News that Google plans to announce the release of their own mobile telephone handset has Internet columnists scrambling to confirm one of the most talked about events since Apple launched their i-Phone in June last year. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, engadget, and CrunchGear, Google will go head-to-head with Apple by producing a touch-screen handset that is rumoured to include a yet-to-be-seen Linux-based Google operating system, a GPS compatible version of Google Maps, and access to Google’s Gmail and calendar applications. To add credibility to the rumours, these news outlets report Google being in advanced stages of negotiation with touch-screen mobile phone manufacturer, HTC, who they claim will manufacture the handsets which will be available for sale at around USD$100 – a fraction of the cost of the rival i-Phone.
This news will no doubt excite many technophiles keen to see newer, faster, cheaper products hit the shopping malls. But for others, this news is indicative of a disturbing trend to the Google innovation juggernaut. Their concerns spring from the manner in which Google is piecing together the jigsaw of a monopoly position on the Internet; particularly in the mobile Internet market place. According to ZDNet, Google has advised the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of their intention to lodge a minimum bid of USD $4.6 billion for the acquisition of the 700 MHz mobile phone and data spectrum in the US. With control of the handset, the mobile phone spectrum, and the manner of delivery for much of the content to the consumer, pundits see this a way for Google to own the mine, the railway line, the plant, and the port – the standard recipe for the reduction of competition and higher prices for consumers.
Whilst the fear of Google becoming a predatory monopoly is understandable, it may though be unfounded. Google’s undertaking to make a bid for the 700MHz spectrum was made contingent on the FCC agreeing to impose strict conditions on the granting of any licences. These conditions were aimed at ensuring that applications, devices, services, and networks remained open to all market entrants, thus encouraging and maximising competition. Whilst Google’s rhetoric undoubtedly contains more than a little self-serving grandstanding, their strategy has received the blessing of human rights advocacy organisations who maintain that open digital standards and protocols provide the greatest opportunities for innovation and competition, and therefore greatest benefits to consumers.
It is small wonder therefore that rumours of Google’s foray into the world of telephone hardware is receiving so much attention, and is being greeted at once with so much apprehension and excitement. However, regardless of the accuracy of these rumours, they bring attention to important issues about the neutrality of the Internet, the manner in which legislation shapes and interacts with society’s use of the Internet, and the manner in which large corporations can use their influence to shape the future of this important technology.