What Google Must Learn from Its Nexus One Troubles

Oh, how quickly they turn against you! Many media outlets that worked themselves into a frenzy over the Google Nexus One smartphone before it was announced 10 days ago are now attacking Google for what turned out to be a minor announcement followed quickly by complaints from upset customers over poor customer support, poor 3G connections, and high termination fees, plus gripes from SDK-less developers.

Much of the tech press in recent years has confused fact and fiction, spending billions of bytes discussing rumors with little or no foundation with all the seriousness of a call to war or a presidential campaign. (They do it because people love these stories, of course, and read them eagerly.)

When the Nexus One was announced, I was disappointed, since there were just a few improvements over existing Android devices. The fact that Google was selling the device directly over its Web site seemed to be much ado about nothing, given that buyers had to sign a T-Mobile contract to use it. Plus, it's not as if Web sales is a new idea.

The hope was that Google might assert strong leadership in the mobile space. And it took the rumor-happy tech press a week or so to realize their emperor had no clothes.

Two weeks after the frenzy has subsided and the finger-pointing has begun, we can take several lessons from Google's Nexus One escapade:

Lesson 1: Google's role is unclear, as are its goals
Google needs to figure out whether Android is to be a community technology or one it drives. Right now, Google is trying to have it both ways, though it's showing signs of giving up on the community that it first touted as the path to innovation, à la the open source model so beloved by pundits. Though in this case, the "community" turned out to be the same old device manufacturers and carriers that three years on still can't compete with the iPhone.

The first Android phones from HTC and others were uninspired me-too handsets that ranked well below the iPhone and Palm Pre -- the kind of cheap wannabes we associate with Taiwanese hardware companies. The Android OS also was awkward, more like a Microsoft product than an Apple one. Then came Motorola's Droid and the Android 2.0 OS, launched with great fanfare as an iPhone-killer-with-a-keyboard; its keyboard turned out to be barely usable, and the lack of multitouch in its native apps and UI make the Droid feel primitive compared to an iPhone or Palm Pre.

The surprise, though, was HTC's Droid Eris, which augmented Android's clumsy UI with a nice Sense overlay that in some respects outclasses the iPhone. The device itself is pokey and a bit cheap, but it showed the promise of Android under more sophisticated hands than Google or Motorola.

So it was no surprise that Google worked with HTC to create the Nexus One -- except that the Nexus One didn't get the Sense UI, instead being essentially a minor rev to earlier me-too models. No multitouch UI (how is that even possible?), no groundbreaking new capabilities, no carrier independence (not even in the unlocked model), and no business-class security -- nothing, in other words, that would set it apart from, or even equal to, the iPhone.

What was the point? If this was Google demonstrating leadership, it failed. If Google wasn't trying to be a leader, why even come out with its own device? Google, of course, hardly ever talks to the press or answers questions, so what its management thinks is unknown. Given Android's slow burn under the community model, it made sense for Google to try the Apple approach and lead by doing great things. If only it had.

The takeaway: Google has confused the Android market, stepping out as if it were ready to lead, then not doing so. Will Motorola and others continue to develop their own Android devices if they fear Google might come up with a secret version with unique features? You can see why they'd hesitate. For the next six months, we'll see new Android phones that were already under development. Beyond that, it's an open question. I'm not saying it would be bad for other manufacturers to step out of Google's way; what would be bad is for them to step out of the way and Google not to step into their place.

Lesson 2: Google doesn't understand the consumer business
Although Google's decision to sell the Nexus One directly over the Web got a lot of praise from pundits, users quickly had second thoughts about the concept. Why? Because Google doesn't support the devices it sells -- and neither does the only carrier they operate on, T-Mobile. So users are shunted back and forth between Google and T-Mobile as each disclaims responsibility, while Google spokespeople prattle on about their desire to offer good service. Talk is cheap, and e-mail is cheaper. Google's actions are decidedly not a great way to build a platform.

