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The Google Phone Cometh

Technology blog Techcrunch.com has long held the banner that there will one day come a "Google Phone" -- a phone branded by Google itself, bearing the Android operating system, not offered in partnership with a wireless provider.

This is sort of big news. See, currently, in the United States, if you want a cell phone, you start at a wireless provider, like AT&T or Verizon Wireless or T-Mobile, and you pick out a phone that works for you. That phone will be locked to that provider, meaning that the wireless company will be subsidizing the cost of the phone to you, making it a cheaper purchase, in exchange for your 1 or 2-year commitment to wireless service.

This model was shaken with the release of Apple's iPhone two years ago, which was offered in partnership with AT&T, but was initially sold unsubsidized -- meaning that early adopters paid the full price for the phone, $599 for the high end model back then -- and then paid for service with AT&T on top of it. Today, the iPhone is like most other phones, subsidized through AT&T to bring the price down for end users in exchange for the 2-year commitment on service.

When Google launched their Android operating system for handhelds, they did it with the promise that they were not in the hardware business, that they were in the OS business to make phones better across the board. From Android chief Andy Rubin, "'We're not making hardware,' Rubin said. 'We're enabling other people to build hardware.'"

Technically, that may still be true. What came out of Mountain View this weekend is a report that Google has handed out a new handset dubbed the "Nexus One" to employees at the Google holiday party. It runs the latest unreleased version of the Android operating system and is manufactured by HTC, long-time manufacturing partner to big wireless. Note, it's not manufactured by Google.

Subtle. Very subtle.

What Google said publicly is this:
We recently came up with the concept of a mobile lab, which is a device that combines innovative hardware from a partner with software that runs on Android to experiment with new mobile features and capabilities, and we shared this device with Google employees across the globe. This means they get to test out a new technology and help improve it.

But reporters being who they are, we now know the news seems to be somewhat different. We're hearing that this new phone will hit the market in January of 2010, on the heels of Verizon's foray into the Android smartphone market with the Droid, and that the phone would be unlocked for a GSM network. That means customers would be able to choose their wireless provider, compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US. Unfortunately for Verizon, early pics of the new Google phone seem to indicate that it is much better looking, and there appears to be no battery door to fall off. Tumultuous times indeed.

Buying advice? January 2010 is right around the corner. If you're hot for a smartphone and can't switch to AT&T for an iPhone, wait. What Google is hopefully doing with their Google phone is fixing what's wrong with the iPhone ecosystem. The Google phone will allow customers to buy closer to the center of the ecosystem, with access to an application store not mired by the hotly debated approval process employed by Apple. As long as you're diving into the Googleverse, you might as well dive into the deep end.