Will the Google phone finally give Android mass-appeal?

Google has set the agenda on the eve of  the CES tech show in Vegas with the launch this morning in San Francisco of its Nexus One Google-made smartphone.

Here are the main specs, courtesy of Information Week:

The Nexus One runs Android 2.1 — available as open source in the next few days — on a 1 GHz Snapdragon CPU from Qualcomm. It comes with 512MB of ROM, 512MB of RAM, and a 3.7-inch AMOLED 480 x 800 touch screen.

It’s 11.5 mm thick — or 11.5 mm thin, as Google senior product manager Eric Tseng put it — and weighs 130 grams, about as much as a Swiss army knife. It includes a 5 MP camera with an LED flash, stereo bluetooth support, a 3.5 mm headphone jack and two microphones — one on the bottom and one on the back — for active noise cancellation.

Google's Nexus One
Google's Nexus One

The Price (in the US where it will debut) – US$530 unlocked or US$179 on a T-Mobile contract. On that front, there’s a fairly attractive package available – US$80 a month gets you 500 mniutes of tlak time, unlimited SMS and MMS messages and unlimited mobile internet usage.

Haven’t Google been on phones for ages, you may be asking? Well yes, there are 20 phones available around the world featuring Google’s opensource operating system Android, including the HTC Magic which is on sale here from Vodafone. Taiwanese electronics maker HTC is actually the manufacturer behind the Nexus One, but the phone itself is Google-designed and will be marketed and sold by Google with services operating in conjunction with the newly launched Google Web Store.

So why is Google elbowing aside partners like Motorola, which has already released the respectable-looking Android phone the Droid, in favour of its own creation? Well it became pretty clear at the event this morning that Google is frustrated with the relatively slow (relative to the iPhone that is) uptake of Android handsets. IDC estimates Android phones account for five per cent of the smart phone market, compared to 29 per cent for the iPhone and 44 per cent for RIM’s Blackberry. It wants faster progress on Google-ising the mobile internet so has stepped into the game itself.

This is how Google’s vice president of product development Mario Queiros put it this morning, trying to stay on side with Google’s numerous mobile phone partners:

“One question we asked ourselves some time ago was what if we work even more closely with our partners to bring devices to market which are going to help us showcase quickly the great software technology we’re working on here at Google.”

All about the software

Google is going to all this trouble with hardware to make sure Android takes hold as a mobile operating system so that Google’s services, including its search engine, Gmail and Google Maps are among the most popular on the mobile internet where increasingly people are getting their information. But the key to Android’s success must be the design of the software. Early versions of Android I found to be disappointing because they didn’t present the unified Google experience I enjoy sitting in front of my computer. The newest version of Android debuting with the Nexus looks very promising indeed.

New Zealand debut?

I think it is fair to say its unlikely that we’ll see a release of the Nexus here until at least the end of the year. A release in Europe is planned for this year in conjunction with Vodafone. If and when it does arrive here, it will also have to run on the Vodafone network, given the GSM-based technology the Nexus uses.

Given Google doesn’t really have infrastructure to support direct to consumer sales in New Zealand it will most likely use Vodafone and its network of stores as a channel to market.

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