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Innovation Economy

Introducing the Google Phone

The Internet is buzzing about it, but only a privileged few know what it looks like, what it will do, or when it will hit the streets

Cambridge has a chocolate factory, and a Willy Wonka. The chocolate factory is Google's local research lab, located on the seventh floor of a Kendall Square office tower, and the resident Wonka is Rich Miner, a Google executive sometimes described as the company's vice president of wireless but officially a "technical staff member," according to a Google spokesman.

The golden ticket is a chance to see a prototype of Google's new mobile phone, which Miner has shown to a handful of Boston entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, some of whom have signed nondisclosure agreements and some of whom haven't.

Dan Roth, president of VoiceSignal, a division of Nuance Communications Inc. which makes speech recognition technology for cellphones, is under NDA. Mike Phillips, founder of Vlingo Inc., a speech recognition start-up, has seen the phone - but neither company would say whether they're working with Google. Paul Ferri, a founder of the Waltham venture capital firm Matrix Partners, has seen it, as has Murali Aravamudan, founder of a start-up called Veveo that is building a video search engine especially for phones. "We'd love to support a Google phone, if and when it becomes available," Aravamudan says, adding that there isn't yet a deal in the works.

Miner and Google are saying next to nothing about the work they're doing in Cambridge - nor are they commenting on the speculation about what Google's phone strategy will be, which has been spreading across the Net this summer.

"I have been having a lot of fun at Google, including helping to build the Boston office," Miner writes via e-mail. (He later sent out an e-mail to a large number of his contacts advising them not to talk with me for this column.)

Google spokeswoman Erin Fors wouldn't confirm whether software for mobile phones was being developed in the Cambridge office, where there are more than 50 employees.

"Mobile is an important focus for Google globally, and the team is reflective of that focus - there are people around the world working on a variety of Google mobile products," she wrote.

Here's what I've learned about Miner, and some of the scenarios for Google's imminent entry into the wireless market.

Miner was codirector of the Interactive Media Group at Lowell University (before it was part of UMass), which conducted research for local companies like Apollo Computer and Avid Technology.

In 1991, Miner was a cofounder of Wildfire Communications Inc., a Waltham company that developed a software-based virtual receptionist that could screen incoming calls and either take messages or route calls to the recipient, wherever he was. Orange plc, a European wireless carrier, bought Wildfire in 2000 for $142 million, but later killed the service.

While a vice president at Orange, Miner set up a research lab in Cambridge that cooked up a buffet of next-generation cellphone applications. But Miner left Orange in 2005 after the lab had begun to shrink.

He cofounded a super-stealthy start-up called Android Inc. with Andy Rubin, which developed software for mobile phones in Silicon Valley and Boston. (Rubin had earlier helped start Danger Inc., the company that makes T-Mobile's Sidekick cellphone.)

Before anyone knew much about what Android was up to, Google bought the company in August 2005 for an undisclosed amount.

"Better than anybody I've ever met, Rich can combine what's possible in the technology realm with what's possible in a corporate environment," says Bill Warner, a cofounder of Wildfire.

One entrepreneur who has seen the Google phone prototype, but asked not to be named, described it as "simpler" and not as flashy as Apple's iPhone.

He praised the phone's ability to scroll through icons horizontally, making a number of different features easily accessible despite the limited screen space.

Another entrepreneur, who saw a prototype earlier this year, described three-dimensional, animated buttons on the screen. That prototype had a small QWERTY keyboard, like a Treo or a BlackBerry, rather than relying on a touch-screen, as the iPhone does.

"Rich had a prototype with a clear case, so you could see the innards," said the second entrepreneur, who also asked not to be identified. "He was really excited about it."

Blog speculation about the Google phone has been simmering since the spring, when Sim Simeonov, a technologist-in-residence at Polaris Venture Partners in Waltham, posted an entry titled "The Real Google Phone."

Simeonov wrote that an "inside source" had described a "BlackBerry-like, slick device," and that Google would create distribution partnerships with a number of different mobile carriers, unlike Apple, which is wed to AT&T for five years.

Within a few days, sites around the world had linked to Simeonov's blog posting, which he promptly deleted.

"Nobody at Google asked me to take it down," Simeonov says. Rather, he was miffed that other blogs and news sites were misquoting him.

He now says the original post was based upon "me reasoning as a software architect" about what Google might be up to, based on several acquisitions the search company had made, and also on information from a friend who "has a bunch of friends at Google."

In August, The Wall Street Journal reported that Google had invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its cellphone project, with the hope that several different manufacturers will build the phones and multiple carriers will help distribute them, with Google supplying the software and perhaps delivering ads to the devices.

Technology website Engadget, citing "a number of very trustworthy sources," wrote last week that Google's new operating system for cellphones, the development of which started with the Android acquisition in 2005, could be revealed shortly after Labor Day.

Yankee Group technology analyst Jennifer Simpson says that advertising shown on the phone's screen could introduce "different business models in terms of how consumers pay," helping to subsidize the price of the phone itself or the consumer's monthly bill. (Some of that ad revenue, of course, could also flow to carriers that help market Google's phone in their stores.)

Mark May, an equities analyst at Needham & Company who follows Google's stock, says he doesn't expect Google to manufacture the phone itself, but rather provide an operating system and a suite of applications that "would appeal to consumers and professionals," like the mail and word processing applications it already provides to PC users.

"That's a natural extension from their core business," May says. The operating system is expected to be open not just to Google's applications, but applications developed by all sorts of other players - a real problem with many cellphones.

But to actually get a gander at Google's phone, we'll have to wait until the company is good and ready to start doling out golden tickets to the rest of us.

Innovation Economy is a new weekly column that will focus on entrepreneurship, technology, and venture capital in New England. Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

See Scott Kirsner talk about Google's forthcoming cellphone, and watch demos from local firms on their mobile applications at boston.com/business.

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