Catch-up on Google, Mobile, Firefox and other things of interest

It took me quite a while after my recent holiday to catch up on my RSS feeds (I had a mere 7500 posts to work through, with more coming in all the time), so I had to be quite careful not to miss things of interest to me over the past few weeks. And there has been a lot in the area I write about here.

The Google phone has been intriguing for several months now. It sounded like an odd idea, and quite brave. The initial idea, as it was put forward by many news sources, was that it would be Google’s own phone, with it’s own OS and applications. It’s one thing for say Apple to move into the mobile phone arena, there are a lot of complications compared to other areas of hardware, it’s quite another for a company like Google who of course have the money to tackle the problems, but just haven’t operated in such a field before. A fair comparison may have been to Microsoft with the original Xbox. They got a lot wrong before they got a lot right (I’m slightly regretting giving mine away, as I have got a fondness for it, but then it went to a good home, so I’m fine about it really).

However, the New York Times broke some new details about Google’s plans. They suggest it is not a phone, but a phone OS. It will be built on Linux, be designed as a competitor to Symbian and Windows Mobile, and will be licensed for free to phone manufacturers. Now this sounds a lot more interesting to me. For one, it seems like the idea would be to get it on as many manufacturers phones as possible.

Further reading and speculation throughout the tech news blogs suggests it might even not be an OS, but an application designed to run on the major mobile platforms as if it were the phone’s OS, just wrapping together existing Google mobile apps with some new functionality. This seems like the most sensible suggestion yet to me, and mirrors the work they’ve done on the desktop. You can now use a whole suite of applications within the browser already on Mac, Linux and Windows, which is what I do at the moment. They just move onto the mobile platforms with similar, optimised for mobiles. Not such a huge leap, but instantly moving onto many mobiles at once, and doing the important jobs for them of having their applications used wherever their users are, and also pushing adverts to them.

Changing tack slightly (I’ll be coming back to that), the next day Mozilla announced they are working on a version of Firefox for mobiles. I’ve been crying out for this, I do like Opera Mini, but I’ve used Firefox for a good few years on the desktop, and it just works for me. I like being able to add in functionality to the browser as I need it, and see the best of that functionality rolled into the browser itself over time. Mozilla aren’t committing to any particular phone OS at the moment, but there has to be a really strong possibility it will be on both Windows Mobile and Symbian. They are promising extensions, built in the same way as the main version.

Now again, a lot of speculation about this in the tech news world. It does seem remarkably close to the news about Google’s plans for mobiles, Firefox is the favoured browser of Google (they bundle it with Google Desktop, with the Google Toolbar installed and also produce a few very useful extensions for it). So the suggestions are that both projects could be in some way linked, or at least will end up being complimentary in some fashion. A Google OS for mobiles will need a browser in some manner, and one would expect that if this was going to be written by Google themselves, they would have already shown off a desktop version. They haven’t, they seem very happy with Firefox as is.

Google have been rumoured for many years to be working on their own desktop OS. Usually a form of Linux, containing all their applications as the installed software. As with the Google browser, this has never materialised. Instead, they have slowly trickled out a series of apps within the browser, until now you have a wide-ranging set you can use individually, or set up in conjunction with a set of desktop based apps you can download in a bundle with third-party software such as Firefox and Adobe Reader.

Since the two announcements I described earlier, there has been a steady stream of updates to the existing Google mobile apps, and the launch of new ones as well. There was the 1.5 release of the Google Mail app, the launch of Google Calendar optimised for mobiles, the new Google Maps application, and today a new mobile version of Google Docs. All this leads me to believe that we aren’t really waiting for Google Mobile OS after all. We’re getting it now, just like we did with the dripfeed of Google applications on the desktop. In time, we may get a bundle of everything in one unified interface, but all the main elements seem to be dropping into place right now.

One of the reasons I think this is a good thing is the usability of Google products. Sometimes it can be very frustrating using Symbian, it can seem like it was designed by someone who just loves clicking dialogue buttons, and typing extra characters much more that I do. Why do I have to type "http://" so much? Where is the cut and paste? Why can’t I move information between applications? I’m not suggesting Google Mobile will solve everything, but one of the first signs I have seen is in the new version of Google Mail, where although the app is designed to do email, I can go into my contacts, and call them directly (if I’ve put their phone number in). That’s the start of the sort of functionality and usability I want on my mobile. It’s going to be very interesting to see where this all goes in the next few months.