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Like other Palm Pre fans, I have been eagerly following the development of Android, Google's mobile operating system, and particularly the well-hyped coverage of the impending Motorola 'Droid smartphone on Verizon. Certainly, Android shares much more with webOS than does the iPhone's OS X (Linux-based, open-source, etc.), although Android has both a time and marketshare lead on webOS, and some (like Matthew Miller on ZDNet) are suggesting that Android could lead to Palm's demise. Even if there wasn't room for multiple smarphone OS platforms beyond OS X (and there is, particularly in a worldwide market), though, webOS has one huge advantage over Android that people are ignoring: it's not from Google.

Google is, to put it bluntly, everywhere these days. From its humble start as a search engine, Google has moved into e-mail, office productivity, navigation, blogging, image storage and editing, Web browsing, and (with Android) smartphone operating systems. (The pantheon of Google offerings can be seen here.) Along the way, Google has put itself in the position of collecting a previously inconceivable amount of information about users, their interests, their habits, and more. Even medical information is (optionally) now part of Google's services.

Of course, Google's corporate mission statement is to make money without doing evil, but its revenue model absolutely depends on collecting and utilizing user information, from the targeted ads it serves on its search engine and in Gmail, to the traffic information it collects via Google Navigation, and so on. It's no wonder that Google's Privacy Center, which describes its data collection and uses, has both a main section and 41 separate pages for additional privacy disclosures for its various services. It's particularly interesting to look at Google's Mobile Privacy Policy, which not only covers the few Google products built into the webOS, but the entire range of tools underlying Android. The collection section states:

Mobile-specific information we collect

* Most of the personally identifying information we collect is what you tell us about yourself. For example, certain of our products and services allow you to interact and share personal information and data with others. You choose what you want to share and how you want to share it.
* Sometimes, we record your phone number. We record your phone number when you send it to us; ask us to remember it; or make a call or send a text message or SMS to or from Google. If you ask us to remember your phone number, we will associate your phone number with your Google Account, or, if you do not have a Google Account, with some other similar account ID. We often generate this account ID based on your device and hardware IDs, so if you change your device or hardware, you will have to re-associate this new device or hardware with your account before we can authenticate you.
* Most of the other information we collect for mobile, such as your device and hardware IDs and device type, the request type, your carrier, your carrier user ID, the content of your request, and basic usage stats about your device and use of Google's products and services does not by itself identify you to Google, though it may be unique or consist of or contain information that you consider personal.
* If you use location-enabled products and services, such as Google Maps for mobile, you may be sending us location information. This information may reveal your actual location, such as GPS data, or it may not, such as when you submit a partial address to look at a map of the area.
* If you use Google Latitude on a mobile device, in addition to other information, we collect battery life information and tie it to your Google Account.
* Certain of our products and services allow you to download and/or personalize the content you receive from us. For these products and services, we will record information about your downloads and preferences, along with any information you provide yourself (such as a list of your stocks to personalize your stock listings). If the product or service requires you to log in with a Google Account, this information will be associated with your Google Account.
* If you use Google to transcode, or format, non-mobile pages to display properly on your device, we need to send your request to Google's servers for formatting. That means that we will record these requests, which are generally for material beyond Google's sites.
* For products and services with voice recognition capabilities, we collect and store a copy of the voice commands you make to the product or service. To improve processing of your voice commands, we may also continuously record in temporary memory a few seconds of ambient background noise. This recording stays only temporarily on the device and is not sent to Google.

In the United States, consumers are used to trading privacy for convenience (e.g. supermarket club cards, highway tollpaying tags). Around the world, the restrictions on data collection and use are much more stringent, arising out of cultures that are significantly less comfortable with centralized data stores and how they can be used, but even U.S. consumers begin to get a bit leery when one entity holds so much information.

Google is far from the only company that has potential privacy issues with consumers. Just consider how much bad press Palm got for its reported collection of limited location and application data a few months ago. Now project that out to consumers who suddenly realize that their Android phone and their home and work computers are all feeding information about them and their activities and searches (and location and documents and...) to a single company.

For that matter, Palm is closely allied with Google even with webOS, with Google Maps and Google-owned YouTube as bundled applications, Google Gmail, contacts and calendar synchronization built into the PIM apps, Google and Google Maps as embedded options in Universal Search, and Google Service and Google Background Data Collection as options in Location Services. At least these Google-based features are options for webOS users, who can use Sprint Navigation, create direct Web links to other search engines (and even add them to Universal Search), and disable Google location services, to reduce or eliminate Google's data flow from their Pres (and soon Pixis). With Android devices, though, the ability to go "Google-less" is at least reduced, and may not even be available at all.

Does this mean that Android won't succeed? Hardly; it is a solid OS, is quite customizable, has thousands of applications, and (not incidentally) has the marketing power of Google behind it. (Consider that Google can literally put an ad for Android on every search result page and in every Gmail message, at no cost to itself.) It does, though, suggest that Android's future and marketshare may depend not only on the software and the hardware on which it runs, but on the willingness of consumers to share even more of their lives with Google. To the extent that there is some concern or backlash against vendors who have access to information via multiple platforms, even Apple and Microsoft (which after all run both mobile and desktop devices) could take some heat. The clear winner in such a conflict, of course, would be the smartphone manufacturer with competitive features but without the privacy burden of its rivals, namely Palm and webOS.

Stay tuned.