Why Google Should Not Do a Googlephone

The Goolephone, an Android phone designed and distributed by Google, has recently found a prominent place alongside the Apple tablet on the Island of Possible Devices. Tech Crunch’s Michael Arrington recently declared that he has “absolutely confirmed” that the Googlephone is coming soon.

I don’t claim any inside knowledge of whether Google is or is not doing a phone of its own. But I can think of some very good reasons why Google, which seems to have become convinced that it can do anything, should take a cold shower until the urge goes away.

There are basically two models in the smartphone world. One is a vertical model, in which one company controls both the hardware design and the software platform. The other is the platform model, in which one company does the software and sets general hardware specifications, but leaves the actual design of the handsets to third parties. The vertical model, typified by Apple’s iPhone and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry, has been far more successful than Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform, suggests why Google is getting itchy to go vertical.

The problem is that it would be, well, sort of evil. Google has had great success in gathering handset makers and software developers under the banner of the Android platform. For it to jump in with a handset of its own would be a betrayal of the partners it has so assiduously courted. That is especially true if, as has been rumored, it would use a version of the Android operating system more advanced than the code available to Google partners such as Motorola and Samsung. And if, as Arrington speculates, it may by a Wi-Fi and 3G data-only phone built around a voice-over-IP-enabled version of Google Voice, Google would find itself in competition both with handset makers and wireless carriers, who are anxious to preserve their threatened revenues from voice service.

Another reason Google might want to stay out of the handset business is that hardware isn’t remotely a core competency and handsets are hard. My estimation of Google’s hardware prowess was not enhanced by the experience of the first Android phone, the HTC/T-Mobile G1. Android chief Andy Rubin had a big hand in the design of of the G1, a handset that can charitably be called called mediocre. It’s true that Apple had no experience in phones before the original iPhone, which was brilliant if imperfect. But Apple has the DNA of a hardware company and has an unequaled industrial design shop driven by the perfectionist vision of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive.

The bottom line is that a Googlephone is likely to be a so-so piece of hardware that will spread confusion throughout the Android world and put Google into direct competition with handset makers and possible carriers. Sounds like a loser of a strategy to me.

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