SAN JOSE, Calif. - The buzz about the fabled "Google Phone" says a lot about consumers' long-running dissatisfactions with the wireless industry, as well as the problems some people have with Apple's iPhone. But it doesn't convince me that the long-awaited Google Phone is about to hit the market.
Instead, I suspect this is just the latest "Google Experience" phone; such devices are designed and manufactured by other companies but run Google's Android operating system and the full suite of mobile programs that the company has released.
Rumors of a Google Phone have been circulating since at least 2006. They've cropped up repeatedly since then, notably in the days before the company unveiled Android and prior to the release of several Android-powered phones.
The latest rumors popped up with recent reports that Google was handing out a new Android-powered device to employees for testing. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google had designed the phone's hardware and software, and planned to sell the device itself directly to consumers. That left many convinced that the long-awaited Google Phone had finally arrived.
Google hasn't disclosed details about the device, and I haven't yet seen it. But my guess is that it's less remarkable than many commentators are making it out to be.
The Journal reported that it goes by the name Nexus One and is manufactured by Taiwan's HTC. That company already has made quite a few Android phones, some of which - such as the HTC Hero - have carried its brand and others - such as the T-Mobile G1, the first Android phone on the market - have not.
Some analysts and pundits who have seen the Nexus One say it looks similar to other HTC devices either already on the market or expected to be available soon.
Regardless of whether the Nexus One is indeed the Google phone or just the latest model in an evolution of Android phones, I'm interested in why people are excited by a Google Phone. Many consumers seem to be using the idea to project their ideal of what a smart-phone should be or how the mobile phone industry should work.
The first comment on the Journal's article was from a reader declaring, "I want one," despite the article's sketchy details about it. Another reader expressed hope that the phone would be a "disruptive move in the rotten phone industry."
Some consumers expect the Google Phone to be less expensive to own than other smartphones. Others, including some of my readers, hope they'll be able to use the phone on any network they choose. Some itch for a device on which they can run any application they want. And some simply want an alternative to the iPhone that's as compelling as Apple's device.
Criticism of the iPhone seems to be an undercurrent to much of the desire for a Google Phone. While many consumers love the iPhone, it has drawn complaints ranging from problems accessing AT&T's network to the types of applications that Apple and AT&T are permitting to run on it.
TechCrunch Web site founder Michael Arrington, who has been touting the impending arrival of a Google Phone for weeks now, famously dumped his iPhone over the summer in reaction to Apple's decision to bar the Google Voice program from its iPhone application store.
Others complain about the cost of operating an iPhone. Livermore resident George Withers is an Apple loyalist and has been interested in getting an iPhone. But Withers has resisted because of the cost of the iPhone's data plan.
He's also been dissatisfied with AT&T, the exclusive carrier for the iPhone in the United States, since he switched from Verizon this summer. His phone calls are dropped regularly now, which didn't happen with Verizon. And he says the company didn't honor a promise to sell him the new iPhone at a subsidized price, which is another reason he doesn't have one yet.
That has raised Withers' interest in the rumored Google Phone. "I'm definitely very interested in that," he said.
But no device is perfect. They all have trade-offs and shortcomings.
If and when the fabled Google Phone hits store shelves, we'll find out how good a job Google has done of balancing the various demands and expectations for such a device. But one thing's for sure: It will have a hard time meeting the lofty expectations that are being set for it.
Troy Wolverton: firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).
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