Japanese carrier in early planning on Android-based cell phone

TOKYO – Japan’s biggest mobile telecom carrier is negotiating with Google to use sell a cell phone on the search engine company’s open-source Android platform, the first major provider to commit resources to the technolgy.

“We are starting discussions [with Google] to offer handsets that will have the Android operating system,” Takeshi Natsuno, managing director of the multimedia services department at NTT DoCoMo, said last week.

The talks include getting support for I-mode, DoCoMo’s hit mobile Internet service, on the Android platform. Nearly 48 million of DoCoMo’s 53 million customers subscribe to I-mode, so having it on Android will be key to the Google platform’s success in Japan.

Android is a Linux-based platform for cell phones that will combine open-source components and include an operating system, middleware stack, customizable user interface and applications.

NTT DoCoMo is one of the founding members of the Open Handset Alliance, the group developing Android. Until last Thursday it hadn’t disclosed what it hoped to gain from its participation in the group, which includes about 40 companies including some of the biggest names in the cell phone industry.

“When I look at the prototype, the Android-based handset works really well even on some of the cheaper handset designs,” said Natsuno.

Natsuno didn’t provide any specifics about when such a handset might be available. When the Open Handset Alliance was launched last year Google said that it expected the first phones running the software to appear late this year.

Despite its support for Android, NTT DoCoMo is also working with companies developing rival platforms. It has an alliance with Access, a Japanese software company with which is has deep ties, on the Access Linux Platform (ALP). DoCoMo is working on a “carrier pack,” a set of unique products and services, that can run on ALP, which is intended to be a common Linux platform for cell phones.

Natsuno’s comments came at a Tokyo news conference held to detail a partnership between the carrier and Google.

The alliance will see Google products and applications added to DoCoMo handsets. These will include the addition of a Google search box on the main I-mode menu page from which users will access mobile and PC Web sites. Google Ads will appear alongside search results.

The two companies said they are also planning to bring more Google services, such as Google Maps, to handsets and build in support for Flash video so that users can access and stream content from YouTube.

Google will appear as the default start page on mobile phones that feature browsers for the full Internet.

The deal is Google’s second in the mobile space in Japan. It already has a deal with second-ranked carrier “au” to which it provides search and advertising services. Number three carrier Softbank Mobile has a link with Yahoo Japan, the portal in which its parent company, Softbank, is the biggest shareholder.

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