July 31, 2014

Google Should Have Made The gPhone

If you have spent time in the dating game, you know the harsh reality: it is usually better when you are being wooed by someone, than it is when you are running after them. When you are the one who is trying to win over someone, no matter how great your qualities and offerings, they may act reluctant, express doubts, second guess your motives and in the end, not accept you at all. On the other hand, when someone is wooing you, even if they know your negative qualities and idiosyncrasies, even if you act all pricey, they might still brush those aside and pursue you; they will be happy to accept you as you are and make a good life with that.

Reading about Google working with handset makers and carriers, I get the impression that Google is wooing a bunch of Reluctant Rebeccas who are demanding much and not making it easy for Google. The angst of a hassled suitor is best expressed by Google’s director of mobile platforms, Andy Rubin: “This is where the pain happens,” he says. “We are very, very close.”

Very close, but no cigar… yet.

Imagine how much better it would have been if things were the opposite: if all the carriers and handset makers were lining up at Google’s gates because they were desperate to have this great new awesome that Google had built. Even if they had to a pay high price for it.

Google should have built The gPhone first. It should have worked with one handset maker, in secret (with occasional leaks to the “person familiar with the matter”, of course!), to build the most awesome piece of mobile hardware. And, instead of spending time and resources to build and manage a reluctant alliance, Google should have concentrated all its own energies on doing what it does best: make innovative software with a revolutionary, irresistible UI.

With such exclusive focus, Google would have been ready to launch the g(od)Phone this June or July. Imagine the launch where Google not only showed off an awesome, unlocked, full-featured, uncrippled phone, but also offered the open mobile platform Android for free to anyone who wants it, and announced the Android developer challenge! Now, that would have been a true 1-2-3 knockout punch from which that other locked-and-limited-but-shiny-and-popular phone coming out in July would have found hard to recover. Carriers would have lined up to get the gPhone on their networks ASAP. Handset makers would have lined up to get Android on their phones ASAP. Developers would have lined up to churn out apps for the original godPhone and all other Android phones ASAP. Happy customers the world over would have lined up to get the new gPhone ASAP. Really, can you imagine how all that would have played out? That would have shaken up the mobile world, alright! Then, Google could have built the OHA as a strong coalition of willing converts, rather than a loose alliance of skeptical and reluctant participants.

Instead, what we have today is a situation where Google is scrambling hard to help T-Mobile launch the first Android phone before the end of the year. This is taking up enough of Google’s resources that Sprint cites that as an excuse for not offering an Android Phone on its own network yet. Of course, Sprint has other excuses too: top management shuffling, plans to skip 3G and go straight to 4G with the Android phone, preference to offer its own branded services on the phone (read ‘walled garden’) rather than offer Google’s built-in services. Sprint, purported founding member of the OHA, has made ambiguous and non-committal statements about Android from the very beginning. So, I am not surprised that they are not ready to offer an Android phone any time soon. In fact, I’m glad that Google is first working with T-Mobile, the carrier which cripples phones the least among all the popular US carriers.

Google should have learned from its Gmail launch. Gmail is a complete email product, with innovative, unique features. It wow-ed the world when it was launched. Some Gmail features are so unique, almost no other email provider has replicated them or even offered them as options years after Gmail launched. Remember the days when people all over the world were desperate to get an invite to Gmail? Now imagine that Google never built Gmail, and instead built a plug-in to work with Outlook or Yahoo mail or any other email system, to bring the Gmail features like threaded conversations, labeled mails, hidden quoted text, etc. to your existing mail box. Google would have had to go through hard and frustrating times to get the plug-in to work with the numerous mail systems out there. Having done that, it would have been even more difficult to get the other email providers to offer this plug-in as an optional feature, if at all. Even if Google had offered the plug-in as an independent download, it would not be as ubiquitous and useful as Gmail is today.

Google’s attempts to push Android on reluctant carriers and handset makers is akin to pushing a Gmail plug-in on existing email systems! Moreover, it makes you wonder what compromises and limitations Google might be building into Android in order to make it acceptable to the carriers. I’d like to believe that Google would not do that, but then I’d also have liked to believe that Google does not offer a self-censored search engine in China.

Anyway, what is done is done. For better or worse, Android is on the path it is on now. Nobody wishes for its success as much as we do. But it’s still not too late for Google to make and market its own branded, full-featured and unlocked godPhone which can be held up as a standard for other phones to measure up to. Perhaps, they should partner with the struggling Motorola, which has put its best engineers to work on an Android phone, to make the ideal gPhone. An ideal gPhone would serve Google (and us, the mobile customers) very well. For one thing, it would show the world what Android can really do. And, it would prevent carriers from crippling other Android (and even non-Android) phones too much. Why would people buy a crippled phone if a full-featured one is available? And even if the carriers crippled their phones a little, they would be forced to offer something in exchange – like awesome hardware or innovative services or simply cheaper phones – to tempt customers to buy those phones. Would be a win-win for everybody.