Why Google has blown it with the Nexus One

And why smartphone freedom may never happen

After frenzied leaks and gushing speculation, we now know what the Google Nexus One smartphone really is: a refinement of the existing Google Android mobile devices. The frenzied fawning from the tech press was misplaced -- the Nexus One is not a significant advancement in its own right.

Sure, it has some cool features such as speech recognition (for commanding apps and for dictation) and noise-canceling microphones. (However, I wonder about the network traffic that the dictation will generate, given that Google's servers do the processing, not the smartphone.) The 3-D media organizer is also cool, and the new customizable home screen is a direct and welcome rip-off of the iPhone UI.

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But ultimately, so what? We can expect that kind of incremental enhancements from all the leading smartphone makers. (And why doesn't the Nexus One support multitouch?!)

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Baby steps toward smartphone freedom
The potential game-changing attribute of the Nexus One is that Google is selling the device direct, without requiring a carrier contract. The laudable idea is that you should be able to buy the smartphone -- and mobile OS -- of your choice and use it on the carrier of your choice.

It appears that Google is trying via baby steps to move the industry past the exclusive carrier/phone tie-ins that have restricted the Apple iPhone to AT&T, the HTC Droid Eris to Verizon Wireless, and the Palm Pre to Sprint, and instead provide an option where the phone is not locked to a specific carrier.

But the Nexus One doesn't really move that goal forward. The truth is even if you buy an "unlocked" Nexus One from Google and pay full price ($529), you can't use it with any carrier. It works just with T-Mobile. Later this year Google will have separate versions for Verizon Wireless and -- for the United Kingdom, Singapore, and Hong Kong -- Vodafone. Other carriers would have to agree to let you use a Nexus One on their networks. It's not clear that they will, especially in North America.

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