Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Google Nexus One: Untethering from Traditional Models 1.0

I don't jump often at first-generation technology for most things, so it's no surprise that I waited a while to get a smart phone. But in a sense I have waited for the first generation of what was termed a "superphone" in today's announcement of the Google Nexus One, a Google Android-based mobile device built by HTC and sold directly by Google from its own online store. The Nexus One goes toe-to-toe with Apple's iPhone in many ways but it also begins to challenge the content industry to consider what today's proliferation of mobile devices means for their marketing strategies.

Unlike the Apple iPhone, you can choose to order a Nexus One "unlocked" from Google's online store, meaning that you can get it without having to be locked into any telephone company's contract or service plan. You can then, if you choose, get the voice and data plan of your choice with a technology-compatible vendor (T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon in the US, and most non-U.S. carriers) or, if you choose, just use WiFi and to get connectivity to data and Voice over IP services on the Web.

I ordered the "unlocked" version of the phone within a few minutes of the online store going live, a bone-simple process. I noted on the order page that Verizon will offer "locked" access for this phone soon, marketed under the "Droid" moniker it uses currently for Motorola's Android phone offering on Verizon. For the time being I have decided to use the Nexus One as a "data only" phone, using VoIP when I am in WiFi hotspots. This may allow me to use it as a replacement for my desk phone, since it's always in range of my local WiFi (let's see what happens when Google announces its integration of Gizmo5 VoIP services for Google Voice). I think of it like having Skype in "walkabout" mode with a trendy earpiece that has Web access. Once the service plans for data-only access to phone company networks have improved a bit and I can suss out what to do with my last remaining copper phone line, I'll think about which U.S. telco vendor will be best to choose to fill in the gaps for WiFi service.

If you look at most coverage maps for mobile data access and the ability of emerging networks to support both voice and high-speed data more reliably on a single network connection, why would I do otherwise for an advanced phone? If voice is moving towards being a service on consumer data networks, as it is already in most major enterprises, and voice services such as Skype and Gizmo5 are providing increasingly reliable VoIP phone-like connectivity almost anywhere, then I wonder whether it makes sense to lock into any traditional voice services for a superphone. I'd rather use a simple mobile phone as a voice backup service for those hard-to-reach spots that Google Voice can ring as needed and go superphone for voice on a good data-only network for the rest.

As voice becomes more integrated with Web applications and content services, the need for their integration is going to become more obvious fairly rapidly. One of the demos at the Nexus One press briefing was of dictating text messages and emails. It wasn't a particularly spectacular demo, and I am sure that less carefully tested examples may fare worse, but going to and from voice and text as a standard interface is more likely to make the combination of voice and data an essential factor in information services in the next few years. Since the Nexus One is pretty well positioned for the most advanced high-speed data networks rolling out over the next couple of years, I think that I am covered on that front for now.

As for the phone itself, I hate to say it, but technology changes so quickly these days that it's almost unimportant beyond a certain point whether it's a perfectly awesome phone or not. You can look at the Engadget review and judge for yourself, but overall it's as good as an iPhone but without two-finger touch software (which will come soon enough, since the hardware handles it, apparently) though trumping the current iPhone with a screaming 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor. Most importantly, though, it's built on an open platform developed by a company that believes in the Web as the real unifier of content services, not proprietary networks or platforms. With all of the tablets, readers and other gizmos coming out this year that will try to pretend that the Web isn't very important, it will be nice to have a mobile device that puts the Web experience for content first, with some neat-o applications in a spiffy, sleek package to boot. That'll do. For now.

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