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November 3, 2007

From Sidekick to Google Phone

New York Times has a great article about Andy Rubin, the man behind Google's mobile developments. He's believed to lead a team that develops the Google Phone. "The Google Phone — which, according to several reports, will be made by Google partners and will be available by the middle of 2008 — is likely to provide a stark contrast to the approaches of both Apple and Microsoft to the growing market for smartphones. Google, according to several people with direct knowledge of its efforts, will give away its software to hand-set makers and then use the Google Phone's openness as an invitation for software developers and content distributors to design applications for it," speculates NYT.

Andy Rubin doesn't try for the first time to build a great mobile platform around a device. After leaving WebTV in 1999, he "decided to make a device about the size of a small candy bar that cost less than $10 and allowed users to scan objects and unearth information about them on the Internet." Then he "added a radio receiver and transmitter to the device, which in mocked-up form was about the size of a bar of soap" - the results was Sidekick. "In early 2002, Mr. Rubin gave a talk on the development of the Sidekick to an engineering class at Stanford. Mr. Page and Mr. Brin attended the lecture. It was the first time they had met Mr. Rubin; after the lecture, Mr. Page walked up to examine the Sidekick and found that Google was the default search engine. 'Cool,' he said. At the time of Mr. Rubin's talk, the idea of a hand-held device that included cellphone capability was already in the air, but the recent emergence of digital wireless networks was giving it new life. Mr. Page, in particular, soon became enamored with the idea of a Google Phone and a complete operating system for mobile devices."

Another New York Times article, from 2005, has more details: "The Sidekick was an early favorite of both Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, who wore the units on their belts as all-purpose voice and data communicators several years ago. A Google-branded smart phone has long been a pet project of Mr. Page, and earlier this year Google invested $2 million in a project by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the M.I.T. Media Laboratory, to develop a $100 wireless laptop. The smart-phone idea, which the company has not talked about publicly, would be a way to extend Google's reach and give it a more extensive connection with its users by offering Google on a multipurpose mobile device."

(Sidekick 3, launched in 2006.
Photo licensed as Creative Commons by Aaron Landry)


Three quotes from the press of that time show that Andy Rubin's device had a lot in common with Google's vision and could foreshadow what we'll see in the Google Phone, which, according to Wall Street Journal, could be announced on Monday. Some key things: platform for developers, always connected to a server and cheap.

Question: With all the challenges in the handheld market, do you think it is a good time to be entering the market with a new product right now?

Answer: I do, I do. I know that a number of PDA companies are having problems. But what we're really talking about here is a converged device--it's a phone with data capabilities. When we're talking about converging devices a lot of people are asking, "Is it a voice device or a data device? Is it a PDA or a phone?" The real question they should be asking is, "Is it a platform for third-party developers?" This is new. This is the first time that a phone has been turned into a platform for third-party developers.
(June 2002 - CNet, Andy Rubin talks about Danger's hiptop device, a.k.a. Sidekick)

"The hiptop does everything wirelessly," [Joe] Britt said. "It's a cell phone and data communicator and does its job by communicating with the Danger service. It also has a Web front end, so you can access your personal calendar through any computer via a Web browser. You can import data through the Web interface and have personal info, like contact data or photos, appear on your hiptop. (...) The hiptop is always on and always on the network. You can do things such as instant messaging anytime."
(December 2001 - MacWorld)

Jim Forbes, industry analyst and producer of DEMOmobile adds, "The industrial design of the Hiptop is certainly innovative; however, the fundamental differentiator allowing Danger to redefine the category is their back-end service that supports the device. This active state technology allows Danger to break the price barrier and deliver a compelling consumer offering. The service does the heavy computing and continually updates the user with new services and capabilities without the need for expensive new hardware."

Danger provides an integrated solution for wireless service operators consisting of a live back-end service, a standards-based platform that uses programs written in Java and Hiptop hardware designs.
(Press release from 2001)

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