The rumor mill’s a turnin’. The subject of this particular rotation? A new phone developed by Google – a Chrome OS smartphone. Anton Wahlman, a reporter for The Street, provided an in-depth analysis of the reasons he believed that a Google Chrome Phone was likely to be in development- and just as likely to arrive in the first half of 2012. So what’s Mr. Wahlman saying about what he feels will be Google’s next product? Do his arguments hold water? Let’s take a closer look at the article that spurred this latest wave of rumors.
Wahlman gives the readers three primary reasons why he believes Google’s working on a Chrome OS phone- and if they’re not, why they should be. Now, while he does make some compelling arguments…he also does a little bit of ‘spinning.’
Point One: Security of the Cloudphone
The first-and probably weakest- of his arguments is security. The smartphone platform, he reasons, isn’t exactly the most secure in the world- particularly in the case of Android and Windows 7, both of which are “open ecosystems.” That pretty much means precisely what you’d think it would- applications are able to enter the ecosystem through a number of different paths- including questionable ones. That’s the problem with an open ecosystem, you see- it’s too easily influenced by elements outside itself. Wahlman also reasons that “the very nature of an operating system which allows applications to be installed is a security risk in and of itself, particularly if the device is not actively managed by a heavy-handed central police such as the famous Blackberry Enterprise Server.”
Ignoring the slight dig at Research in Motion, the Android platform isn’t exactly as ‘open’ as he seems to think it is. Google doesn’t really do ‘open source’ when it comes to this piece of software. In order to make the ecosystem truly open, you’d need to root it. And Google’s already made it pretty clear that it doesn’t like when people do that. Still, I suppose there are some security holes in the smartphone environment- the fact that smartphones don’t really have any way of staving off viruses- there’s not exactly a great deal of antivirus software for smartphones. Basically, by making a cloud-based phone, Google could effectively eliminate the fear of smartphone viruses while at the same time consolidating their software into a ‘secure’ system- one that cannot be rooted.
Point Two: Cost of the Cloudphone
Anyway, Wahlman moves on to his next point- cost. It’s undeniable that a smartphone based completely on the cloud would cost Google far less to manufacture. It would require less memory, less storage, and less processing power, and thus be far easier for Google to produce. This frees up funds for Google to improve other aspects of the phone. Russell Holly of Android And Me thinks that the development of this new phone could signal a return to something known as the “feature phone”:
Customers love them because they can get them for their kids for next to nothing, carriers love them because they provide the additional revenue of a data plan without all that pesky data usage, and manufacturers love to make them because they run on essentially recycled parts, making the devices significantly higher profits for all involved. A cloud-based feature-phone would be perfect, since they would run on slower hardware, require next to nothing for storage, and wouldn’t even need an SD card slot. The cost for the manufacturer goes way down, but the profit per device is still more than they get from a smartphone.
Now, some of you are probably thinking “what about connectivity?” After all, the fact that the phone Wahlman’s proposed is going to be based completely on the cloud could prove rather problematic, because of the omnipresent, wallet-devouring mobile data network. I’ve touched on this before- there are a lot of places in the world where a data plan pretty much involves kicking your wallet in the stones. Repeatedly. How exactly is Google going to deal with that?
Wahlman does seem aware of this problem, and provides what he feels could be a solution. While the initial phone’s going to have to rely on existing wireless technologies(ouch.), sometime between 2013 and 2015 a new challenger could arrive on the mobile battlefield. It’s called “White Space.” Basically, as people move to digital cable, there’s more and more space being left vacant in the airwaves. From the sounds of it, Google-along with several other corporations- want to tap into those vacant airwaves to provide unlimited, free wifi. Assuming they can increase the range of these airwaves to the point that they could feasibly cover an entire city, well…you do the math.
Point Three: The Cloudphone Market
Finally, Wahlman moves on to his most compelling point- competition. Rumor has it that Motorola is itself working on a mobile cloud OS- and Samsung has actually announced that it’s going to be developing a Cloud Phone, to be released in 2012. Currently, both Motorola and Samsung are almost exclusively Android-though there’s most certainly been a lot of friction between the companies. Matter of fact, many posit that it may well have been the catalyst for Samsung’s announcement. Skyhook, anyone?
Bottom line: Google would be pretty foolish not to at least consider developing their own cloud OS for smartphones, given that they could potentially be losing a pretty big chunk of the wireless market if they don’t. He also goes on to detail what he feels would be the the most likely path for Google to take. In his opinion, they are going to:
1. Continue to keep Android largely as is but with whatever modifications it can get away with, in order to reduce (but not eliminate) fragmentation. Tools to do this include giving preferential treatment for new OS versions, which we saw most recently with 3.0 Honeycomb. In this case, you may have noted how all 3.0 Honeycomb products announced to date are stock Android, not the skins usually provided by HTC, Samsung and others. This will change soon, at least on the software side, but Google is at least attempting to steer the market for a few months in the direction of its “plain vanilla” offering — which is frankly what most consumers want anyway, at least so far.
2. Offer an all-new OS where it adopts — at a minimum — the Microsoft “total control but with some hardware makers” approach. Google would offer a very tightly controlled smartphone Chrome OS with hardware chassis specs to the usual suspects Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, Sony Ericsson, Dell and many others. The emerging problem here would be that at least a couple of these guys — Samsung and Motorola — are or appear to be on their way to their own vertical integration with their own cloud OS ecosystems.
From the sounds of it, Wahlman feels that Google is going to simultaneously support their new Chrome OS phone and Android. Holly from Android and Me, on the other hand, deems it far more likely that, rather than releasing a Chrome OS smartphone, Google will somehow merge Chrome and Android together into something greater than the sum of all its parts. Sadly, this would mean that Android would probably lose the ‘open source’ element that’s made it so popular with so many users. At the same time, though….a Chrome/Android hybrid sounds pretty bloody awesome to me.
So, is Google going to be developing a Chrome OS Phone? Are the rumors grounded in fact? Come 2012, will we be seeing a Chrome Phone hit the market?
Unfortunately, the answer to that question isn’t exactly black and white. Wahlman made a fairly convincing case (albeit, slightly jilted) case as to why Google is (or should be) developing a cloud-based smartphone, but whether or not it’s going to run Chrome as we know it is up in the air right now. While it’s certainly true that Google could be setting up Chrome to run on a smartphone an optimized, cloud-based release of the Android OS is also a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, until Google actually gives official word on this, a rumor’s still a rumor- no matter how compelling the evidence might be. For Google’s part, they’re rather tight-lipped about the whole affair- if they’re developing this new product, they aren’t telling anyone. That’s not to say they aren’t saying anything on the matter. Sending an email to Google’s PR department, I received the following in return:
“Chrome OS was designed from the beginning to work across a variety of form factors. We expect to see different partners build different kinds of devices based on Chrome OS, but for this initial release we are targeting the notebook form factor.”
That pretty much seals the deal, doesn’t it? Even if Google doesn’t develop a Chrome OS phone in 2012, we’ll most definitely be seeing a cloud-based phone from Google eventually. Whenever that is.