While I don't expect Apple-like handholding from Google, I do expect it to have telephone support staff with at least moderate skills. Instead, all you get is an e-mail address and a wait of several days before an unsatisfying (usually canned) answer comes back. T-Mobile is also doing itself no favors by not supporting people who bought the device from Google but had no choice other than to get service from T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon Wireless are hardly great at customer support via the phone (it's better in many of their stores), but T-Mobile's customer treatment in this case falls below the carriers' already low bar.

The support fiasco exposes the truth about Google: Despite its strong reputation among individuals, it is not a consumer company. Its core business is providing automated ad-placement services and data mining from billions of Internet information sources, and Google has never provided live contacts for routine customers. Its legacy of a human-free approach makes no sense when selling consumer devices, but perhaps Google's lack of people focus blinded the company to that rather obvious fact.

To add insult to injury, Google and T-Mobile is charging buyers of the locked-to-T-Mobile Nexus One $550 to return it: $350 to Google and $200 to T-Mobile. That highest-in-the-industry return fee is sheer lunacy, as my colleague Bill Snyder has blogged. He's also rightfullt railed against the whole "early termination fee" scam that all carriers partake in, which the feds are now investigating.

The takeaway: Google doesn't understand what it means to sell products to people. It had better think twice about entering markets it doesn't understand.

Lesson 3: Google is deaf to its developers
Also seething as a result of the Nexus One are Android developers, angry that there was no SDK for the new Android 2.1 OS the Nexus One uses (the SDK was finally released a week later). Android developers still haven't forgotten Google's foot-dragging on the original Android SDK, and they're frustrated by the several versions of the Android OS in use by various handsets, which makes development unnecessarily complicated. A scheme by Motorola to have its own semi-proprietary SDK doesn't help matters, either. Plus, Android developers are mad about how the Android Market app store works, though Google has made changes to calm some of those waters.

Developers are often an unhappy bunch, but they're rightfully upset that a new Android OS version is available that they can't test their apps against, much less take advantage of. It would have been fine for Google to keep Android 2.1 under wraps until the Nexus One announcement, making the SDK available the same day. After all, Apple does that routinely, allowing a favored few early access, but once the cat is out of the bag, so is the updated SDK. But to have a new OS on the market and not make it accessible -- that's just stupid.

At the very least, Google could have said the SDK would be available soon, rather than saying nothing. But I bet the silence was because no one at Google planned on releasing the updated SDK in the first place. Google's own announcement said, "Android 2.1 does not add significant user features." Which is odd, given that Google talked up the Android 2.1 OS a week earlier in its Nexus One announcement, extolling its enhanced user customization and, more important, its ability to voice-enable text fields in apps. But even if it was a minor upgrade, developers should still have access to the current OS' SDK.

The message to developers -- reinforced by the handling of the Nexus One -- is that they don't matter. That's dangerous. Apple has annoyed many iPhone developers, creating an opportunity for a platform like Android to benefit from those eager if prickly developers. With Google acting worse to its developers than Apple, whose iPhone already has an amazing number of apps available, it's putting the Android platform in danger.

The takeaway: Google isn't thinking through the ecosystem issues of offering a platform it wants others to help drive. Instead, it's driving away allies.

Can Google get it?
A few weeks ago, I suggested that Google should buy a struggling carrier like Sprint or T-Mobile and use its smarts to redefine the mobile market in a positive way, coupling its software know-how with a complete package of network and devices.

I still think it's the right idea. But I'm not sure Google is the right company. Its algorithmic culture may be too distant from customers and developers -- that is, people -- to compete for the long term with an Apple or even Microsoft in a consumer market. Google may be too intellectually rigid and emotionally hands-off to "get it." Or maybe it's often-marketed persona of being a different kind of company focused on doing good is just marketing hooey.

Either way, it's acting like a traditional carrier: offering poor service, demanding high return fees, providing uneven 3G quality, delivering tone-deaf developer relations, and shipping run-of-the-mill phones.

Maybe Apple, not Google, should buy Sprint or T-Mobile. But then, we'd all be decrying how "resistance is futile" as Apple becomes the Borg of mobile. I like Apple's products and culture of useful innovation, but I'm not sure I want the company to be that powerful. However, I am sure I don't want Google to be.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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