A Few Thoughts on the Nexus One

There will be many posts focusing on the look, feel, and features of the Nexus One, so I’m going to focus on what Android’s latest incarnation says about the competitive landscape – what I’ve elsewhere called the war for the web. Android vs. iPhone is one important front in that “war.”

nexusone.jpgNews from the front: a possible turning point for Android. I’ve been a huge iPhone fan, but after using the Nexus One for a few weeks, I find so much to like that I’m close to the point where Android might be my first choice. While I may yet go back to my iPhone, I’m conflicted.

The key to the turning point is not how slick the phone is – even though it’s thin, fast, bright, and beautiful, with amazing sensor-based capabilities including noise-canceling headphones, automated brightness adjustment based on external light levels, voice-activated search, navigation and data-entry, different “home” screens based on whether it’s in your pocket or sitting in car-dock. Nor is it the fact that you can buy unlocked phones without any plan directly from Google, or that you will soon be able to choose plans from Verizon and Vodaphone as well as T-Mobile. The real turning point is Google’s commitment to making the Nexus One a web-native device. As Google VP of Product Management Mario Queiroz said in today’s press conference, a nexus is a place where multiple worlds meet. “The Nexus One is where the phone meets the web.” It’s a connected device in a way that is more fundamental than any previous phone.

The biggest pluses of the Nexus One are all around the simplicity and completeness of the cloud integration:

  • The Android Market rocks. It’s a “one click” experience compared to the iPhone App Store. Find the app, add it directly to the phone. No separate syncing step. And there’s more than enough choice there, with more apps being added every day. I found myself having much more fun exploring and adding new apps than I ever had on the iPhone. Payment is also easy – I have a feeling that the Android Market is going to be a major driver for Google Checkout, growing its base and making it a real contender as a first class internet payment system. Not to mention that you buy the phone itself online using Google Checkout.

    I’m delighted by the useful security warnings (now, that’s unusual!) that show what system features each app you download will have access to. I also love that the Market shows you how many times the app has been installed, so you can immediately see how popular it is.

  • Gmail is so good on the phone that I can, for the first time, imagine being totally without my laptop.
  • No need to sync address book and calendar. Everything’s always up to date.
  • Multi-tasking makes the phone feel much more like a real computer.
  • Maps and turn by turn navigation are great, although the speaking voice of the turn by turn is just awful.
  • In Android 2.1, Google has speech-enabled every text field on the phone, not just search and navigation. Frankly, speech recognition still doesn’t work as well as I would hope, but as I’ve written previously, when speech recognition isn’t happening on the device, but in the cloud, it gets better the more people use it.

  • Google Goggles is still a bit rough, but really promising. I understand why it’s not pre-loaded on the phone, but think it has real promise as a must-have app, and one that plays to Google’s strengths. I believe that image recognition and speech recognition are key to future UI improvements in mobile devices, and I applaud Google’s long term commitment to these areas, even though they aren’t yet fully baked. And the awe factor when you see someone point a camera at you and have the app say “That’s Tim O’Reilly” tells you just how much more a device can do when it is backed by big data and powerful algorithms running on a cloud platform. (Google has kept face recognition out of the production version of Goggles, but I had a full version demoed to me a few months ago, and it was truly a taste of the future.) Augmented reality is coming to the iPhone as well (Layar, the Yelp Monocle, and ShopSavvy being only a few examples), but this is Google’s home turf.

The biggest minuses (as might be expected) are around UI:

