Parks Associates Blog

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

G1 is born, Stirring up the Smartphone Pot

Google showed off its new brainchild yesterday: 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 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 (BTW, 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. (Read Stuart’s funny blog here to understand how important an easy-to-use keyboard is to a road-warrior doing quite a bit emailing everyday.)

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 perhaps 18-24 months, similar to their mobile service contract length. 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 targeted more towards third-party application developers in its Android community than towards consumers, and served as an assurance that even 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. But backward compatibility is virtually the standard in this industry, and “future-proof” does not make Google’s G1 stand tall.

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 10-15 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!

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