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Spare me the 'Google Phone' hype

Once again, the digerati are frothing over a magical new gadget that will revolutionize the market as we've known it -- this time, the market being the smartphone business, our collective savior being Google and the gadget being a phone running Google's Android software and designed by that company to be sold directly to consumers.

My colleague Cecilia Kang summarizes the chatter in a story in today's paper, which notes how almost all phones are instead sold locked to run on only one carrier.

Google's new device, allegedly built by HTC to its specifications and called the Nexus One, emerged over the weekend in a post on the Mountain View, Calif., company's mobile blog. It apparently runs an upcoming 2.1 release of the Android operating system, uses a touchscreen keyboard and offers a few other refinements over current Android devices.

Since a lot of people had speculated about, hoped for or outright predicted the arrival of such a phone -- see this breathless post at TechCrunch from last month -- speculation quickly got out of hand in comments on stories about the Nexus One/Google Phone and posts about the news on Twitter.

But a closer look at the specifics of this phone suggests it hasn't earned that excitement. As multiple reports revealed yesterday, a Federal Communications Commission-mandated testing report -- something required of every mobile phone before it goes on sale -- indicates that the Nexus One will offer 3G speeds on only T-Mobile's network. On AT&T Wireless, the only other nationwide carrier its GSM circuitry supports, the Nexus One would be limited to far slower "EDGE" data service. On Verizon Wireless and Sprint, which use the incompatible CDMA standard, this device would be a brick.

Problem is, T-Mobile's 3G network can only be described as scrawny, limited to major cities, parts of their suburbs and some highways between. It would be downright cruel for Verizon to target this Bellevue, Wash.-based carrier with one of its "There's a map for that" coverage-comparison ads.

In a follow-up piece, PC Magazine reporter Sascha Segan tried to decode the fuss over the Google Phone, and this part sounds right to me:

The idea that gets everyone hot under the collar is that Google may sell a phone directly, magically compatible with all U.S. carriers, but somehow without the restrictions and bindings that U.S. carriers place on devices.

The impossibility of such a thing, given the current state of technology in the market -- check back in 2012 or so -- has yet to stop people from dreaming. But, please, leave me out of this exercise.

Look, if you've been dying for an alternative to the iPhone that works on a network besides AT&T's, there are plenty of fine Android phones already available, and at subsidized prices comparable to those of Apple's smartphone. Give them a shot -- and stop wasting your time waiting for some uniquely Google-blessed Android device to serve as the second coming of the Jesus Phone.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 15, 2009; 12:13 PM ET
Categories:  Gadgets , Telecom  
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If it's sold direct to consumers, won't it run into the same problems the iPhone (original G) ran into, which is that not too many people are keen on spending $500 on a cell phone? (Of course, they spend it over time during the course of the contract, but that doesn't count.)

Posted by: ah___ | December 15, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

The rumor is that it will only cost $199, and that's without a contract. Of course it's starting to look like the rumors aren't true.

Posted by: dennis5 | December 15, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

By now T-Mobile has cleaned out all the local Radio Shack and Home Depot stores of the components necessary to build 3G towers throughout the Bay Area.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | December 15, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I love my Motorola Droid. Call me old fashioned but having a keyboard is nice for when I really need to bang out an email - I am not a fan of the slim HTC design, my wife has the Eris.

Posted by: mb129 | December 15, 2009 8:30 PM | Report abuse

The requirements of the US carriers have become like a dead hand across phone features globally, even though so many countries have superior broadcast access and fewer restrictions on phone contracts.

Australia is just one place where Apple (for example) sells unlocked phones direct to the public for use with any telco.

Posted by: memew | December 16, 2009 7:03 AM | Report abuse

The first article I read about Nexus mentioned it would be limited to T-Mobile and AT&T, yet every subsequent report I came across said it would work on any network. Some media seem so eager to hype this story that they're telling half-truths right and left.

Thanks for the reality check, Rob.

Posted by: CafeBeouf | December 16, 2009 12:35 PM | Report abuse


The "froth" of the digerati optimism is apparently only matched by the "steam" of your pessimism!

Is it so wrong that some users are excited that a major company, other than Nokia, is putting its weight behind an unlocked cellphone?

Could it be the "Google Phone" will offer a low priced, unlocked cellphone that will compete in price with subsidized phones?

Is it possible that a phone, designed by Google, might take advantage of the Android OS in ways we have not seen previously?

As T-Mobile offers discounted plans to users who bring their own phone to their service, might the combination of an unlocked Google phone and T-Mobile provide a low cost smartphone for the masses who cannot afford the high service fees of the iPhone/ATT cabal?

Are these hopes really that insufferable?

Posted by: skshrews | December 16, 2009 11:23 PM | Report abuse

I easily use an unlocked iPhone 3G with no 3G service, I just use wi-fi, and the cheapest AT&T GoPhone pay-as-you-go SIM card. $300 on craigslist and $9 a month voice/SMS service. Also I easily use a Motorola Droid I bought for $300 on craigslist. With it I have the minimum monthly Verizon voice contract and $30 3G data contract when not using wi-fi, but I use Google Voice and VOIP. If Google could serve mobile ads and thus subsidize service, monthly data from carriers would be free or very cheap, as Google already has Gizmo5 and Google Voice primed to release from beta. I think the significance of the Nexus One Google Phone is that it can become the client mobile computer for the Google cloud along with the Google netbook (both using ARM SoCs), not so much a phone anymore but personal communication device with converged media. The carriers should just be data pipes and move quickly to LTE as you suggest. This device can do a lot more than a phone and we have scarcely explored the possibilities, such as mobile banking and POS. What has been holding it back is that so many companies want to take a cut and create monopolies, and the Google phone promises to bypass those restrictions.

Posted by: joeshuren1 | December 18, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

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