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Android ambivalence: the plight of too many Google phones

Let's face it: there are too many Google Android devices. And for consumers, smartphone shopping has become as fun as finding the right toothpaste. Here's why it's a problem.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

Let's face it: there are too many Google Android devices.

On Monday, Google announced the availability of the Nexus S, the second iteration of the company's own branded "Nexus" branch of the Android tree.

The phone's selling point is that it carries the latest version of the company's operating system, Android 2.3 Gingerbread. Aside from that, it's the usual internally, with a 1GHz Cortex A8 processor, 4-inch Super AMOLED touchscreen display (at 480x800 resolution) and enough sensors to make your head spin.

In the announcement, Google noted that the first Android phone (the T-Mobile G1!) arrived to market in November 2008, and since then, "more than 100 different Android devices" have appeared on store shelves, both physical and digital.

I remember the G1's announcement, because I attended the launch event in New York City. At the time, it was a big to-do, with pomp, circumstance, awkward back-patting speeches and hors d'oeuvres.

Since then, it's been a steady growth trajectory: for every landmark Android handset like the Droid, Hero, DroidX and Evo, there have been -- at first in equal numbers, and now far surpassing them -- countless faceless Android handsets.

Anyone remember the Motorola Backflip on AT&T?

How about the T-Mobile Comet? Or the Samsung Behold II?

(Come to think of it, T-Mobile has been a dumping ground for a lot of odd Android handsets -- Motorola Charm, cough cough -- but I digress.)

If migrating to a smartphone from a feature phone wasn't daunting (and expensive) enough, now the consumer must choose which of the countless flavors of Android handsets they want -- even within a single carrier's offerings.

Carriers and manufacturers will insist that the proliferation of Android models gives the consumers choice. But so do consumer products makers about toothpaste.

(I don't know about you, but I waste 20 minutes of my life in the supermarket making a decision every time I need to restock. "Max Fresh"? "Total Advanced"? "Ultrabrite"? "Cavity Protection"? How about just "Clean"?)

Consumers aren't dumb. They know that phones, like toothpaste, are becoming a million minor variations on a common theme. And in doing so, they are diluting the message -- the story, really -- that each phone can convey to the consumer.

We want our products to be personal. That's why upscale restaurant menus tell you about "grass-fed beef." It's why Ford commercials show farmers piling hay in the back of an F-150. And it's why Apple makes such high-quality (in terms of production value) videos painstakingly describing the process by which its major products -- the MacBook, the iPhone, the iPad -- are made.

We all want a story. But like our inboxes at work, when there's too much noise, it's hard to care.

I've warned ZDNet readers before about the dangers that fragmentation play from a software standpoint. This time, it's not the many versions of Google's mobile platform on the market I'm concerned with -- rather, it's the many handsets themselves.

A device without a story is disposable. A subpar device without a story is even worse.

The other day, I saw a commercial for an Android handset. I wasn't especially paying attention, but when it was over, my fiancée asked me, "Which one is that? Is that any good?" And for the first time in my career covering gadgets at ZDNet, I had no idea.

To be fair, I'm spending a lot more time over at SmartPlanet, ZDNet's innovation-minded sibling, and less time here on the Toybox. But there was no peg on which to hang my familiarity about the device -- no story, no distinguishing feature. Just "new."

Remember when the Droid first came out? Oh, how it was coveted! It was the best of the best. A lap ahead of other Android handsets, and the first true exercise in branding (with Verizon holding the purse strings).

Verizon is still promoting its Droid (now family of) offerings, but not every carrier has been so diligent to deliver a captivating narrative.

Bucking this trend, of course, is Apple's iPhone, a single device with two variants. (No, I don't consider memory options to be different models. The story's the same.) So does the Palm Pre. And RIM's BlackBerry family is actually nicely edited: the company has seven models across all carriers, each with distinguishing features.

My point is that there's no fat here, no redundancies. But in Android world, there are handsets trying to leap over each other at every level, from the highest (Droid 2 vs. Evo vs. Nexus S) to the lowest (T-Mobile myTouch 3G vs. LG Optimus T vs. Motorola Flipout vs. ...well, does anyone care?).

From a consumer standpoint, it's very confusing, even if your carrier is already set in stone. If anything, it fosters the feeling of ambivalence -- and that's my point.

The market share of smartphones based on the Google Android platform may be growing larger every day, but the value of each individual handset plummets further with each new release. Awareness and recognition of the platform may be increasing, but the buying decision is no longer met with anticipation.

(I hope you're taking notes, Microsoft.)

Apple, RIM and Palm buyers do not have to ask the question, "Which one should I get next?"

Why can't the rest of us?

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