Google's half-assed fix for the Nexus One

Nexus One buyers get little help when the smartphone falters, and the latest fix doesn't comes close to solving the customer-service problem

When I did a bad job cleaning up the kitchen, I was rightly rebuked more than once for doing a "half-assed job." Well, that's what I have to say about Google's response to complaints about the Nexus One smartphone. Half-assed.

Users of the so-called superphone have been plagued with poor high-speed service, abysmal email-only customer service, and the industry's highest early termination fee. After being bombarded with consumer complaints, bad press and -- arguably most important of all -- a letter of inquiry from the newly consumer-friendly FCC, Google took action. Sort of.

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The company dropped the $550 early termination fee to "just" $350 (so it's now tied for the highest fee), and set up a Byzantine customer support service that will have users bouncing from T-Mobile to HTC (the maker of the phone) to Google. What a joke.

Off the Record submissions
Nexus One sales have tanked Not surprisingly, early sales results have been abysmal. Google sold 20,000 Nexus One phones in the week following the Jan. 5 product launch, according to Flurry, a mobile analytics group. By comparison, AT&T and Apple sold 80 times more, or 1.6 million units, of the iPhone 3G S that week. And Verizon Wireless sold 250,000 Motorola Droids in their first week on the market in November, Flurry reported. ( Read Flurry's report here .)

Not surprisingly, early sales results have been abysmal. Google sold 20,000 Nexus One phones in the week following the Jan. 5 product launch, according to Flurry, a mobile analytics group. By comparison, AT&T and Apple sold 80 times more, or 1.6 million units, of the iPhone 3G S that week. And Verizon Wireless sold 250,000 Motorola Droids in their first week on the market in November, Flurry reported. (Read Flurry's report here.)

As Flurry points out, there are factors in play here that make a direct sales comparison a bit misleading. Even so, it's obvious that Google has stumbled rather badly, with customer service the worst misstep of all.

To recap: Google took a seemingly radical step by selling the Nexus One directly to consumers. The phone is pricey, but in part that's because Google sold it without the typical subsidy carriers generally contribute. On first glance, that seemed to promise freedom to the user and an end, or at least the beginning of the end, of carrier lock-in tyranny. But it didn't. T-Mobile, Google's partner, is the only major network whose infrastructure supports both voice and 3G data service for the Nexus One. In short, a dissatisfied Nexus One customer had no place to take the phone. And there was plenty of reason to be dissatisfied.

T-Mobile's data network doesn't appear up to the task of delivering high-speed service. Making matters much, much worse, untl this week Google made no provision for telephone customer support. Buyers had to wait for days to receive answers to queries posted on a Web site. Since T-Mobile doesn't sell the phone, the carrier's staffers were of little help. And even with its new phone support, Google will answer only questions about purchasing and order status; you still have to call HTC for phone issues and T-Mobile for network issues.

If a buyer couldn't tolerate the tsuris, he or she could bail out and be hit with a combined Google/T-Mobile early termination fee of first $550 and now $350 -- and be left with a dead hunk of plastic.

Pay real money, get a real product
I don't think that Google has a lot of dumb people on the payroll, but it doesn't appear to have many (if any) executives around with a real understanding of a retail model. "It's not surprising that a lot of basic customer service support issues simply didn't occur to Google or may have been played down internally prior to launch. As smart as they are, there is no substitute for experience," says Peter Farago, Flurry's VP of marketing.

Think about how Google usually operates: A new service goes up in a big hurry and is called a beta, which gives the company a defense when users notice the rough edges. Over time, the service is revved and improved.

That's not a bad strategy when it comes to free, Web-based services. But it's a terrible retail strategy. When customers pay real money, they expect a real product.

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Bad customer service is an execrable fact of life for technology consumers. But introducing a complex new product with no real technical support stands out as astonishingly clueless and contemptuous of the buyer. After a barrage of criticism, Google this week instituted telephone support -- sort of. Got a connection-related problems, call T-Mobile. Got a hardware related problem, call HTC, the maker of the phone. Have a sales-related problem, call Google.

As anyone who has used a computer in the last 15 years knows, there is nothing that vendors like more than telling a consumer that another vendor is responsible for a problem. Call HP, which tells you to call Microsoft, which tells you to call HP. Arrgh. Google's new setup institutionalizes the buck-passing and will be a frustrating failure for all concerned. It's half-assed.

Vote with your wallet
Of course, because so many of the self-important, overpaid, Mercedes-driving technocrats in Silicon Valley live in a world insulated from the concerns of the people whose hard-earned dollars support them, we shouldn't be surprised. But that's doesn't mean we should take it.

If there's a silver lining in this story, it's that so many Nexus One customers complained and that their complaints were echoed by some of us in the technology and business press. Those complaints resonated all the way to Washington, D.C., where the FCC wrote a letter of inquiry to Google concerning the early termination fees.

My advice: Keep complaining -- it does help -- and above all don't buy a Nexus One until these problems are ironed out. Voting with your dollars sends the loudest message.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "Google's half-assed fix for the Nexus One," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments on mobile computing and tech-product gripes at InfoWorld.com.

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