Google introduces ... just another smartphone

One of the things that Google and Apple have in common -- one of the reasons that they're paired together in the popular mind -- is that they tend to do things with a big splash, to introduce products that are radically different than their immediate competitors. It's hard to remember now, but Google's simple search-focused front page was a radical alternative to the other search engines of the late '90s, which were all following the smart money and transforming themselves into busy portals and neglecting the quality of their search results. And when Gmail entered the world, it did so with an order of magnitude more storage space than free email stalwarts Yahoo and Hotmail. Of course, Google has come out with other services that weren't a cut above the rest, and that failed to differentiate themselves -- anyone remember Orkut? Froogle? -- but the great thing about being a Web company is that you can sort of throw up a new online service, dedicate a smallish team to it, see if it sticks, and if not, quietly retire it, no harm done.

The same can not be said for the rollout of an expensive piece of hardware, like a new cell phone. But Google has unleashed the Nexus One anyway. And it looks to me more like a Froogle than a Gmail.

The only reason I'm talking about yet another Android phone in my Apple blog is, of course, that this phone is supposedly an iPhone-seeking missile, its sole mission to knock what's been the King Smartphone since the day it was released off its pedestal. And I certainly don't want to denigrate the Android platform -- it's supposed to be pretty great! My father-in-law's fiancee actually just ditched her iPhone 3GS for a Droid and couldn't be happier (although her biggest gripe about the iPhone was the lack of a physical keyboard, a lack shared by the Nexus One).

But the reason the iPhone was such an instant smash upon its release in 2007 was that wasn't just "pretty great." It was entirely different from any other smartphone on the market -- not in terms of its tech specs, but in terms of its user interface, which made surfing from the phone easy and fun for ordinary users. Every smartphone released since has been following the iPhone's wake, and the Android phones have been no exception -- and the Nexus One is just the best of the Android phones. While you can certainly argue that other smartphones can match or even beat the iPhone in some regards, nothing has come out yet that's a generation ahead of the iPhone, the way that the iPhone was a generation ahead of everything else in 2007.

So, if the phone itself isn't going be that different, what about the way the phone gets to you? Well, Google has tried to make this someplace where the Nexus One experience is unlike its competitors, but has been hobbled by the realities of the cell phone market, particularly in the United States. If you're an American, you can buy the Nexus One subsidized and locked into a T-Mobile contract, or buy it unsubsidized (for three times as much) and

insert your own SIM card for the network of your choice. Sounds great, right? But you have to choose a GSM network, of which the only two are T-Mobile and AT&T, and AT&T's 3G network is on a different frequency, so you'll only get 2G data speeds, which I'm guessing means that virtually nobody will use with anything other than T-Mobile -- and besides, for iPhone users, "network choice" has always been code for "flee AT&T" anyway. You'll be able to get the phone locked to Verizon in March (why the delay? wouldn't it have made more sense to launch when there were more choices), but because of the incompatibility between the networks, you won't be able to move your phone from T-Mobile to Verizon, so the promise of portability is mostly ephemeral.

And on Google's Nexus One sales page, under the grayed out radio button for the Verizon Nexus One, there's a message "Can't wait for your Verizon Nexus One?" and a link to the Verizon Droid page. Which reminds us that Google isn't just failing to leapfrog its iPhone competition; it's potentially annoying its various hardware and carrier partners by competing with them directly. Apple avoided such a problem by simply not having any such partners to compete with. What could the upside be for Google that they'd be willing to risk this? My guess is that they simply weren't satisfied with the quality of the Android phones on the market. The Nexus One appears to be the best Android phone out there; but it's definitely not a game changer.

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