Google launched its long anticipated Android "open source" cell-phone operating system on Monday in a direct assault on the multibillion-dollar mobile-phone industry.
Google's Linux-based mobile software platform-code-named Android after the company Google acquired in 2005 to anchor its mobile efforts-was announced on a conference call with investors and analysts.
While the headline is about cell-phone technology, Google Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt made it clear that the company is looking well beyond a fancy handset to compete with Apple's innovative iPhone.
Google's goal, he said, is to "shape a new computing environment that will change the way people access and share information in the future."
"Today's announcement is more ambitious than any single 'Google Phone' that the press has been speculating about over the past few weeks," Schmidt said. "Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models."
The move catapults Google-now valued at $220 billion by market capitalization-into direct competition with the biggest players in the cell-phone market, including Verizon, AT&T, Apple, Nokia, Motorola, Palm, and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion.
Google's 34-member Open Handset Alliance includes Sprint Nextel, Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile, Samsung, HTC, LG, Motorola, Japanese wireless giant NTT DoCoMo, and China Telecom, the world's largest cell-phone operator, with some 330 million users.
The devices will be ready for worldwide shipment by the spring. (Last month, Portfolio.com reported that Google was set to "roll out a limited run of devices made by one of the Taiwanese manufacturers.")
In fact, Google watchers have known for months that Google was working on a mobile product. As then, the major question is how much influence Google will exert over the design for the hardware architecture.
The move comes nary a week after Google launched the OpenSocial software protocol-a frontal assault on Facebook, the social-network phenom.
Google's long-anticipated entry into the cell-phone market comes against the backdrop of an ongoing "holy war" between Google and Verizon over the Federal Communications Commission's upcoming 700Mhz wireless-spectrum auction. That sale could establish a new cell-phone network that allows consumers to mix and match handsets and mobile software.
Google's move sets up the possibility of a royal showdown with Apple over control of next-generation cell-phone software. Adding spice to the prospect is the fact that Schmidt is an Apple board member.
Apple has emphatically placed its bets behind a "locked" handset model-in this case an exclusive partnership with AT&T. Most people who are not AT&T wireless subscribers are unable to switch to the iPhone, because they are locked into expensive multiyear cell-phone contracts.
In contrast, Google is championing an "open" model, not only in its approach to cell-phone software, but also in its dealings with the F.C.C. over the 700Mhz spectrum auction.
Toward the end of the call, Google co-founder Sergey Brin evoked the company's modest origins in a Stanford dorm room to convey his excitement about Android.
"Ten years ago I was sitting at a graduate student cubicle," Brin said. "We were able to build incredible things. There was a set of tools that allowed us to do that. It was all open technologies. It was based on Linux, GNU, Apache, and others.
"All those pieces and many more allowed us to do great things and distribute it to the world," he added. "That is what we are doing today, to allow people to innovate on today's mobile devices. Today's mobile devices are more powerful than those computers I was working on just 10 years ago. I cannot wait to see what today's innovators will build."
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