The gPhone, Google Gears & Linux mobile OS

This week thought I’d write some more about the mythic GooglePhone aka the gPhone. This is a follow-on to “GooglePhone Ahoy,” focusing specifically on Google’s Gears technology and Linux OS for mobile.

Google Gears might be a significant driver for more memory in mobile devices, both for the gPhone and other mobile devices.

As phones and other portable media devices evolve into sophisticated computing platforms in their own right, they need flexible powerful operating systems. The Linux mobile OS looks poised to be the choice of many, including both Google and SanDisk.

gPhone rumors continue to swirl. This week’s 1 September “Economist” even weighed in, pronouncing such a gPhone handset “unlikely.” This may be a case of remarkably poor timing. Other’s including Rediff, an IT publication with offices in the USA and India, think an announcement is only weeks away.

Timing issues aside, Rediff interestingly points to India as a target market for the gPhone and names names of interested mobile operators.

“Talks are believed to be taking place with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Essar, respectively India’s first and third largest mobile telephony operators, and state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam.”

Suspect Rediff is right and Google is targeting India as a key market for the Google mobile platform. If the gPhone coming, and I suspect it is, it makes perfect sense that Google would be talking to all the top Indian mobile operators.

After all, last year India was the hottest mobile market in the world and the growth is far from over. Just 15% of India’s population has a mobile phone and demand is booming driven by a growing middle class and the world’s lowest mobile call rates.

As discussed in “Globalization,” SanDisk, is also targeting India as a key global market which will be one of the most important growth opportunities in consumer electronics for the next two decades.

India will also be one of the significant battlegrounds for those seeking dominance in a post-PC World.

Post-PC World

The vast majority of computer users today are in North America, Western Europe, and Japan. This PC-centric era, dominated by U.S. companies, is fast giving way to the wireless age where the cell phone enabled convergent device is poised to become the personalized computing device of choice.

Many think this will be particularly true for countries like India, China, Russia, South America and such, the new rapidly emerging economies. According to the Yankee Group something like 30 million PCs are expected to be sold in the emerging markets this year. By comparison something like 200 million cell phones capable of handling e-mail and Web browsing will likely be sold.

How will the PC players compete?

Intel’s answer is the sub-$250 computer (with SanDisk inside, at least in this iteration)

Believe Intel has an uphill battle on its hands. The path of least resistance would seem to be to just add more computing power to the cell phone. But how can a mobile phone effectively handle basic computing tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets and so forth when battery life is limited and internet connections are not dependable?

Google’s answer is likely to be Google Gears for mobile devices.

Google Gears

Google Gears is open source browser extension software which enables off-line access to services that normally only work online. Networked, or web applications look to be the wave of the future, but require uninterrupted online connections. Google Apps, including web-based calendar, e-mail, chat, word processing and spreadsheet software, enabled by Gears will be functional both online and off-line on mobile devices such as the Google-optimized gPhone.

The key is a database engine, based on SQLite, which caches data on the fly. Google Gears-enabled Apps can use data from this local cache rather than from the online service. And where will this cache be stored?

In onboard NAND memory, which of course is good news for SanDisk. Whether the storage is removable or embedded, SanDisk stands to profit — directly if the NAND device is a SanDisk product or indirectly if the solid state memory is provided by others. The gPhone and other Gear-enabled mobile devices look to be every bit as big NAND demand drivers as the iPhone, maybe bigger.

gPhone Linux OS

It appears most likely that the gPhone will be running mobile Linux as an OS. Also it appears that as expected Google is shopping its OS and platform to others in need of such a powerful, flexible OS optimized for mobile devices. In the future as its consumer electronics products become more sophisticated, SanDisk will have a need for such an OS and the fit with Google might be pretty good.

Google is already a huge Linux user. It uses the open source operating system in its hundreds of thousands of clustered servers to support its search and online application services. Google also uses Linux on its internal desktops. In August of this year Google, “promised not to use its patent portfolio against the Linux operating system and other open source projects by becoming the first end-user licensee of the Open invention Network.”

It seems a small step and a minor acquisition to mobile Linux. Engadget 28 August:

“We understand that the “Gphone OS” (our name for it, not theirs) began development after Google’s very quiet 2005 acquisition of mobile software company Android, started by Danger cofounder and former-prez / CEO Andy Rubin. At Google, Andy’s team has developed a Linux-based mobile device OS (no surprise) which they’re currently shopping around to handset makers and carriers on the premise of providing a flexible, customizable system — with really great Google integration, of course.”

