November 23, 2010 | by Michael Heller
Google search and news broke down the barriers of false scarcity built by the traditional news media by giving users an easy way to freely access the same information across systems. Google maps changed the GPS navigation industry because Google gave away for free what others had charged for. Similarly, Google Docs has been a disruption by giving a cloud-based, free alternative to Microsoft Office, and GMail changed the standards of storage given to free web-based e-mail providers. The problem with extrapolating from these past successes to Google’s current foray into the cell phone space is that all of those moves in the past required little to no work by the consumer, and some were only marginally successful. GPS navigation wasn’t a very strong industry to begin with, and once Google brought their free-to-play option consumers simply started using their cell phones, which they already had, rather than buying a GPS device. There was little cost associated with the switch. The same was true of news. More and more people were already using the web as their news source, Google simply offered more sources to be gathered in one place.
The examples of GMail and Docs is where people often get things wrong. GMail changed the standards for web-based e-mail, and Docs offered a free cloud option for office apps, but Hotmail and Office Live still have far more active users than either Google product. Google was able to shift those market segments, but they didn’t completely change the game. They only went as far as users would take them. Once Microsoft began offering similar features, the exodus of users to Google slowed, and Microsoft, though not talked about as much in tech circles, still holds the majority of users.
Now, with Android and Google TV, Google has entered two industries in dire need of disruption, but both industries are controlled by extremely powerful companies (would you rather take on TomTom or Verizon?), and consumers have forgotten that Google can only succeed with the help of users. The Google Nexus One, contrary to pundit belief/hope, was not a device designed to break down the model of carrier subsidies and lead America to an unlocked Euro-style future. The Nexus One was designed to be the pacecar for Android device hardware, and to show that manufacturer’s custom UIs did more harm than good. That the Nexus One could break carrier control was a fallacy built by starry-eyed tech journalists. The Nexus One had to be sold unlocked in order to be a pure stock Google experience, because otherwise carriers would have insisted that certain features (notably tethering) be disabled. There was never a grandiose plan to change the entire industry. This was a decidedly geek-centric phone, targeted at the prototypical early adopter, and sold through an online-only store. How could such a theory have ever made sense, let alone gained so much traction?
The Google Experience
The Nexus One and now the upcoming Nexus S are designed to showcase the true Google Experience. The Nexus One became the Android standard for hardware, and pushed manufacturers to bring in better screens, faster processors, better cameras, more internal memory, and (at least in my opinion) design rivaling Apple. I expect similar things from the Nexus S, and that’s why I am more apt to believe the rumor that the Nexus S delay was due to a switch from a single to dual core processor: Google wants to push the hardware. The Google Experience from these phones is also highly dependent on having stock Android with no carrier interference. Once the industry saw how fast updates were pushed to the Nexus One, we started seeing more and more backlash against manufacturer UIs which caused slower performance, and slow upgrades, which is a big reason for Android fragmentation. Plus, we’ve seen backlash against carrier policies towards tethering. Why should I have to pay extra if I’ve already got an unlimited data plan with my phone and tethering is a standard feature of Android? The future of the Google Experience at its core will remain the same: to give consumers an option that doesn’t involve manufacturer or carrier restrictions, to show the true power of Android, and to lead passively as is Google’s way. But, the Google Experience phones are not going to take down the carriers, not yet, and not without consumer support.
The Nexus One was a toe in the water in terms of seeing how ready America was for an unlocked device. Unfortunately, Americans in general still don’t understand the real cost behind carrier subsidies and being locked into contracts, and have a hard time seeing past the initial investment cost of an unlocked phone. With the Nexus S, Google will wade a little further in, and make the phone easier to get than the Nexus One by selling it through Best Buy. The device will be unlocked, and with luck it will be available on all carriers, but at the least I would expect T-Mobile and AT&T options. There has been nothing to suggest that it will be “locked into T-Mobile service” as Mr. Hiner claimed. The device will be on T-Mobile first, just like the Nexus One, because T-Mobile is the only carrier to provide plans specifically for unlocked phones, and also the carrier least likely to force control on devices. Through Gingerbread, the device is rumored to also include VoIP options with Google Voice, meaning the phone won’t need a voice plan through a carrier, and could function fully on data alone. Maybe with this round, Google will be able to get consumers to understand more the benefits of a subsidy-free model, and show that VoIP and data only is the future, but again they won’t be trying to blow up the current system. And, they won’t be “surrendering to telcoms” as Mr. Hinerwould like you to think. Google will be guiding its Android ecosystem through hardware and software refinements, and will be continuing to gauge the situations with carriers and consumers.
Google probably will eventually attempt a true disruption of the current wireless carrier model, likely once data only is a viable option for Android phones. Until then, any power to change the system remains with consumers, and with social media, companies are far more likely than ever to listen to consumer opinion. Google is big and powerful, and moving fast, but they are up against powerful companies that resist change. Google will give us the tools to create disruption. They will give us unlocked phones that are the best quality available. They may even give us a phone that can survive on data alone. But, we need to be willing to use these tools, and add our voice to the chorus before we can truly expect that disruption to happen.