In November 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was asked to comment about the then-emerging Android mobile platform from Google.
“Well of course their efforts are just some words on paper right now, it’s hard to do a very clear comparison [with Windows Mobile],” Ballmer was quoted as saying.
Today, Android smartphone sales continue to rise (3.5 percent in 3Q 2009) while Windows Mobile sales dropped by nearly 20 percent in the same period. All the while, according to Gartner, total smartphone sales went up by 12.8 percent compared to 3Q 2008.
Never underestimate the power of words of paper.
Ballmer’s skepticism, as well as that of Apple’s Steve Jobs, might be put to the test again this week as details emerge about a new mobile offering from Google: the Nexus One, an Android-based mobile device currently in testing amongst Google employees that could be released to customers as early as January 2010.
Rumors of the so-called “Google Phone” have been stirring for the past few days, stirring up memories of 2007, when prior to the announcement of the Linux-based Android operating system, rumors were flying thick and furious about the “GPhone,” until it was Android that was revealed, and not an actual hardware device.
This time around, the rumors may indeed be fact: the Google Phone has been confirmed by various sources, and Google itself: the Mountain View, CA company is indeed testing “…the concept of a mobile lab, which is a device that combines innovative hardware from a partner with software that runs on Android to experiment with new mobile features and capabilities, and we shared this device with Google employees across the globe. This means they get to test out a new technology and help improve it.”
More details about the Nexus One have come out over the weekend: the device itself will be sold with complete Google branding and a pure Android platform–which makes sense, since Google will be working hand in hand with the hardware manufacturer to properly support the device. Images captured of the test device, modeled after the HTC Passion have already hit the Web.
Even more significant for cell phone customers is the fact that Google is planning to sell the device as an unlocked GSM phone, which means anyone can buy the device and then get a calling plan separately with any carrier they want with a compatible network. While this is a new model for US mobile customers, where phones are often sold locked to individual carriers’ networks, this is a sales model familiar with non-US customers, so the Nexus One could show some more traction outside the US.
This unique approach could give Google an advantage on competitors like Apple, which exclusively licenses the iPhone with AT&T in the US, requiring customers to put up with a host of network problems. One analyst has even predicted that AT&T Mobility could lose its exclusive rights to the iPhone in June, because of these problems. Giving to customers a preferred device they can take to a preferred carrier based on calling plans and network performance could be very attractive for savvy smartphone users.
Google’s jump into the mobile smartphone market will do more than shake up the sales plans of the iPhone and Windows Mobile devices: hardware manufacturers like Motorola, Samsung, LG, and HTC, who have released or will release Android devices could have issues with the software company pushing out their own hardware competition. (Though perhaps not HTC, which the rumor mill sees as the most likely “ghost” manufacturer of the new Nexus One units.)
How this all plays out depends on a number of factors: price being the big one. Since most US-sold phones’ costs are subsidized by the carrier to which the phone is locked, will Google come in with a price point that consumers can handle? Or will Google have to subsidize the cost of the Nexus One? Which raises another round of questions: could Google be planning on-board ads to help offset their costs? And would consumers put up with such ads?
Lots of questions, but if Google does indeed launch the Nexus One as early as this January, we may see the answers as more than just words very soon.