Is Google's Nexus One an iPhone killer? Not a chance

Google's mobile ambitions go way deeper...
Written by Natasha Lomas, Contributor

Google's mobile ambitions go way deeper...

Google has announced a smartphone called the Nexus One, the first in a range of own-brand devices that it will sell directly to consumers - but what does the move say about its mobile strategy? silicon.com's Natasha Lomas reports.

The news is finally out: search giant Google has launched a mobile phone.

It's not the first time Google has been linked to phone hardware. A few years back rumours of a so-called 'Gphone' surfaced, only to be scuttled by the software behemoth - which said it would not be getting into the hardware-making business.

Its first major foray into mobile came in 2007 with confirmation of Android, Google's mobile OS, free for any phone maker to stick on its hardware. Android-powered smartphones trickled forth and the OS can now be found gracing more than 20 handsets worldwide.

Today, however, there's a new Android handset in town and it's called the Nexus One. Is this the long-rumoured, oft-denied, bona fide Googlephone at last? Well, sort of. Like several Android devices before it - such as the G1, Magic and Hero - it's made by Taiwanese mobile maker HTC. Yes, it carries the Google logo on the back but so did the first Android phone ever sold, the G1. So what's actually changed?

With the Nexus One, Google is putting itself centre stage in mobile, owning a phone like never before. It was clearly in the driving seat at yesterday's launch event - which took place at its own Mountain View HQ, not HTC's. And while Google shied away from taking credit for designing the phone - and is obviously not manufacturing the hardware - it is moving off the sidelines and into the limelight. But why now?

Google's strategy of offering free software to consumers has seen it make significant gains in several quarters. However, the progress of Android has been less spectacular, with mobile makers slow to launch devices and consumer adoption held back as a result. As analyst house Gartner noted recently: "Android picked up momentum [in Q3 2009] but with only a handful of Android devices available, its share [of the smartphone market] remained modest at 3.5 per cent."

The iPhone and Nexus One

The Apple iPhone (left) and Google's Nexus One
(photo credit: CBS Interactive)

By contrast Apple's iPhone claimed 17.1 per cent market share in Q3 last year, putting it third in the overall smartphone rankings, snapping at the heels of BlackBerry maker RIM with 20.8 per cent. Apple chose yesterday to tell the world the number of iPhone app downloads has now exceeded three billion. In a statement marking the milestone, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claimed the company's App Store was "unlike anything else available on other mobile devices. And we see no signs of the competition catching up anytime soon".

By having its own line of branded mobiles - the Nexus One is the first in what will be a range of devices - Google is looking to speed up the process of getting Android-powered hardware to market, and also to raise the profile of devices that have to compete with the might of the iPhone. After all, in the branding stakes, Google carries much more clout - and speaks to many more people - than HTC.

A key development in its mobile strategy is the decision to sell the Nexus One, both SIM free and on operator contracts, via its own web store: say hello to Google the retailer. But while it may be entering the world of retail, the company made it clear it's not seeking to make money on actual phone sales, so again, this is all about promoting Android - and trying to get a better foothold in the mobile market as a whole.

The Nexus store itself...

...is clean and simple, with lots of white space and minimal sales options, making the phone-buying process simple: it's the polar opposite of a typical network operator ecommerce experience with its hell of choice - makers, models, tariffs, bundles and so on. Plus, in true Google fashion, the Nexus One shop necessitates use of other Google services - purchase demands a Google Account and is conducted via Google Checkout - ensuring mobile users are plugged deeper into its matrix.

But what of the hardware itself? Is the Nexus One going to change the face of mobile as we know it?

The Nexus One is not an 'iPhone killer'. If it slays anything it will hopefully be that hackneyed phrase. Copycat devices might tick some boxes but they don't move anything on, they aren't innovative. Nor is the Nexus One innovative. It's another Android-powered smartphone.

Of course judging by the specs it's still a pretty impressive smartphone: it packs a 1Ghz Snapdragon processor, HSPA, 3.7-inch touchscreen, five-megapixel camera, GPS, wi-fi, digital compass, accelerometer and, of course, it runs the latest iteration of Android OS, 2.1.

Nothing in that line-up screams revolution however: it's another top class, high end smartphone, like so many other top class, high end smartphones already out there.

As an aside, the only stand-out unusual feature is the voice recognition technology that has been built into every text input field on the device - so using the Nexus One you could sit on the train home dictating emails and annoying fellow passengers in the process. Truly a disruptive technology.

However getting tied up in specs misses the point. It's Google's involvement with mobile that's important.

And as Andy Rubin, VP of engineering, noted at yesterday's launch: "Before we can revolutionise the world, you have to have a mechanism by which you're selling products. The first baby step is getting an online store going and putting best-in-class products on that store... then we can work out how to make it better."

The company's new-found forensic focus could well have the power to ring some changes. In a nutshell, no, the mobile world didn't change overnight but the Nexus One marks the end of the beginning of Google's affair with phones.

Phase two starts here.

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