Google showed off its new brainchild last week:a smartphone design in collaboration with its Android partners, Taiwan’s handset maker HTC, and the wireless carrier T-Mobile USA.
The phone specs are all over the place on the Internet. It looks quite attractive, but perhaps because of the Apple iPhone’s lasting impression, many tech pundits gave only a “pass” grade on its appearance.
The biggest design difference between the iPhone and Google’s G1 (by the way, an unimpressive name that sounds like a robot rather than a personal/lifestyle device) is the keyboard. Instead of the virtual touch-screen keyboard on the iPhone, G1 has a sliding, full-size QWERTY keyboard that makes e-mailing and text-messaging more convenient for users.
The Problem With ‘Future Proof’
In Google’s view, the biggest difference is G1’s openness. Andy Rubin, senior director of mobile platforms for Google, claimed that the phone was “future proof because it has openness built in.”
I am skeptical that “future-proof” will be the selling point of G1 in the U.S. In this country, consumers’ replacement cycle for mobile phones is more and more driven by the length of the mobile service contract. In 2005, 60 percent of mobile phone owners replaced their phones every two years or at a shorter interval. Today, we suspect the replacement cycle is further shortened due to design and functional improvements on latest handsets. Replacement purchases are a good business for handset makers.
Making consumers believe their G1s are future-proof is at odds with handset makers’ interest in driving volume growth. “Future-proof” is one of the benefits for being open, but do not alienate yourself from your partners’ interest.
Perhaps Andy’s comment was targeted more toward third-party application developers in its Android community than toward consumers. Perhaps it was meant as an assurance that even as Google and its handset partners move on with G2 or G3 in the future, the open software development environment will still allow G1 owners to benefit from new applications from the developer community. However, backward compatibility is virtually the standard in this industry, and “future-proof” does not make Google’s G1 stand tall.
Arriving at the Party
I might take Andy’s words out of context, but I think what he really meant is the promise that the openness of the Android operating system will bring a richer and far better user experience on G1 than any other non-Android smartphones on the market in the future. I will be keenly interested in how successful Google’s strategy will turn out to be in the next year or so.
The mobile industry is clearly at the crossroads, with the smartphone category sitting right in the eye of the innovation storm. This “future-proof” category (meaning its status as the crown of the digital convergence is well-established) will decide the mobile industry’s direction in the next 10 to 15 years. The Symbian sect is gradually moving in Android’s direction, but the BlackBerry and Apple clans still cling to their proprietary approach. Third-party application developers now have a formidable spokesperson named Google, but will handset makers and carriers ever budge? If they will, who will blink first?
With Android, Google either crashed the party or took over as the new DJ. What a moment!
Harry Wang is the director of mobile product research at Parks Associates.