Lessons from Google's Nexus One woes

Android is a compelling OS, but it's not clear Google knows what to do with it

Oh, how quickly they turn against you! Many media outlets that worked themselves into a frenzy over the Google Nexus One smartphone before it was announced 10 days ago are now attacking Google for what turned out to be a minor announcement followed quickly by complaints from upset customers over poor customer support, poor 3G connections, and high termination fees, plus gripes from SDK-less developers.

Much of the tech press in recent years has confused fact and fiction, spending billions of bytes discussing rumors with little or no foundation with all the seriousness of a call to war or a presidential campaign. (They do it because people love these stories, of course, and read them eagerly.)

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When the Nexus One was announced, I was disappointed, since there were just a few improvements over existing Android devices. The fact that Google was selling the device directly over its Web site seemed to be much ado about nothing, given that buyers had to sign a T-Mobile contract to use it. Plus, it's not as if Web sales is a new idea.

The hope was that Google might assert strong leadership in the mobile space. And it took the rumor-happy tech press a week or so to realize their emperor had no clothes.

Two weeks after the frenzy has subsided and the finger-pointing has begun, we can take several lessons from Google's Nexus One escapade:

Lesson 1: Google's role is unclear, as are its goals
Google needs to figure out whether Android is to be a community technology or one it drives. Right now, Google is trying to have it both ways, though it's showing signs of giving up on the community that it first touted as the path to innovation, à la the open source model so beloved by pundits. Though in this case, the "community" turned out to be the same old device manufacturers and carriers that three years on still can't compete with the iPhone.

The first Android phones from HTC and others were uninspired me-too handsets that ranked well below the iPhone and Palm Pre -- the kind of cheap wannabes we associate with Taiwanese hardware companies. The Android OS also was awkward, more like a Microsoft product than an Apple one. Then came Motorola's Droid and the Android 2.0 OS, launched with great fanfare as an iPhone-killer-with-a-keyboard; its keyboard turned out to be barely usable, and the lack of multitouch in its native apps and UI make the Droid feel primitive compared to an iPhone or Palm Pre.

The surprise, though, was HTC's Droid Eris, which augmented Android's clumsy UI with a nice Sense overlay that in some respects outclasses the iPhone. The device itself is pokey and a bit cheap, but it showed the promise of Android under more sophisticated hands than Google or Motorola.

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