You have to hand it to Google. In late 2009 and into the first week of 2010 they broke their “gentleman’s agreement” with their hardware partners, scored immeasurable free publicity for a fairly run-of-the-mill smartphone, and were lauded by the breathless press for doing so.
In case you missed the dramatic hype cycle of the Nexus One, aka the “Google Phone,” think back to the Segway. Remember the rumbles in the press of inventor Dean Kamen’s latest creation? The Segway was going to be a personal hovercraft, no wait, a levitation device… perhaps even an anti-gravity or perpetual energy machine! As speculation bordered on the inane, we were introduced to the underwhelming, albeit lovable electric scooter that was supposed to change the world, but ended up generating giggles as behelmeted police officers zoomed around airports across the globe trying to look imposing.
The Google phone’s introduction operated in much the same vein. Rumbles started with a Wall Street Journal article that predicted amazing hardware, and a “new business model” that would “revolutionize” the wireless industry. In a matter of days, pundits were predicting hardware that would make the iPhone look like a pocket calculator, provided to users free of charge, paid for by that magical yet never actually successful “ad sponsored” business model.
Google masterfully stoked the flames, remaining mum on the traditional PR channels, yet giving the phone to hundreds of employees who almost immediately leaked grainy pictures and hyperbole-laced postings to twitter. The new version of Google’s smartphone operating system Android would change the way we used phones, and some were even predicting Google would actually pay you to use the phone, or that it would run on some mythical wireless network Google had secretly created, free from any of the current cellular carriers.
If Al Gore could capture the hot air being generated 24 hours before the phone’s early January unveiling, energy independence would no longer be a distant dream. With nearly no money spent on advertising, save for a strategic leak to the Wall Street Journal, and some free phones for tweet-happy employees, the Nexus One had been the story in the tech and business press for weeks. Much like the Segway, when the phone was officially unveiled on 5 January, those not completely blinded by the hype were unimpressed. This mythical “Google Phone” was yet another device designed and co-branded by Taiwanese hardware manufacturer HTC (maker of devices for nearly every carrier) that was similar to an existing Windows Mobile phone in terms of its look and hardware.
The “amazing new business model” and rumors of “magical new wireless standards” you ask? Well, the phone will be initially available on T-Mobile, and like any other T-Mobile phone (or any carrier phone for that matter) you can buy it at a subsidized “locked” price, or a higher “unlocked” price. The big new business model: you can go to google.com/phone and buy the phone and T-Mobile contract there. Like nearly every other phone manufacturer on the planet, Google has promised to release slightly different versions for other carrier’s networks, and provide these phones through the carriers’ usual sales channels.
If this “revolutionary business model” sounds familiar, that’s probably because everyone from Amazon and Walmart to many of the device manufacturers including HTC themselves sell unlocked phones or phones with contracts on their website. For some reason since it has the Google brand, what is tried and true is somehow new and magical. Throw the Google mojo on a Walmart business process and it’s suddenly sexy.
I can’t help but wonder how much brand cachet Google will lose from the Nexus One. Just a few days after its release as I write this, hardware reviewers are discovering that this is yet another smartphone: evolutionary hardware and nice features, but nothing market-shattering. The amazing new version of Android? Surprisingly unchanged save for some eye-candy. While this “viral stuff” is all the rage with marketers as they attempt to reach an increasingly cynical target market, I can’t help but thing that stunts like the Nexus One only increase and entrench that cynicism.
While Google masterfully exploited the press and its reputation for revolution, I can only imagine that any company, no matter how “revolutionary” can only pull a Nexus One once or twice before becoming that little boy, constantly claiming wolves on the horizon.