WSJ: Google Will Bid for 700MHZ Licenses

While Google had previously gone on record as saying it would "probably" bid for 700 mhz wireless licenses in the forthcoming January auction, the WSJ this evening says that the company will now definitely file with the FCC on Monday, December 3, for the right to bid:

Google Inc. plans to announce Friday that it will apply to bid for wireless spectrum in a January Federal Communications Commission auction, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Mountain View, Calif., Internet company had previously said it would probably bid for spectrum, a chunk of the airwaves that can be used to provide mobile phone and Internet services. But some analysts had questioned whether such statements were just a negotiating tactic in Google's discussions with wireless carriers. The FCC has a Dec. 3 deadline for any parties to declare their intent to bid. A Google spokesman declined to comment.

As the article points out, Google may compete against wireless carriers (e.g. Verizon) and it may bring in a partner to bid along with it. If it were to bring in a partner that partner might be Clearwire, which was recently divorced from Sprint after the latter abandoned its short term plan to build a WiMax network.

If Google succeeds it could become a carrier itself or offer the spectrum to others who would operate on terms that are consistent with Google's desire for open networks. Google's participation in the auction (and potential success) -- the company has said it may bid $4.6 billion or more -- raises intriguing possibilities for the gPhone and for wireless broadband for both the desktop and mobile devices.

Google Introduces non-GPS "My Location" Feature for Mobile

Many mobile industry insiders and pundits have argued that when GPS becomes ubiquitous then "location based services" will really take off. The problem is: GPS doesn't always work, it isn't yet in every device, and isn't always enabled even if it is present. But the premise that passive location awareness represents a big opportunity in mobile is correct. Accordingly, Google is introducing a new "My Location" feature for Google Maps for Mobile that takes advantage of GPS (if present) but uses cell-tower triangulation for the majority of phones where GPS isn't present or won't work for one reason or another.

In non-GPS scenarios the service can pinpoint user location within 500 to 5000 meters. Where it uses GPS, the new feature identifies user location precisely. Here's how Google explains how My Location works:

Mobile towers are placed by operators throughout an area to provide coverage for their users. Each of these towers has its own individual coverage area, usually spilt into three non-overlapping sections know as "cells." These cells come with identification numbers, but no location information. Google takes geo-contextual information [from anonymous GPS readings, etc.] and associates this information with the cell at that location to develop a database of cell locations. Based on this information, Google uses various algorithms to approximate a user's handset location relative to the cells nearest to them. The accuracy of this information depends on how big an individual cell is. Thus, areas with a denser concentration of mobile towers allow for a more accurate My Location reading. Additionally, as our database of cell locations continues to improve, so too does the accuracy and coverage of the My Location feature.

In order to fix your location, you press the "0" key on the handset. It doesn't work 100 percent of the time but it has performed fairly consistently in my testing. What the user is then permitted to do is conduct a search and discover results in closest proximity nearby. It removes the inconvenience of keying in location information.

One can simply enter "Starbucks" or "sushi" or "salons" or any other query and find the nearest locations. It thereby eliminates the frustrations of having to key in additional characters or query terms.

My Location is available today for the majority of smartphones, including BlackBerry, Nokia (Series 60) and many Windows Mobile phones. Not supported currently are the iPhone, Motorola Q, Samsung Blackjack and Palm Treo 700w. The service works in the U.S., U.K., most of Europe, including Russia, and in Taiwan. It's not available in China or Japan currently.

There is no advertising on Google Maps for Mobile now of course. But expect that over time ads will be introduced just as they exist on Google Maps on the desktop. More precise user location information creates an opportunity for those ads to become much more locally relevant than on the PC.

Here's a whimsical video from Google that explains the feature:

Verizon Opens Up

Google's Open Handset Alliance and Android Platform have already had an impact on Verizon. The company said today that it will give its customers:

the option to use, on its nationwide wireless network, wireless devices, software and applications not offered by the company. Verizon Wireless plans to have this new choice available to customers throughout the country by the end of 2008.

In early 2008, the company will publish the technical standards the development community will need to design products to interface with the Verizon Wireless network. Any device that meets the minimum technical standard will be activated on the network. Devices will be tested and approved in a $20 million state-of-the-art testing lab which received an additional investment this year to gear up for the anticipated new demand. Any application the customer chooses will be allowed on these devices.

What this means is that any phone could potentially be used on the Verizon Network -- call it "phone portability." It makes the US a bit more like Europe where any phone can be used with any carrier essentially. The iPhone is a slight exception to that rule. Speaking of which, Apple is now the roadblock to use of the iPhone with Verizon, which is arguably the optimal scenario for US mobile consumers: the best phone on the best network. (But see technical incompatibility note below.)

While today Apple won't permit the iPhone to be used with carriers other than AT&T, eventually however the iPhone will be more broadly available to US consumers.

As mentioned, Verizon's move is partly as a response to Google's Android and Open Handset Alliance initiatives. Indeed, this announcement effectively makes Verizon part of the Open Handset Alliance because any Android phone will presumably be allowed on the Verizon Network, assuming the basic technical criteria are met.

This is a smart move on Verizon's part and will help the company capture and retain customers, who come to carriers in the first place because of either network reliability and/or pricing.

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Technical note: ATT and T-Mobile support GSM phones, Verizon and Sprint are CDMA. The iPhone is a GSM phone. So there's a technical compatibility issue here even if Apple were to permit the phone to be used with other operators. The company would have to develop CDMA or CDMA/GSM hybrid phone.

Here's some additional info from PaidContent on the Verizon move. And here's a very bearish view suggesting that additional fees would attach to non-Verizon phones, among other barriers to true openness.

