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Nexus One: Success or Failure?

A Contrarian View on the Results from the "Google Phone"

Recently, Sprint declined to support the Nexus One Android phone. This comes on the heels of Verizon making a similar move earlier this year. In each case, the Nexus One is ostensibly being replaced by other HTC-manufactured Android handsets — the Evo 4G and Incredible, respectively.

This, coupled with reportedly lackluster sales of the device, have led some to declare that the Nexus One is a failure. Certainly, by conventional measures of success, it is hard to dispute this argument.

However, Google is an unconventional company, and Android is an unconventional initiative. Measuring the Nexus One by conventional measures, therefore, may miss the point of what Google was trying to achieve.

Google's stated goal with Android was to make sure they had “a place at the table” of mobile. Google did not want to be in a situation where major players in mobile might work to block Google from readily reaching users of mobile devices. Android, therefore, is not designed to be a revenue stream, but an access stream.

Releasing the Android OS and working with manufacturers to create devices using it was the first step in retaining access to mobile users. After all, we have seen Apple come up with fairly tortured rules in their iPhone App Store terms of service effectively to block specific firms — see the recent dust-up with Adobe over Flash as an example. It is certainly within reason that Apple could decide to add terms that block all firms whose names have two consecutive identical vowels, or who has a founder of non-American origin, or something else that blocks Google from future editions of the iPhone. And if Apple can do that, Microsoft and others could do the same with their mobile operating systems. Even if governments would eventually strike down those clauses, the damage will have been done.

While the Android OS gets past the OS maker barrier, there is still an issue in the US of carriers potentially blocking Google. After all, in the US, carriers have an effective monopoly on the selection and distribution of mobile devices. AT&T has demonstrated that they are willing to hack Android in ways that limit devices; who's to say that they wouldn't someday mandate all Google-isms be removed from their Android devices? And what one carrier can do, others can do as well.

Outside of the US, this is less of a problem, because consumers are used to getting devices from places other than the carrier. In the US, carrier-subsidized phones rule the roost; outside of the US, some countries even ban that practice. US consumers feeling that the only way to get phones is through the carrier puts Google at risk of carriers blocking Google.

Of course, there are some ways to get mobile devices other than through carriers, even in the US, though few people know about them. That's where the Nexus One came in. I feel that part of Google's objective was to take another step towards educating Americans that, with the right choice of carrier, you are not locked to that carrier's handsets. This, of course, will be quite an uphill climb, due to technical barriers as well as the effort in evangelizing this concept to tens of millions of mobile device users.

The Nexus One was Google's first salvo. Clearly, it barely dented the hull of the problem, and so it was not a perfect shot. But, as a ranging shot, the Nexus One wasn't bad, if it helps Google learn how to fire better in the future.

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