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Google offers up a new vision of computing's future

Eric Benderoff
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Tuesday, and it has little to do with desktops or laptops.

It's a future that focuses on mobility, with access to the Internet - and the ability to search its vastness, of course - no matter where you are from a device that clips to your belt or sits in your purse.

The Google phone has arrived.

Breaking into mobile phones is a huge opportunity for Google, because the field is wide open, featuring an amalgam of carriers, software firms, handset makers and a growing cadre of third-party developers.

"The mobile phone today is where the PC was 15 years ago," said analyst Michael Gartenberg, a vice president at Jupitermedia. "The key difference is that there is no 'Windows' for mobile devices, a dominant player that controls everything."

Indeed, there is no single gatekeeper, the way Microsoft with its operating system has remained on the vast majority of computers. Rather, Microsoft is one of many outfits trying to capture mobile market share. So there is a huge opportunity for Google, like Apple showed last year, to develop a product with a set of features that appeals to an increasing need to be always connected, always online, always at work and always entertained.

Google's first phone, called Google G1, was developed in partnership with wireless carrier T-Mobile and handset maker HTC. It will go on sale at T-Mobile on Oct. 22 for $179 with a two-year contract.

The phone is handsome and is operated by a touch screen and a slide-out keypad. It runs on a software platform that Google developed, called Android.

The phone works with several Internet-based e-mail clients, but it is optimized for Google's Gmail.

Other Google products prominent on the phone include Google Maps with Street View - useful for pointing out landmarks for those who are directionally challenged - and Google Talk, an instant messaging service for Gmail that can use location-based tools on the G1 to pinpoint friends.

Like the iPhone, the T-Mobile G1 will provide a platform for third-party applications. Google calls it the Android Market - Google co-founder Sergey Brin referred to it as the "App Store," the name of Apple's software store, during his brief appearance Tuesday - where users will be able to download a host of programs.

One such program displayed Tuesday was ShopSavvy, which integrates the phone's 3-megapixel camera to take pictures of bar codes on products on store shelves for comparison shopping. Users can then send that code to compare prices for a particular item across the Web.

Another feature is integration with Amazon's MP3 store, where shoppers can download music directly to the phone. It's Amazon's first foray into mobile music.

It's also an example of how major tech firms are willing to work with Google to develop a new suite of services for mobile phones.

"It's important that Google has achieved this milestone (announcing an Android product) because now people can see how it will play in the marketplace," said Charles Golvin of Forrester Research. "That is significant but a small step in a long-term strategy for Google."

That strategy is to be on as many mobile devices as possible, whether it's through the Android platform, or through the several mobile programs it already offers. The idea is if you use Google on a phone you are more likely to use other Google products, potentially generating more ad revenue for the search giant.

Another phone is expected from Sprint, but a spokeswoman said Tuesday that nothing has been announced, even internally.

Gartenberg, who was at the New York press event, handled the G1 and called it a "very nice device. There are a lot of things in here that are very cool."

That includes the iPhone-like feel of the touch screen, but also the slide-out Qwerty keypad. That should appeal to people who prefer typing out messages on physical keys, such as business users.

But Gartenberg doesn't think this first version of the Google phone will appeal to businesses. For one, it doesn't have support for Microsoft's Exchange server software, a bastion of corporate communication, and there's no desktop-to-phone synchronization.

With this phone, "there is no simple way to synchronize content back and forth," Gartenberg said. "But if you use Google to manage your calendar, inbox, contacts, etc, it will be great for you."

Google's vision still needs some clarity - and help from that old standby, the desktop computer - but there's little doubt the G1 will have an impact.

"Google is now a player in the most important space: mobile," Gartenberg said.

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There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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