SAN JOSE, Calif. - Google, already the fifth-most-valuable company in the United States thanks to search ads on PCs, has a plan to move up the ranks: It wants to be the Microsoft of mobile communications.
The Mountain View, Calif., behemoth announced new software Monday morning dubbed “Android” that provides everything a manufacturer needs for a cell phone. Google intends to give away the code for free, and it has put together a broad alliance of industry heavyweights to help with the effort.
The announcement surprised gadget junkies who had been hoping Google was going to unveil a cool new gPhone to rival Apple’s iPhone. But it cheered investors who see mobile devices as mother lodes of untapped Internet advertising wealth.
“Imagine not just one gPhone, but a thousand gPhones,” Schmidt said during a conference call.
Four manufacturers in the alliance - Motorola, Samsung, LG and HTC - are expected to begin selling phones featuring the new software during the second half of next year.
Eight carriers said they will offer the phones, including Sprint and T-Mobile in the United States and China Mobile, the world’s largest carrier by subscribers.
Android, which was named after a mobile-phone software company Google bought in 2005, includes an operating system based on Linux, applications like Google maps and a customizable user interface.
It is essentially the equivalent of a cellular embryo, needing only a screen, some semiconductors and other hardware to spring to life.
Unlike Microsoft Windows or Internet Explorer, the mobile operating system and browser built by Google will not carry its brand. Indeed, it’s possible that people who buy the new phones will have no idea that Google is behind their gadgets.
Andy Rubin, Google’s director of mobile platforms, said the company hopes to make money by increasing the number of people who are exposed to its Internet advertising. Currently there are about 1.5 billion people in the world who can see Google’s advertising on personal computers. In comparison, an estimated 3 billion people use mobile phones.
“We are talking about a market that is twice the size,” Rubin said. While few mobile phone customers use their devices to search the Internet, Google wants to change that by making the experience much easier and more similar to using a PC.
Rubin said the new mobile browser can display content from regular Web pages, rather than just the pages specifically customized for mobile gadgets. And, he said, Google’s ads, which run alongside its search results and on Web pages, will appear in exactly the same way on the new mobile phones as they do on PCs.
In a research note published Monday, Sandeep Aggarwal, an analyst with Oppenheimer & Co., said within a few years Google could begin earning $2 to $4 for every phone that carries its mobile advertising. Forrester, a research consultancy, estimates mobile advertising will grow to $2.8 billion in the United States by 2012, and Google clearly wants a piece of that.
Google’s stock jumped 2 percent on Monday to close at $725.65. It has risen nearly 40 percent during the last two months, as rumors of a gPhone release reached fever pitch.
Of course, Google is not the only company hoping to profit from mobile advertising.
“I think mobile advertising is going to be a great revenue source for all of us,” Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said at a recent industry conference.
Scott Horn, general manager of Microsoft’s mobile communications business, said Google could face a steep learning curve. He said it took Microsoft five years to grow its mobile operating business into a significant industry force.
Today, Microsoft’s software is used by 48 manufacturers and approved by 160 carriers around the world, with 20 million Windows-equipped phones expected to ship this year. Analysts estimate that Microsoft earns as much as $500 million from licensing its mobile phone software.
Laurie Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Nokia, the world’s largest maker of cell phones but not part of the alliance, said open platforms and large alliances are not new to the cell phone industry. “Openness and choice are what it’s all about,” she said.
Armstrong said Nokia, which sold 40 million devices last year based on its s60 software platform and the Symbian operating system. Symbian is jointly owned by Nokia, Ericsson, Matsushita (Panasonic), Siemens, Samsung and Sony Ericsson (a joint venture between Sony and Ericsson).
Meanwhile, over 1 billion cell phones are built on Sun Microsystems Java Mobile Edition, the most common platform in the mobile industry. In a blog post, Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz said Google’s announcement was a “massive endorsement of two of the industry’s most prolific free software communities, Java and Linux.”