Lessons from Google's Nexus One woes

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

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So it was no surprise that Google worked with HTC to create the Nexus One -- except that the Nexus One didn't get the Sense UI, instead being essentially a minor rev to earlier me-too models. No multitouch UI (how is that even possible?), no groundbreaking new capabilities, no carrier independence (not even in the unlocked model), and no business-class security -- nothing, in other words, that would set it apart from, or even equal to, the iPhone.

What was the point? If this was Google demonstrating leadership, it failed. If Google wasn't trying to be a leader, why even come out with its own device? Google, of course, hardly ever talks to the press or answers questions, so what its management thinks is unknown. Given Android's slow burn under the community model, it made sense for Google to try the Apple approach and lead by doing great things. If only it had.

The takeaway: Google has confused the Android market, stepping out as if it were ready to lead, then not doing so. Will Motorola and others continue to develop their own Android devices if they fear Google might come up with a secret version with unique features? You can see why they'd hesitate. For the next six months, we'll see new Android phones that were already under development. Beyond that, it's an open question. I'm not saying it would be bad for other manufacturers to step out of Google's way; what would be bad is for them to step out of the way and Google not to step into their place.

Lesson 2: Google doesn't understand the consumer business
Although Google's decision to sell the Nexus One directly over the Web got a lot of praise from pundits, users quickly had second thoughts about the concept. Why? Because Google doesn't support the devices it sells -- and neither does the only carrier they operate on, T-Mobile. So users are shunted back and forth between Google and T-Mobile as each disclaims responsibility, while Google spokespeople prattle on about their desire to offer good service. Talk is cheap, and e-mail is cheaper. Google's actions are decidedly not a great way to build a platform.

While I don't expect Apple-like handholding from Google, I do expect it to have telephone support staff with at least moderate skills. Instead, all you get is an e-mail address and a wait of several days before an unsatisfying (usually canned) answer comes back. T-Mobile is also doing itself no favors by not supporting people who bought the device from Google but had no choice other than to get service from T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon Wireless are hardly great at customer support via the phone (it's better in many of their stores), but T-Mobile's customer treatment in this case falls below the carriers' already low bar.

The support fiasco exposes the truth about Google: Despite its strong reputation among individuals, it is not a consumer company. Its core business is providing automated ad-placement services and data mining from billions of Internet information sources, and Google has never provided live contacts for routine customers. Its legacy of a human-free approach makes no sense when selling consumer devices, but perhaps Google's lack of people focus blinded the company to that rather obvious fact.

To add insult to injury, Google and T-Mobile is charging buyers of the locked-to-T-Mobile Nexus One $550 to return it: $350 to Google and $200 to T-Mobile. That highest-in-the-industry return fee is sheer lunacy, as my colleague Bill Snyder has blogged. He's also rightfullt railed against the whole "early termination fee" scam that all carriers partake in, which the feds are now investigating.

The takeaway: Google doesn't understand what it means to sell products to people. It had better think twice about entering markets it doesn't understand.

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