Google to take wraps off new mobile phone

Google's new phone could have many applications in schools.
Google's new phone could have many applications in schools.

Educators and their students soon could have another communications and mobile computing option that isn’t tied to a specific cellular provider, giving schools more flexibility in deploying a smart-phone solution on campus.

Google Inc. is expected to unveil the Nexus One, the first smart phone designed by the company’s own engineers, during a press conference on Jan. 5 at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The device marks Google’s latest attempt to shake up the mobile market, and Google’s vision for how a mobile phone should be made and sold likely will raise the stakes in the internet search leader’s bid to gain more control over how people surf the web while they’re on the go.

In its invitation to the press event, Google said the wireless market had only seen “the beginning of what’s possible” with the free Android operating system that it introduced for mobile phones in late 2007.

Android was designed to make it easier to interact on a mobile phone with web sites and services, including Google’s, while providing an egalitarian platform to run applications developed by outside programmers.

The applications don’t have to go through an extensive review before they can be distributed to Android-powered devices, a contrast from the control that Apple Inc. holds on its popular iPhone.

Until now, Google has been content to let other companies design the devices relying on Android. And those devices thus far have largely been distributed like most other mobile phones, tethered to major wireless carriers that typically require buyers to lock into two-year contracts in return for discounts on the handsets.

But Google now appears to be ready to push its operating system in a new direction while trying to give consumers more flexibility to connect a mobile phone with the wireless carrier of their choice.

Google intends to stamp its own brand on the Nexus One and sell it directly to consumers over the web, leaving it up to the buyers to pick their own carriers, according to published reports. That could open new possibilities while igniting new tensions in the mobile phone market.

Just how much Nexus One shakes things up will likely hinge on the phone’s price.

Most smart phones designed for web access sell for $50 to $200, thanks to subsidies provided by wireless carriers in return for commitments to service plans that cost $800 to $1,000 a year. Without the financial aid, the phones would sell for $400 to $600–a range that most schools and consumers have been unwilling to pay, especially in a shaky economy.

T-Mobile has agreed to provide a subsidy for a Nexus One that works on its wireless network, according to published reports. Such an agreement wouldn’t represent a substantial change from the status quo.

Yet Google appears to be betting that the Nexus One will make a big enough splash to persuade other major U.S. wireless carriers–including AT&T Inc., Verizon Wireless, and Sprint Nextel Corp.–to subsidize the device, too, said technology analyst Rob Enderle.

“If enough customers want this phone, the carriers will have no choice but to follow,” he predicted.

That would also break the traditional practice of giving carriers the right to sell specific models exclusively for a certain period.

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