Google’s Nexus One: It’s Not About the Phone, Really

There’s really not much else to say about Google’s just-announced Nexus One cell phone. You can read more than you want to read about it on Techmeme, plus reviews by Walt Mossberg, Mike Arrington, Tim O’Reilly, Joshua Topolsky at Engadget, and others. The gist: It looks like a very nice but not revolutionary alternative to Apple’s iPhone, with a couple of big advantages (the ability to run multiple applications at once, a more open business model) and a few disadvantages (only T-Mobile in the U.S. for now, no multitouch, a less elegant user interface, limited battery life).

But it seems to me that the phone isn’t really the point here–as even Android creator Andy Rubin seemed to acknowledge at the press conference. “This superphone is just a great way to access the Internet,” he said. “This is just the next front of our core business”: advertising.

So why a Google phone? Because, like so many other non-search products Google has introduced, it’s a way to push everyone else to step up their own products to make the Internet easier and faster to use–which inevitably helps Google’s ad business. Apps, the Chrome browser, the Chrome operating system, the Android OS, even its bid for wireless spectrum–all of them seem like corporate jiu jitsu, aimed at forcing incumbent leaders in respective industries, from Microsoft to Verizon, to follow Google’s lead in making the Net more accessible, more useful, more universally available.

With the Nexus One, it’s carriers (and to a lesser extent cell phone makers) that Google aims to shove into the more open world of the Internet. Will it work? Maybe not in the short term, since carriers still control their own networks.

But by virtue of its power, its brand, its appealing products, and now a reversal of the usual way of selling cell phones–through its own store instead of the carriers’–Google may well have sparked a fundamental shift in the wireless business model. Eventually–meaning this could take awhile, even assuming various players go along–that means the device can evolve as fast as Moore’s Law allows, unencumbered by restrictions inherent in the carriers’ business models. And that means another big jump in the use of the Internet–which benefits Google more than anyone.

A lot of things have to come together to make that scenario come true, though–some that weren’t announced. Danny Sullivan, for example, asked why Google didn’t do the really revolutionary thing: subsidize the phone with advertising. I didn’t hear a coherent answer, but that’s the sort of thing that will be required to change the game for good.

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