The launch of the Nexus One, Google's first consumer hardware, is most notable for what it is not. It is not the launch of a particularly exciting phone.
Apart from the label on the back, there's not much Google about the phone — at least, not more so than the other Android phones already on the market. With the exception of the server-side voice recognition, it's hard to point to a single significant innovation in the device, and even that feature could — and almost certainly will — appear on other devices soon.
But then, the Nexus One is based on a widely deployed open software platform running on an HTC hardware design, something that's rapidly becoming a standard in its own right.
Google's innovation is not in the phone, but in the Google-hosted web store through which it can be bought. Online shopping is nothing new: pioneered in the UK more than 20 years ago, it is now part of our lives and the global economy. But it is new to Google, which has to date sold only small amounts of hardware to enterprises, with indifferent results. And the store is new in the way it works and the reason it's there.
Normally, retailing is the business of selling things to make money, with marketing in support. With the Google online store, it's the other way around — the retailing is in the service of marketing, with the bottom line being strengthening the Google name, along with Android and (soon) Chrome.
There will be other names, other brands, other devices in the shop: the common factor will be the Google mobile experience, to bind users ever more tightly to the Google cloud, wherever they are and whatever they're doing.
Mobile experiences, brand growth, consumer marketing. Google isn't comfortable with these. The Nexus One launch was redolent of marketing — low on technology and high on hype, with badly defined terms such as 'superphone' and generic statements of wonder replacing the company's usual self-assured ubergeek swagger.
The Nexus One solves no new problems, answers no questions, fills no gaps, as most mobile phones do not, but the message had to be otherwise. That's dangerously at odds with how we think of the company, and how it thinks of itself.
Google is happier launching Wave, a largely incomprehensible but obscurely exciting exercise in pre-alpha collaborative engineering, than it is putting out a polished piece of consumer electronics. Its major challenge now is to become comfortable with the latter without losing the vital spark of the former: to take up marketing without being evil.