Google Inc. is offering $10 million in prizes for people who build the best software to enhance the company's upcoming cell phone operating system.

The Mountain View-based company is developing a free cell phone software package that it says will make it easier to surf the Web over mobile devices.

It also will give Google more opportunities to sell ads and services.

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The operating system will be based on computer code that can be openly distributed among programmers, which Google hopes will encourage developers to create new software and improvements that could spawn new uses for smart phones.

Winning offerings could encompass simple aesthetic improvements like personalized home screens or more complicated social-networking programs that merge data from the Web — such as maps or personal Web pages — with data from users' phones — like contact information or the phones' geographic locations.

As part of the Android Developer Challenge, a panel of judges will pick 50 winners from entries received from Jan. 2 through March 3, 2008. Those winners will each get $25,000 and be eligible for ten awards of $100,000 and another ten $275,000 awards.

Google did not specify how the applications will be judged. The company only said the winning programs will "provide consumers with the most compelling experiences."

Google also released a tool kit Monday for working on the new platform, which is to be released in the second half of next year.

Four cell phone manufacturers — Motorola Inc., Samsung Electronics Co., HTC and LG Electronics Inc. — have agreed to use Android in some of their phones. Google Chief Executive Eric Schmidt said he eventually hopes the software will be integrated into thousands of different devices.

Twenty-nine other companies have signed on as members of the alliance.

Android will compete with mobile operating systems made by Microsoft Corp., Palm Inc., Research In Motion Ltd., and Symbian, which is owned by Nokia Corp. and several other major phone makers.