Welcome to Google's Nexus One – and the "Nexus" Device
Published 14:19, 06 January 10
we're pleased to announce a new way for consumers to purchase a mobile phone through a Google hosted web store. The goal of this new consumer channel is to provide an efficient way to connect Google's online users with selected Android devices. We also want to make the overall user experience simple: a simple purchasing process, simple service plans from operators, simple and worry-free delivery and start-up.
The first phone we'll be selling through this new web store is the Nexus One — a convergence point for mobile technology, apps and the Internet. Nexus One is an exemplar of what's possible on mobile devices through Android — when cool apps meet a fast, bright and connected computer that fits in your pocket. The Nexus One belongs in the emerging class of devices which we call "superphones." It's the first in what we expect to be a series of products which we will bring to market with our operator and hardware partners and sell through our online store.
Manufactured by HTC, the Nexus One features dynamic noise suppression from Audience, Inc., a large 3.7" OLED display for deep contrast and brilliant colors and a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset for blazing speeds. Running on Android 2.1, the newest version of Eclair, the software includes innovations like a voice-enabled keyboard so you can speak into any text field, fun Live Wallpapers, a 3D photo gallery for richer media experiences and lots more. Of course, it also comes with a host of popular Google applications, including Gmail, Google Voice and Google Maps Navigation.
Google leads with the fact that this is as much about *how* people buy phones, as what that phone is. As many commentators have noted, that's a reflection of Google's long-term plans to break the grip that the current mobile phone companies have on this sector, but it needs to proceeds cautiously, step by step, so as not to frighten the animals – hence the very limited scope of the present announcement.
Only then does Google move on to the new Nexus One, and immediately it emphasises that this is “the first in what we expect to be a series of products”. I think that's why the initial specs of the new phone have disappointed some: it's simply the start of a journey. It doesn't need to be the be-all and end-all, just pointing in the right direction. And Google makes quite clear what that direction is: “ a convergence point for mobile technology, apps and the Internet.”
For me, that is the most important point about the Nexus – it's doubtless why Google chose that name: it views its new phone as a *meeting* point of mobile, computing and the Internet. If true, that's huge, since it represents the long-predicted, and long-awaited convergence of the computing and mobile worlds, with Internet connectivity as a kind of digital glue holding them together. If true, it represents a fundamental shift in how people will use computers and the Internet.
As it happens, I bought my first smartphone a little while before the Google phone rumours began swirling. By a happy coincidence, it was an Android phone (well, clearly I was going to choose one based on Linux), more specifically, the HTC Hero. As well as being made by the same manufacturer as for the Nexus One, the Hero is actually quite close in terms of how it works and what it offers (OK, it lacks the groovy wallpapers, but I think I can live without those.)
What's been interesting for me is that the Hero has, indeed, become a kind of nexus of my mobile, computing and online activities. It's a phone (well, yes), and does all the kind of phone things you would expect. But because it's an Android phone, my Google address book is now tightly integrated, which makes managing my unified phone and email contacts incredibly easy. And because it's all stored in the cloud, I don't need to worry about synchronisation: whatever platform I'm using, everything is sorted out automatically.
The HTC Hero is also an email system. Indeed, it's interesting to note the emails tend to arrive on the Hero before they turn up in my desktop's in-box, and I often find myself taking a quick look on the phone before reading them on my Ubuntu PC or laptop. The HTC Hero is a surprisingly capable device for accessing the Internet, including support for Flash. I hate it, but it's ubiquitous, sadly, so it's indispensable at the moment for online activity. Because Hero ticks that box, I've come across very few sites that I can't view on it, albeit in a restricted view because of the screen size. And since Android is truly multi-tasking, even for downloaded apps, I can pretty work as I do on my desktop machine (with obvious caveats due to the form factor.)
And then there are all the functions that draw on the fact that this is a mobile device, with a variable geographical location. Aside from handy things like your position on Google Maps, there are trendy augmented reality apps like Layar that represent a new way of melding your visible surroundings with online information relating to them.