SanDisk currently has a design challenge on its hands with the Sansa View and could use a Linux OS like Google’s. The Sansa View is currently in redesign. It will be competing directly with Apple’s video iPod. The video iPod is up soon for a refresh which likely will include iPhone technology (rumored iPod Touch) including the iPhone’s tremendous mobile OS X.

Right now SanDisk doesn’t appear to have an answer to mobile OS X. With Google’s Linux OS, it would. It is quite possible that SanDisk will go Linux on its own. After all, the Sansa Connect already uses a simplified embedded Linux.

How much sweeter the Sansa View would be though, if it came with the whole Google mobile platform, Maps, Apps and all. Google’s looking for takers. Likely all SanDisk would need to do is ask.

Please SanDisk ask.

If the Sansa View were reborn as a Wi-Fi enabled personal video player, with the mobile Google platform, it would be one heck of a product. Probably a huge success in emerging markets too. If it takes a couple of Sansa generations, that’s OK too.

As described in “GooglePhone Ahoy” immediate potential opportunities for SanDisk with the gPhone are embedded flash storage, SIM cards, and bundled memory cards. If SanDisk were to pick up a sophisticated flexible mobile OS integrated with popular applications that would just be icing on the cake.

Its worth noting that with the gPhone, Google is up against the same FCC public filing requirements the forced Apple’s hand on the iPhone. Several months are required by the FCC for review. Whenever the gPhone is going to ship, the official announcement will be coming at least three months prior.

To close, here’s an excerpt from an interesting recent gPhone article a friend just passed along.

Boston Globe, 2 September:
“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…

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.”

Wonder if a SanDisk logo can be seen through that clear plastic case?

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4 Responses to The gPhone, Google Gears & Linux mobile OS

  1. Patrick Metcalf says:

    Savo,

    Savo, can you prepare a post on the debacle in DRAM today vs NAND and how it could play out in months ahead. I know a few hedge funds that are worried again that DRAM conditions will onlyu hurt supply/demand balance going into q4/q108.

    Thanks,

    Patrick

  2. Poofypuppy says:

    Savo, it looks like others are getting the same wind on the Google phone…

    “The launch of the Google Phone appears close at hand. The architect, Rich Miner, has already exhibited the cell phone’s prototype to a group of Boston venture capitalists and entrepreneurs after completing the design work in a Cambridge, Mass.-based office in Kendall Square. The G Phone will be based on a mobile variant of Linux and will be able to run Java virtual machines.”

    http://www.thestreet.com/_yahoo/markets/activetraderupdate/10378095.html

  3. Poofypuppy says:

    Hi Savo,

    This morning’s article about the dispute between Toshiba and SanDisk on the location of their next fab caught me by surprise. It seems SanDisk wants to diversity its economic/geographic/political risk while Toshiba wants to keep its billion-dollar investments right at home. Do you think this signals a change in their long-term relationship?
    http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUKT22588420070907

    Thanks,
    Poofy

  4. savolainen says:

    Hi Poofy,

    As far as Toshiba and Sandisk and the next fab (5?) goes, the issue bigger than location would seem to be what is being manufactured. Both x4 and 3D may be in the mix by then. Toshiba doesn’t share this IP or license to this IP at this time.

    At the 5 Sept CITI conference Judy discussed the IP issues in regards to Toshiba at about 59:33:

    “We would expect to produce our 3x technology in our Toshiba joint ventures. And we have talked about commercializing x4 technology in a joint venture with Hynix. We have significant IP in both of these areas. We haven’t been specific about the nature of any licenses in those areas.

    If possible we could chose to keep some particular new technology to ourselves.

    Another example is 3D and how we choose to commercialize that in particular should we achieve the R/W capability that we are working on.”

    ****
    Apple’s new video iPod touch is going to be tough competition for everybody including SanDisk. Probably a good thing that SanDisk sent the Sansa View back to redesign.

    Apple held back some as compared to the iPhone. They didn’t include email, a microphone and some applications, nonetheless, Apple was remarkably aggressive and included full blown WiFi with their great little browser. Didn’t think they would have the nerve.

    This iPod touch product with up to 16 GB NAND is going to suck up more supply. Folks are already complaining about not enough memory. Bet by next year the touch is up to 32 GB.

    Best,
    Savo

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