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The Google Phone

The gadget blogs are buzzing this week over photos showing a Google Phone like the one posted on the Mobile Magazine blog.

Whether these pictures have anything to do with Google's big phone project remains to be seen. The company will likely reveal all in two or three weeks. The announcement may include specific deals with carriers and handset makers, and it will definitely involve a new platform: probably Java on Linux.

Whatever the Google Phone project entails, you can be sure it will improve the experience of using Google applications from a mobile phone -- applications like Gmail, Maps, Search, Docs and YouTube, for example.

OpenSocial

This week, Google rolled out its OpenSocial initiative and announced an impressive list of companies supporting it. MySpace, Orkut, Friendster, Six Apart, Bebo, LinkedIn, Plaxo, Ning, Hi5, Viadeo, Flixster, iLike, RockYou and Slide have pledged support, as have Oracle Corp. and Salesforce.com Inc.

OpenSocial is based on three APIs that enable outside JavaScript access to the following information inside a compatible social network or other kind of Web site: Profiles, Friends and Activities. Developers can create widgets that work across social networks.

If you watch carefully, you can see eyes glazing over at the news of APIs and partnerships. But OpenSocial will be very exciting to users once the widgets hit the fan.

In a nutshell, OpenSocial is likely to mainstream social networking and transform it from mostly gossipy online graffiti for teenagers into a super powerful and automated way for everyone to communicate with the people they care about.

OpenSocial widgets will be able to generate "activity streams," for example -- constantly updating lists of events generated collectively by family, friends and colleagues.

These can be combined, presorted and configured. As a result, you'll be able to use just about any social networking site to remain "in the loop" to an unprecedented degree based on the activities of others on dozens or hundreds of other sites.

Social networking in general and OpenSocial in particular remind me a lot of the blogging phenomenon over the past eight years. It started out as frivolous and confusing to the lay public, but evolved quickly into something important that changed everything.

Put them together, and ...

News about OpenSocial and speculation about the Google Phone project are interesting enough on their own. But more interesting still is how these two major initiatives are connected.

In an article about the Google Phone project, The Wall Street Journal quoted Google CEO Eric Schmidt this week as saying that "the new model of these phones is going to be person-to-person," with people exchanging videos and other types of data.

Schmidt is talking about mobile social networking.

Hmmmm. Let's see. Google announces a universal, flexible and "lightweight" social networking platform based on JavaScript, then two weeks later plans to announce a universal mobile phone platform based on Java that Google's CEO says will feature a "new model" for people to exchange data "person-to-person."
Could it be more obvious? The Google Phone project will support, feature and emphasise OpenSocial widgets.
All this is very abstract, so let me illustrate the power of this concept with a vision of what your mobile phone will be able to do:

• Your phone's main screen shows a constantly updated "feed" that lists the "activity streams" of everyone and everything you care about, with the most recent on top. Glance at your phone and you'll see that Steve and Janet just had their baby -- it's a boy! Two minutes before that, your spouse posted a blog item (click to open and read it). Five minutes ago, today's staff meeting was rescheduled, and before that, a former co-worker got promoted (click to congratulate). These people didn't "send" the information to you. They simply "posted" it on their own favorite social networking sites. Unlike e-mail, you're in control of what you get from whom.

• Your contacts are "linked" behind the scenes with profiles of your colleagues, family and friends. Carl gets a new mobile phone number, and your phone's contacts are updated automatically. You never need to even know what people's phone numbers are. All you know is that they're correct and current all the time without any effort on your part.

• As before, you take pictures and video with your camera phone. But now, sharing a picture or video with family and friends is a one-button item. Click and off it goes, flowing into the activity streams of your people wherever they choose to receive them -- MySpace, LinkedIn or on their mobile phones.
The genius in all of this is that Google is leveraging "network effects" to catapult both its social networking and mobile initiatives into dominant positions. Google's OpenSocial leverages the company's own clout along with MySpace's sheer numbers with the innovation and niche value of all the other partners combined to dramatically increase the value of any app created using OpenSocial APIs. The number of users increases the value of OpenSocial, which attracts more users, which increases the value, which attracts more ... well, you get the idea. That's network effects in action.

Google's mobile phone platform will hitch a ride on this OpenSocial craze. At the same time, the mobility of social networking widgets will make OpenSocial even more compelling, personal and addictive for users and developers alike.

Thanks to these two massively consequential Google initiatives, the world will be a better place within six months -- far more social and far more mobile.

Welcome to the mobile social.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at [email protected] or his blog, The Raw Feed.