Google threw down the gauntlet and attempted to change the carrier model in the US with the Nexus One. By offering one model of Nexus One per carrier, and selling and supporting it directly, they hoped to offer a different support structure, but the effort was short lived. Many in the tech world feel that they gave up far too soon without really trying hard enough to make an impact. Even then, they argue, Google was strong -- couldn't it have tried harder to challenge the carriers? Why didn't Google push ahead with its plan? Why did they end up handing over so much of Android's great potential to the carriers and their control of the phone manufacturers? How could the Nexus One program have been done differently?
How It Could Have Been
Dreaming up a different history for the Nexus One program at Google isn't too difficult. One way it could have evolved would have been into a hypothetical Google Mobile division, which would have operated as a Mobile Virtual Network Operator or MVNO with four carrier contracts, one for each of the big four. Consumers would select from one set of mobile voice and data plans, describe where they plan to use the device, and a Google Map could tell them which carrier back-end would best fit them. Google Mobile would be on the phone bill.
Google would continue to source Nexus devices from manufacturers like Motorola, HTC, Samsung, or LG, but would release perhaps two a year, spring and fall, to keep quality high on both the hardware and software side. Any Nexus device would be able to use any of the four MVNO providers with no hardware change (other than a change of SIM card for networks that needed it). Devices could be bought at full price, or financed separately from the service plan. Service plan pricing would be the same no matter what device you brought to the table, and contracts could either be changed to offer different perks or go away entirely.
The entire software stack would be Google controlled to maximize security, stability, and allow innovation unhindered by carrier or phone manufacturer marketing departments that want to make their own special mark on Android's user interface. Security updates would occur for at least two years. Other updates would occur for a year, with a second year available for a fee.
As for other devices, hardware vendors who want access to the Google Mobile networks to have a certification program requiring strict testing of the data stack of the device to allow any GM account to share service with this device. Tablets, hotspot manufacturers, and computer wireless adapter vendors come to mind.
Music To My Ears
This scenario solves several problems consumers have with the current Android ecosystem, and some they don't even know they have. Security is improved, fragmentation of capability across devices is reduced, app makers and Google itself would have far fewer target platforms to aim for which makes development less costly and error prone, and consumers will more likely have a positive experience with a Google Mobile device. Add in portability between MVNO back-end providers with your device and you get the ability to change your mind if one network turns out not to fit a change of commute or travel.
So what are the challenges of what we can call this conception of Google Mobile? They're big, very big.
1. Time. Android had a limited window to gain marketshare before the smartphone-redefining iPhone would reach other carriers.
2. Google's lack of live customer support experience. During the Nexus program Google only haltingly offered a phone number to call, and even that wasn't useful for more than getting the status of existing issues. Poaching support personnel from carriers and offering them the ability to make a best in breed support organization at an all new enterprise might sound like a good plan if you have a big budget, but making it work -- and work well -- isn't an easy road.
3. What if it worked? The carriers would adopt Android onto their own devices using business models consumers understand (subsidized handsets hiding device costs on networks they know and understand) and eat Google's lunch since they are far more efficient at fielding devices.
A Matter of Goals
Those are significant challenges, especially the time challenge, and in whole this begs the real question of what was Google's goal before, during, and after the Nexus One program? Was it to create a shining example of an open and extensible platform, or was it to ensure they got mass market adoption so they were in everyone's pocket using Google services instead of someone else's before the iPhone got too far ahead of them?
The rewards for handing Android devices over to the carriers to create, manage, and support are clear and unmistakable. A big chunk of the consumer disposable device market is now running Android with a consumer-friendly frosting of lucrative Google services in consumer pockets.
Did they want to change the world, or just make it so they had that spot in everyone's pocket? Or would changing the world have made it more likely for them to end up safely in your pocket?
The last challenge, whether carriers would beat them at their own game, is probably the most insidious one of all. One could imagine that early on in the Nexus program carrier executives paid Google executives a visit and told them in no uncertain terms that they would not take it lying down. Had the carriers moved quickly, the public would surely know about the carrier's Android devices first before seeing some weird setup on some brand new, unproven Google Mobile.
But if the carriers had moved slowly, Google could have had a more positive effect, making the carriers, at first anyway, offer a more open policy and network and granting more user freedoms. It would be foolish to think that Google would have gotten what they wanted in the end, however, as the carriers, by force of scale, could push Google Mobile out of business, and then rebuild the walled gardens for their users and close off features to "protect the network" and guarantee one person doesn't ruin it for other subscribers by using some data-hungry applications.
In the end, smart minds at Google, no doubt persuaded in varying degrees by the existing mobile industry, found that selling out to the carriers was their best solution.
Does this bar Google from starting over again with an MVNO model, perhaps offering a more "pure" Android experience and services to distinguishing consumers? While Android is much better known today, it would mean angering the carriers that are more powerful than ever, and those carriers now almost all have access to the iPhone and are continuing to pay handsomely to be able to offer it.
If Google's goals ever do return to the idea of the Nexus One program's ideals, I imagine regulatory change is the only way to get there. Good luck with that.