Technology

The Myth of the Google Phone

Is the search giant really making its own mobile device? Does it matter?

For months, tech blogs have been salivating over the possibility that Google will soon release a cell phone of its own. This discussion has always been a little strange. Google launched its mobile operating system Android two years ago, and we’ve seen the release of several Android devices since then, including the much-acclaimed Motorola Droid. So aren’t all Android phones really “Google Phones?” Not according to the rumor mill, which insists that Google—forced to deal with outside cell manufacturers and mobile carriers—has never had the chance to build the phone it really wants to build. The “real” Google Phone would be designed from top-to-bottom by Google, and the company would sell it directly to customers without any interference from cell carriers. “Like the iPhone for Apple,” TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington has written, “this phone will be Google’s pure vision of what a phone should be.”

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Over the weekend, we got a hint that this mythic Google Phone might be for real. At the company’s “all-hands” meeting on Friday, Google gave employees a slick new phone to try out. In no time, descriptions of the device began to leak out on Twitter. Later, the Wall Street Journal added more details: The phone is called the Nexus One, and though it will be manufactured by the Taiwanese company HTC, it will carry only Google’s logo and will be sold online directly to consumers, not through a carrier. Thanks to Engadget, which managed to get a gallery of pictures, we also know that the phone is a real looker.

But so far, that’s all we know—and that’s not a lot. Google’s only on-the-record statement is vague—on the company blog, it says that it gave employees the device so they can test out “new mobile features and capabilities.” So is the Nexus One the true Google Phone, a device set apart from every other Android phone—or is it just the next incarnation of Android, a device meant to show off features that will soon be available on all phones that run Google’s OS?

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The future of the cell phone business may hang on that question. If Google really does plan to sell a phone that carries exclusive features—if it is really producing software that it won’t share with other device manufacturers—the move would mark a huge rift in the wireless industry.

Indeed, that’s precisely why I’d argue that the Nexus One isn’t anything special. It’s entirely possible that Google will experiment with selling a phone directly to consumers, but I’d be shocked if the device did anything that other Android phones can’t do. Why? I’ve compiled several reasons:

Google doesn’t care about hardware. Google makes software—fantastic, awesome, world-changing software. That is pretty much all it does. I don’t mean that as criticism; Google’s obsession with software is one of its greatest strengths. From its inception, Google has focused on bringing amazing code to people all over the world, across all devices. Most of its products run on the Web and can be accessed on any computer or phone on the planet. Even its non-Web software shows no bias toward any single platform: Chrome, its Web browser, runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux. Even though it makes a rival phone OS, Google offers several apps for the iPhone—in fact, Google would make a lot more iPhone apps if only Apple would let it.

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Google’s platform independence isn’t meant as altruism—it’s good strategy. The company gets the vast bulk of its revenue from advertising. Thus Google has no business reason to care whether I got on the Web using an iPhone, a Droid, a BlackBerry, or a Windows 7 desktop—all it cares about is that I got on the Web at all and that I stay on the Web all day, every day.

But all that will have to change if Google gets into the hardware business. How do you market a phone? By promising that it will do things that no other phone can do. In other words, for the Google Phone to be truly stellar, Google would have to imbue it with exclusive features—violating the core Google principle of platform independence.

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I just don’t see that happening; it’s not in the company’s DNA to make software that works on one device alone. Rather, I’ll bet that Google makes every feature that it shows off on the Google Phone available to every other mobile device. Will there be a single Google Phone? No—every phone will be a Google Phone.

Android isn’t doing too badly. The Android project is a classically Googly idea—the company offers the OS to device manufacturers for free in the hopes of inspiring a wide range of Web-friendly mobile phones. Android phones haven’t been nearly as popular as the iPhone, but the OS has been gaining traction lately. Motorola, HTC, and other manufacturers all have lots of Android phones in the pipeline. Even better for Google, cell carriers and device manufacturers are spending a great deal to market Android as a worthy competitor to the iPhone—exactly the strategy I suggested this summer.

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But again, all that would have to change if Google began selling the “real” Google Phone. After partnering with manufacturers to build a great mobile OS, Google would be turning around to compete with them. You can expect handset makers to balk—they could walk away from Android altogether (after all, a new version of Windows Mobile is on the horizon), or they could alter the OS to be less friendly to Google (perhaps by removing Gmail as the main e-mail system, or by making Bing the default search engine). It’s hard to see why Google would intentionally provoke this reaction.

Selling unsubsidized phones is risky. Most phone manufacturers in America sell their devices through wireless carriers. These deals work by offering consumers a subsidy on the price of the phone. The iPhone, for instance, sells for $599—but if you sign up for a two-year contract with AT&T, the carrier foots some of your bill, so you pay only $199.

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Early reports say that Google plans to ditch this subsidy model for the Nexus One. Instead, customers will buy an “unlocked” phone directly from Google—a phone that works on a number of wireless carriers around the world. Customers could then use the phone on their existing plan without signing up for a new contract.

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But this strategy is very odd. For one thing, unsubsidized phones are obviously more expensive than subsidized phones—so it’s unclear how the Google Phone would compete with the iPhone or, indeed, other Android phones, if it sells for substantially more. Peter Kafka of All Things D reports that Google approached Verizon about selling the unlocked phone through its stores, but Verizon turned down the offer. Now, Kafka says, T-Mobile—which already sells several Android phones—is onboard to sell the Nexus One without a carrier subsidy. This also seems strange: Why would T-Mobile want to sell a phone that can’t be locked to its network?

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I’m guessing there’s something we’re missing about this story. As Engadget’s Joshua Topolsky points out, this is not the first time Google has given its employees preview versions of upcoming phones—devices that later turned out to be regular Android phones offered through carriers. The Nexus One may be the same story all over again—a great new device that represents the next iteration of the Android platform, a phone whose next-generation functions will eventually trickle down to other Android phones. Not the Google Phone, but a Google phone—just one of many.

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