do so through the gmail client, which pulls down Google contacts info dynamically, and also spoofs my reply-to address, which the crackberry won’t do.The WAP-based services, I agree, are no fun. is a total kludge compared to the client–but that has more to do with crappy screen size that it’s designed for.A gmail client built for the iphone SDK will be huge. Assuming it hsa the same fit and finish as the blackberry gmail client (which, I have no reason to doubt). But at the same time, i’m sure that an Outlook client built on the iphone SDK could also be killer, and leverage MSFT’s Exchange server corporate chokehold. That would be a sea change.There’s already a bunch of people at my company, VMware, who use the iphone as their corporate phone; and just put up with Outlook Web Access on Safari (yuck!). I can only imagine the cascade of people who would move over, buying their own sexy iphones, and tossing their Captain Kirk-inspired crackberry 8700’s to the curb, if there was an Outlook client that played as nice with Exchange as does RIM’s solution. It would be a tidal wave.And granted I work for a pretty geeky company, where people take their personal computing infrastructure seriously, but it’s always the alpha geeks who lead the way head of the mass market.I hope RIM has something with a bigger screen on the horizon…because I love my Curve, and i feel its keyboard is better than the iphone’s touchboard, but it sucks for consuming web-based services. Really sucks.

    1. fredwilson

      i agree that the curve’s keyboard is its strength and the iPhone’s screen and web integration is its strength. it won’t be long before we get a device that has both. maybe the gPhone?

  7. Chris Phenner

    I mostly share Fred’s wish to shift away from Outlook/Exchange, which is the most unfortunate hegemony. It’s the most critical messaging/calendaring and contacts engine that I’ve relied for 12 years, and it’s flexibility and innovation has DECREASED over that time period, if anything. Can anyone else remember when they enjoyed Outlook because it was so superior to Eudora (I do)? Not seeking to stoke an Outlook/Eudora debate here…Anywhoo: Fred’s open-source hope for gPhone is well-supported by a section within the “Google Apps” (for your domain) section of their site I was unaware of until recently, where they’ve opened up their API to third-party solutions providers. I think it’s great that many of them are simply focused on migration from Outlook/Exchange to Google Apps. I have to think that will be more than a “cottage industry” in the coming years:…Hopefully the gPhone cultivates a similarly-collective approach to applications/services.

  8. Druce

    Yeah, only reason for Google to do a phone is to sell more ads in more places without having all the profits extracted by the telcos and mobile platforms.Hardware vs. software is a mostly a false distinction. In the age of China and Solectron and Flextronics it’s pretty easy to slap a logo on a box. Software distinguishes the best hardware companies and they outsource a lot of manufacturing.But Google is a platform, devices are narrow vertical applications. Very different culture and mentality, few companies excel at both.Best to create an open mobile platform everyone else can build on.(and yeah, Google Maps rocks on Treo. Better than expensive TomTom GPS software)

    1. simon

      “it won’t be long before we get a device that has both. maybe the gPhone?”you know its kinda suprised me that a device like this has taken so long to become mainstream , its a device ive been longing for, web integration, os, apps, flexibility an perhaps harnessing the ability to run homebrew ..this is the device i wait for

  9. Dhru Purohit

    “For example the experience I have using microsoft’s outlook products on my blackberry is still vastly superior to the experience you get running gmail and gcal on any mobile device that I have seen.”I would agree for gcal, but def not Gmail. The gmail application for black berry is soooo much better than any outlook mail that I’ve used. It looks great and makes it easy to read mail. The one challenges is that you need to be connected to the net to see your mail. That is a challenge and a big downer, but I almost alway ways have connection (except on airplanes), but I consider that “me” time.Google even created the gmail application for google hosted mail. Which is what my team uses. I love it.

  10. Eric

    I recently switched to a blackberry curve and I do not know how I ever went without one for so long. I would however switch to a Google software platform as I feel it would still surpass what RIM has provided. Much has been said about data speeds holding back app development and usage – but my biggest usage drawback so far is the curve’s inability to deal with streaming audio or video. I understand this has something to do with all data going through blackberry servers regardless of your carrier, but this is a well needed feature and requested across multiple forums.I believe that Google has a better chance letting someone else develop the hardware and deal with the logistic and support issues there and concentrating on the software.

  11. bsiscovick

    Fred: Why would Google want to enter the hardware business? Hardware is clearly not their core competency – quite unlike Apple which creates hardware better than anyone, ever.That said, a gPhone would be incredible and I would be right there at the front of the line to grab one…but it would seem to me that the best approach would be for Google to partner with an established hardware company to develop the phone while Google provides the applications that power the functionality.Google is an amazing company, but they are not everything for everyone. I would hate to see them lose focus and fall into that trap of thinking they can do it all. There are just too many examples of companies straying away from their core competencies with disastrous results.