Google bets on Vodafone’s Magic to break Apple’s spell

With Vodafone on board, Google has high hopes for its attempt on Europe’s mobile market. Nick Clark reports from Barcelona

Google and Vodafone have teamed up to take on Apple’s iPhone, yesterday unveiling the internet search engine group’s second attempt to make a splash in the European mobile phone market.

The stakes are high, according to Mike Grant, a partner in the research group Analysys Mason. He said: “Google needs a big win in mobiles and Vodafone needs to crack the iPhone’s dominance of smartphones in the main European markets.”

The companies, along with the Taiwanese handset developer HTC Corporation, unveiled the successor to Google’s G1 phone at Mobile World Congress, the industry’s annual trade show, in Barcelona yesterday.

It is set to hit UK shops in the next few months, exclusive to Vodafone, and will be free to customers on a £35-a month tariff. It will then do battle with the iPhone, which is currently exclusive to O2 in the UK.

The HTC Magic is the second phone to use Google’s Android operating system, with T-Mobile retaining exclusive rights to the G1, a device that was also developed by HTC.

The G1 made relatively little impact on Apple’s dominance of the mobile market, but Vodafone hopes the design improvements incorporated into Magic will give it a big win. HTC has ditched the pull-out keypad of the original G1 phone, in favour of a 3.2 inch touchscreen, and the phone also includes Wi-Fi, GPS and a 3.1 megapixel camera.

Patrick Chomet, global director of terminals at Vodafone Group, called the Magic a “cool” and “unique” phone, adding: “This is the thinnest, nicest Android-powered device on the market.”

Carolina Milanesi, research director at the consultancy Gartner, said the phone stood a chance. “Magic will have a broader appeal than the G1 from a design perspective,” she said. “The older model wasn’t the prettiest thing on the market. People will pick it up, as it runs on the hype from Google and its touchscreen.”

Smartphone competition is heating up, and a series of companies have this week announced their intention to target the market. They include Microsoft, which unveiled its new Windows Mobile 6.5 device on Monday.

Mr Grant, of Analysys Mason, said: “Most of the manufacturers have touch phones coming out. Magic will be one of hitting the streets and will face a lot of competition. All the manufacturers are looking to replicate the success of the iPhone.”

He said that the Google name would immediately attract a following but warned: “On the downside, Google and HTC lack the distribution power of companies such as Nokia, LG and Samsung”.

Even so, analysts backed the latest phone over Google’s first foray into the mobile phone market. “The G1 was very ‘first generation’ and wasn’t as slick as some of its rivals, it doesn’t look to have sold as well as expected,” Mr Grant said.

Rival phone manufacturers are now developing Android-based phones. Samsung had been expected to unveil a new device on Monday, but said it would release it by the end of the year. Motorola also intends to release an Android phone by 2010.

The phone companies see mobile|internet as one of the key development areas for the industry. Mr Grant said: “There is an accepted view in the|industry that mobile internet will become huge in the next five years.” HTC agreed. Its chief executive Peter Chou said internet use was changing from the desktop PC to those accessing it on their mobiles when they are on the go. “There are some people who have never experienced the internet from a PC but will use it on a mobile,” he said.

Vodafone’s Mr Chomet said yesterday that the release of Magic marked the latest step forward in the development of mobile internet. “We are at the inflexion point now where this is really taking off.”

Google, meanwhile, is pinning its hopes on the idea that its branding and technology will differentiate itself enough to be among the leaders as|mobile internet continues to soar.

“This is a bigger deal for Google,” Mr Grant added. “Vodafone can always go elsewhere and sign a deal. Google has to make this work and avoid just becoming a niche player.”

A real advance: mobile giants promise a universal charger at last

The frustrating search for a charger that fits your latest phone is set to become a thing of the past with leading mobile phone companies finally agreeing to produce a universal model. Under pressure to improve green credentials and cut costs for customers, the mobile industry said yesterday that it hoped a device covering the majority of handsets would be dominating the market by 2012.

Rob Conway, the chief executive of the GSM Association, said that at talks held on Friday night, some of the industry’s biggest players had thrashed out a deal to back a “one size fits all” charger. Mr Conway said the companies recognised consumers’ frustrations. “I have a closet full of chargers,” he said. “What if we could have a common charger? Suddenly no new additions to the closet.”

Handset makers including Nokia, Samsung, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson are all on board, and all five of the UK’s network providers signalled their support for the plan yesterday.

Mr Conway said the devices, which are similar to those used for Blackberry’s Storm phone, will be sold alongside mobile phones from June and that by 2012 the majority of handsets being sold would come with the new model.

In addition to consumer convenience, mobile phone manufacturers have come under pressure to be more environmentally friendly. The new chargers will use up to 50 per cent less energy when in standby mode, and an additional benefit will be that consumers should be throwing out fewer chargers. Production will then fall, reducing demand for raw materials.

Such a simple advance won praise from delegates at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which is more used to applauding gadgets and gizmos. Kat Hannaford, of the technology magazine T3, said: “A universal device, which allows companies to sell phones without a charger makes complete sense in this economic climate; especially now that consumers are more conscious of environmental|issues than ever before.”

Environmental strategies have been a strong theme at this year’s conference. Companies across the industry have affirmed their commitment to cutting carbon emissions, while others have gone further. On Monday, Samsung announced its new solar powered phone Blue Earth, and Flexenclosure unveiled wind-powered phone masts.

Nick Clark

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