Mobile Porn Forecast: $3.5B by 2010

I ran across this mobile porn forecast, saying that "adult services" (paid content, ads, chat) would hit $3.5 billion by 2010. The number is global.

Google found in a study of mobile queries that porn was the largest single category of interest. This will change over time as mobile Internet access and usage becomes more mainstream, less male dominated, and starts to mirror desktop usage.

Recall that the was the pattern online too.

AOL Launches WAP Portal in U.K.

ResourceShelf called our attention to last week's launch of AOL's WAP site in the UK. The links directly to the WAP site are broken but it's comparable in design and function to the U.S. WAP site.

Here's our previous discussion of the US launch of AOL's WAP portal.

The Elusive Mobile User Experience

The NY Times this weekend offered a bearish take on the state of the mobile Web, with a kind of survey of different efforts to offer a better user experience: iPhone, Zumobi, Go, etc:

In 2000, the wireless application protocol was supposed to bring the Internet to the cellphone. Our hero turned out to be a flash in the pan. That was attributed to a lack of high-speed cellular data networks, so a frenzied and costly effort to build third-generation, or 3G, networks ensued. But at a recent conference, 3G was called “a failure” by Caroline Gabriel, an analyst at Rethink Research. She said data would make up only 12 percent of average revenue per user in 2007, far below the expected 50 percent. (The 12 percent figure does not include text messaging, but you don’t need a 3G network to send a text message.)

It closes with the line, "For now, widespread use of the mobile Web remains both far off and inevitable."

While that's both safe and true, the user experience is getting much better in fits and starts.

We obviously have a much more bullish view of the development of the mobile Internet and consumer demand for information on the go. Usability is the key to consumer adoption, which will drive revenue. Everyone is on the same page about that fact and that will, in turn, accelerate, the development of improved user experiences.

Unlocking the iPhone in Europe

In Germany, pending appeal, the unlocked iPhone is on sale and will work with any German carrier. In France, apparently the iPhone has six months (with Orange) before it must be unlocked. (It can be unlocked for a fee before that time.) And in the U.K. unlocking isn't legally required; however The Cloud (or BT's forthcoming national WiFi network) makes it possible for non-O2 customers to buy and use for mobile Internet access.

While Apple doesn't like these developments, undoubtedly, because of the financial structure of its contracts with operators (it takes a percentage of revenues generated), unlocking and widespread availability is the best thing that could happen to the device and consumer adoption.

If it's tied up with individual carriers it risks being a niche product. But if it works on multiple networks then it has a shot at becoming the "iPod of mobile phones."

Unfortunately, the absence of broadly available WiFi networks in the US and the absence of any unlocking rules mean that the iPhone will enjoy limited penetration -- smaller than it would otherwise have -- for the foreseeable future.

Brands Seek to Develop Mobile Apps, Not Ads

Here's an interesting piece from AdWeek about brands seeking to develop relationships with users through mobile applications rather than just mobile media buys:

"Consumers are used to ads on the Internet, on TV and in magazines," said Carol Kruse, vp of global interactive marketing at Coke. "The mobile phone didn't start out with ads." That's leading Coke, P&G and others to test the increasingly popular concept of branded utility: tools advertisers can supply to help consumers perform tasks, rather than messages that interrupt. Think Nike+, the running-and-music system that enables runners to track and compare their training progress with others.

"At the end of the day, if they tap into why you own the phone, brands can figure out how they can help you deal with your life," said John Hadl, CEO of Brand in Hand, a mobile marketing consultancy, which advises P&G on mobile strategy. "What can brands do for us that also ties in to the brand benefit?"

There's a reasonable logic here. However it requires that applications or mobile sites developed by brands or on their behalf really deliver something of value, which is unlikely in a majority of cases. In the case of downloads, it requires that and also requires that people take affirmative action to put an app on their mobile phones -- another unlikely scenario in most cases.

There will be celebrated exceptions of course. But to get the mobile reach that brands want they will have to use good ol' fashioned advertising in the end.

Blyk Click-Throughs and Mobiya Classifieds

PaidContent reports on a conversation in which ad-subsidized, youth-oriented U.K. carrier/MVNO Blyk sales director Jonathan McDonald reports on response rates to mobile ads:

[A]ds users receive have so far got a click-through rate of between 12 and 43 percent, depending on the format (Blyk does SMS, text-and-picture MMS, photos, animations, video and a bespoke format).

4Info has spoken of response rates that are in the middle of that range. Of course, as the novelty wears off and the medium becomes more mainstream response rates will go down, as historically was true of the desktop Internet.

Over in Belgium, Mobiya has launched text-based mobile classifieds: "Everyone in Belgium with a mobile phone can place classifieds ads for free using sms or mms. Our distribution deals with Metro and Koopjeskrant provide significant reach of the ads."

There are now multiple providers of mobile classifieds. Text is the right medium for the target (youth) audience. Even though it's a small market now, there could be a kind of "insider" quality to classifieds (especially jobs) on mobile devices. This is how Craigslist began, as a small insiders network that was relatively unknown and exclusive.

Google + Kindle = Gindle? Goodle?

I continue to be fascinated by the prospect of mobile Internet alternatives to current cellphones and smartphones. I argued here a bit earlier about a device like the Sony ebook reader or the new Amazon Kindle potentially succeeding as a mobile Internet device instead of as ebook readers, which I don't think most people want.

Here's more from my blog and from a further post I did today at Search Engine Land about this possibility: What If Google Had Released Its Own Kindle?

The "mobile Internet" and the Internet will eventually come together in a variety of Internet ways. This is one possibility.

Here's the Kindle demo video: