Back in January 2010, following Google’s much-hyped Nexus One unveiling, I wrote a post entitled: Apple And Google Just Tag Teamed The U.S. Carriers. In it, I argue that the biggest part of Google’s announcement wasn’t any one device, it was the new model they were putting out there. Google’s ambition to sell devices directly to consumers would build upon the consumer-friendly mobile foundation laid by Apple with the iPhone. Under the new system, consumers would go to a website and click on the phone they want, click on the carrier they want, and boom, they’re done. This was going to change everything. It was going to be beautiful.
Then something happened.
While Apple (some would say stubbornly) clung to their exclusive agreement in order to continue to bend AT&T to their will, Google backed down. When it became clear that the Nexus One was simply not selling, Google seemingly panicked and went running with open arms to the carriers.
Somehow Google’s Android inserts itself into the conversation around cell phone innovation and breaking free of carrier control. Yet I fail to see what Android has really done to help.
When the iPhone came out 4 years ago, the entire industry changed. Here’s what the iPhone brought us for the first time:
- A phone you could purchase directly from Apple at full price with no contract. This model ended up failing as consumers wanted the contract subsidy on the device, but Apple was the first to try to decouple the phone from the carrier.
- No carrier influence in the operating system. My iPhone experience is exactly what Apple wants it to be. AT&T can’t add or remove apps or even put their logo on my phone.
- The phone gets OS upgrades automatically from Apple through iTunes. The iPhone was one of the first with upgrades that user’s actually took, and it all happens independent of AT&T, through iTunes.
- Although you sign a 2 year agreement with AT&T when you get an iPhone, Apple has negotiated so iPhone users can get the new iPhone each year. With cell phone technology moving so quickly (and with so many fanboys like me), I really appreciate this from Apple/AT&T. Two year upgrade cycles are unreasonable.
- (I think) the iPhone is the first phone that is 100% pixel identical on more than one carrier. We’re not talking about “almost the same.” I can choose to get an iPhone on AT&T or Verizon and the phone itself doesn’t change in hardware or software.
With Android, I struggle to see what Google has done to make the cell phone market better, or to reduce the hold carriers have on us. The few things I can come up with are:
- They provided a good OS for free to all handset manufacturers. This is great since most handset makers had crappy software. It means phones have more functionality and more consistency than they had before.
- Android is a great, open developer platform. It lets people build software without a gate keeper (Apple).
Other than that, it seems Android suffers from the same issues other cell phones do. The carriers control the software and experience that ultimate ends up on the device. The carrier controls upgrades for software and hardware. There is a ton of fragmentation in the space. There is confusion for users.
I see how Google tried to change things. They tried to sell the Nexus One direct and tried to bring consistent hardware and software to multiple carriers. But none of this has played out.
At least today, I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about Google in the same breath as Apple with regards to innovation in the mobile industry. Google promises a lot (free WiFi in San Francisco?) but delivers little.