Google and the Strange Case of the Nexus One Smart Phone

The darling of the press that was the Google Nexus One smart phone suddenly became the goat when cold reality stepped in. Touted as the next big thing in mobility following the iPhone, the Android powered phone got cold disdain from the general public when they realized what they were not getting – namely genuine customer support, working 3G connectivity, reasonable termination fees, and for the developers, a promising operating system that is open to outside programmers for them to develop third party apps.

It was a different press that was all agog about the Nexus One one to two weeks ago. Because much of the phone was developed behind closed doors, a lot of the talk was a mix of fact and fiction. When the phone finally came out of the woods, all expectations came crashing down when Nexus One, as it turned out, was basically just a minor update to existing Android powered mobile devices. Google got a lot of hype when it was learned that everyone can buy the phone over the web, but that too came crashing down when it turned out that a contract between the user and the service provider, which is T-Mobile, had to be ironed out. In retrospect, selling the device over the web wasn’t so hot after all, everyone is doing it already.

Because the smoke has begun to settle, it is now time to sit down and talk about the marketing debacle that was the Google Nexus One.

Basically, there are four things that we would like to ask Google and these are:

What is Google’s role in Nexus One?

At the start when Google developed the Android phone, it promised strong support for third party developers who will create a plethora of applications to rival that of Apple’s iPhone. All was well until now when the Android version that powers Nexus One appeared. Suddenly, all developers outside Google were feeling shut out. There was no SDK, or software development kit for the phone. These developers who were itching to make the first third party application were left groping in the dark. If you do not have access to an SDK, then you will never know what software to write.

Nexus One is a phone whose hardware can be traced back to the HTC Droid Eris. The Eris was able to make a lively phone that was superior in many respects to other Android powered smart phones like the Motorola Droid. If you remember, the Droid was launched with much fanfare, some even saying that at last the iPhone killer has arrived. However, it turned out that the Droid’s keyboard only had basic functionality, and the lack of multi-touch made the phone inferior to the Palm Pre and much more to the iPhone. So it was to everyone’s surprise that it took a Taiwanese manufacturer, HTC, to deliver what an Android powered phone should be. The phone that HTC made, the Droid Eris, had a strong selling point in the Sense overlay which made the Android user interface more powerful. Although cheap and a bit pokey on the outside, it was clearly a much better phone than the one developed by Motorola.

So, Google and HTC partnered up and the result is the Nexus One. Unfortunately, the technical brilliance found in the Droid Eris was gone. No Sense UI, and no multi-touch. What the buyers got was just a phone that is at best, a minor upgrade to older Android phones. Security is just there, and worse of all, unlocked phones wouldn’t work with other carriers. So there was nothing in the Nexus One that made it distinct from Apple’s iPhone.

If you have been analyzing what has happened so far, this thing might be clear to you already. Nexus One was an exercise in futility. Google failed this time in being a market leader. If you are as confused as the press over the course of things, then blame it on Google for not talking to the press. Why management acted the way it did when the Nexus One was released will remain a mystery.

Does Google understand the business of selling?

When it became clear that the Nexus One was to be sold online by Google, a lot of observers praised this move as the only proper thing to do considering Google’s dominating presence on the Web. Buyers however had a very different view of how Google does its business. It was to the dismay of many that Google does not support this product that they sell. And even more dismaying was that the exclusive carrier where Nexus One operates, T-Mobile, does not support the phone also.  While it is true that both Google and T-Mobile publicly declared their support for the phone, this was all talk. Buyers seeking customer service are passed back and forth between Google and the carrier. This is not a way how things are sold nowadays.

While a lot of Nexus One’s customers are able to solve their initial troubles getting familiar with the phone, their overall experience with the product could have been more pleasant if at least they were able to get an answer from Google. There is no phone-in customer service, and if someone replies to your email, it is the same canned response everyone else gets. The role of T-Mobile confuses a lot of subscribers also because they feel that because their phones are supposed to work on their signals, they should get some customer service, yet help is refused. Other carriers are also well known for less than desirable customer service but T-Mobile’s total lack of assistance lowers the standard deep into the ground.

When disgruntled consumers give up and return the phones, they get a whooping early termination fee. Google is asking for 350 dollars while T-Mobile demands 200 dollars. This 550 dollar fee is the highest in the industry.

This marketing tale reveals a lot about Google. It excels in search engine technology, context driven advertisements, and cutting edge applications like Google Earth but it rates poorly as a consumer company selling real world stuff. Google’s face to the world is the software it makes. Until now, they never had the need for human to human interaction. Nexus One’s customers and their demand for support changed all that.

What happens to the community of Android developers?

When the community of programmers outside Google started to revolt about the long delay of the release of the SDK, questions started cropping whether or not Google will drag its foot again. Programmers still recall the day when the first Android version was released but support for programmers was slow. Now with several Android powered phones on the market, developers are getting dismayed over the unnecessary complications brought about when these manufacturers decided to develop their own versions of the SDK.

When Google released Android 2.1 to power Nexus One, the first things developers looked for was the SDK. Because of the fanfare that came with Nexus One’s launching, a lot of developers were eager to get hold of the software development kit so that they could start developing updates to existing software. Google’s silence was deafening. You do not announce the release to market of a computer system but leave programmers who will liven up the software ecosystem for that computer in the dark. Third party applications play a major part in the success of a computing platform. The thousands of software for Windows computers and Apple iPhone smart phones are reminders of how a vibrant community of developers helps sustain the marketability of these devices.

The wishy-washy attitude to the SDK of Nexus One is bewildering when you consider how big a role open source is in Google. That is why there were a lot alarm bells set off when developers start complaining. The Android platform is in real danger once developers stop making or updating software for the smart phone.

How can Google solve the Nexus One problem?

Google is clearly weak when it comes to selling consumer products. Google’ strength lies in automation and massive databases. People oriented things like facing customers one on one is a skill that will take years to develop. It has been discussed that to solve this problem, Google simply has to buy a struggling telecoms company like Sprint or even T-Mobile and use the organization for their people oriented skills.  This is a shot that kills two birds at once. Aside from gaining a team that will do the necessary face to face with the customers, Google also gains network infrastructure and devices.

Whether or not Google succeeds in breaking free from its mold as a technocratic culture and develop people skills is an interesting wait and see. For the meantime, Apple will always be there doing everything right.

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