In a word, I've found my approximation to the Nexus One truly eye-opening in terms of how it goes well beyond the desktop/laptop PC, mobile or Internet in combining them into a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts – and yet all crammed into something that now habitually sits in my trouser pocket.
Now, the HTC Hero is by no means perfect: it's slightly sluggish, could do with better battery life, has far fewer apps available than the iPhone (about 20,000 compared to 100,000), and has a slightly illogical menu system (especially when swapping between those concurrent applications). But it is getting close to something very exciting - and the Nexus One is clearly one step closer, because Google has probably thought longer and harder about this kind of triple integration than anyone else at the moment.
In that respect, I don't think the Nexus (or indeed “nexus” device) should be regarded as a competitor to the iPhone. The latter has very real virtues: an extremely polished product, superior to the Nexus in many details; far more apps etc. But it is a closed system, controlled by one manufacturer that is obsessive about that control. And it is not a real “nexus” system: there is no tight integration with the desktop/cloud computing experience for the simple reason that Apple does not offer so many Web-based services as Google.
I doubt whether many fans of the iPhone will switch to the Nexus One, or even the Nexus Two or Three, whenever they appear. People who love Apple's honed, controlled experience will stick with it. But I don't think Google is going for that audience. It is going for millions of enterprises who want to replace some of their laptops with more convenient systems that are tightly linked to things like Google Apps. In addition, Google is doubtless looking towards the hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on their low-end mobile phones, and will be looking to upgrade over the next few years; and then after them, it is ultimately going for the people who don't have either a computer or mobile – and that's several billion people.
They will never buy an iPhone, because it's essentially a cool device for rich gadget-freaks in developed countries. They will never buy such an undeniably attractive toy because their needs are much more basic: they need a computer that connects to the Internet wirelessly that they can carry around as they go about their daily lives. It will need to be tightly integrated with cloud computing services, because people will rarely have desktop computers they can use as adjuncts, and so traditional modes of synchronisation simply don't work.
I don't believe Google particularly wants to sell lots of phones; rather, it wants to create a thriving ecosystem of these new kind of "nexus" devices that through healthy competition will drive down prices to a level where billions of people in developing countries *can* afford them. Again, the iPhone is unlikely to be able to do that because there is no competition within the ecosystem, and hence no pressure to cut costs and prices beyond a certain point.
Google's Nexus is more of a gauntlet thrown down to the other mobile phone companies – a challenge to do better than Google's example, and for a lower cost. That will help sell many more Android phones, grow the Android ecosystem, lead to more apps being written, and hence more people buying Android phones.
This could only be done with an open source approach, which guarantees that other players are not overly beholden to one player (although Google clearly has a huge advantage here, nonetheless). At least the other mobile manufacturers can serve the sectors they want in the way they think best, without needing to ask permission to tweak the underlying code. If Google had written its own mobile operating system from scratch, it would simply have been one among many; by open-sourcing it, it gains the high ground and trumps all the existing offerings (which is partly why Symbian *had* to become open source too.)
One of the most striking aspects of the Nexus launch, and of the analysis that has resulted from it, is how much has been about Google taking on the traditional mobile phone companies, and whether the Nexus One is an iPhone-killer (it clearly isn't). In all this, there is one extremely large elephant that is *not* in the room: Microsoft. Except in passing, Microsoft has been written out of this story. Its mobile offering was generally regarded as weak even before the Nexus appeared; now it is not even being mentioned in the same breath as Google or Apple. This is significant: it means that Microsoft is no longer considered a serious player in what could well become the key unified computing, mobile and Internet market for the future.
As many of us have been saying for a while, the question is not whether GNU/Linux can ever beat Microsoft on the desktop, because the desktop is a 20th century solution to 20th century needs; it is whether GNU/Linux will be a or even the main player in the next market that emerges to serve those of the 21st century. With the Nexus One, and the “nexus” device that it ushers in, I think the answer is pretty clearly “yes”.
However, what is not so clear is what role open source will play *above* the operating system level: even my HTC Hero, although based on Linux, uses proprietary code for the upper layers, sadly. However much we should rejoice that Linux looks likely to form the foundation of the next generation digital devices used around the world, we should also start addressing the very serious lack of free software that can run on them.