  • The iPhone was always intuitive for me. The gPhone is definitely a learning experience. But the more familiar I get with it, the happier I am, unlike some devices where you never get over the hurdle, and never feel comfortable or effective.
  • Visual Voicemail is a killer app on the iPhone. Going back to having to dial a number to hear voicemail just seems so wrong. I’m assuming that this is our wonderful patent system at work, as otherwise, it’s hard to imagine that Google wouldn’t be copying this feature.
  • It’s hard to make a single-touch UI that’s as simple and useful as a multi-touch UI. I know multi-touch is coming for Android, but not having it now is a big miss. I love the experience of zooming on the iPhone with a pinch. What’s more, the sensitivity of the touch screen on the Nexus One leaves a lot to be desired. Dragging seems to work fine, but some of the button presses aren’t recognized unless you press really hard.
  • The notification trackball is a nice idea, but I don’t think it really adds much to my experience. In fact, there are so many applications that send notifications that if the light is enabled, it’s constantly flashing. Future applications may learn better how to use color in notifications.
  • I really miss access to my iTunes music collection, which is also where I listen to audiobooks from audible.com. That being said, this omission pushes me back in the direction of cloud music apps like Last.FM and Pandora, though I’m wishing that Rhapsody was available, since I’m already a subscriber via my Sonos home music system. Google has added its own built-in music app, but it has a limited selection, and what’s worse, pre-empts the controls on the headset. At least right now, they aren’t available to other music applications – pressing the pause button while in Last.FM just starts a competing stream from the Google music app. Unless Google is REALLY serious about getting into the music business, they should give up on their own app and work with third parties to fill this hole.

  • Google hasn’t done as good a job as I would have expected of integrating photos and videos with Picasa and YouTube. While Google claims one-click YouTube upload, it wasn’t immediately obvious to me. In any event, there’s a potential liability in Google’s tie to its own services. For example, I’d love to be able to auto-sync my photos to Flickr rather than Picasa – it will be interesting to see if Google’s definition of open extends to the choice of competing cloud services, or if they will use the device to tie people ever more closely to their own services.

  • The lack of some simple features, like the ability to take screenshots, is also annoying. Heck, even to install third-party screenshot apps, you need to root your phone.

Overall, the phone is good enough that it’s conceivable in a way that it wasn’t a few months ago that we’ll see a replay of Apple’s experience in the PC market twenty-five years ago, in which Apple’s fit and finish was unquestionably superior, but a commodity platform that was “good enough” and available to the entire industry ended up taking the lead.

(Henry Blodget makes this case in Hey, Apple, Wake Up — It’s Happening Again. On the other hand, Mark Sigal raises a different historical analogy, Novell vs. Microsoft, asking whether Google’s release of its own anointed phone might end up blunting adoption by other vendors, while Google takes the eye off its core business. A lot depends on whether Google holds back anything from the platform available to others. At today’s press conference, Google emphasized the open platform aspect of Android, so they are trying to address that fear. The model seems to be to work with individual partners to push the ball forward, but to return those innovations to the pool available to all partners.)

Overall, though, it seems to me that Google’s experience in delivering cloud-based data-driven applications is aligned with long-term trends in a way that Apple’s device-bound heritage is not. Apple is playing catch-up in cloud infrastructure, building its own location services, for instance, but iTunes and the App Store excepted, Apple’s cloud experience is limited, especially in the area of algorithmically driven applications, which I believe is so central to the future of computing. Meanwhile, Google has so many data assets, and so much experience in algorithmic applications, that it may be difficult for Apple to compete in the long term.

There’s also the matter of cloud-native “killer apps.” Apple’s email, calendar, and address book show their PC-era roots. They live on the PC and must be synced to the phone. Google’s web-native equivalents are always up to date, with syncing happening in real time.

In Apple’s favor: software and design patents, which hold the competition at bay in a way that they didn’t in the 1980s. Also in Apple’s favor, its own killer apps, like iTunes, which is still the gold standard in music, but also the hub for podcasts, audiobooks, and ebooks. Audiobooks and ebooks might make it into the Android Market, but it’s hard to imagine the Market becoming the same kind of content hub that iTunes has become.

Also in Apple’s favor: Google must make some of its key assets available on the iPhone or cede the real estate to competitors. It would be a major blow, for example, if Bing search or Maps were the default on the iPhone instead of Google. It’s easy to imagine an Apple-Microsoft alliance in areas like search, location services, speech recognition, image recognition, and other cutting edge areas that will be a key part of Google’s competitive advantage in the future.

Meanwhile, there are key third party apps that can make or break either platform – perhaps not quite as essential as in the days when Adobe’s commitment to the Mac before Windows helped give Apple an insuperable lead in the design market, but still significant.

Google needs to aggressively map out a partner ecosystem in areas like music, ebooks, and the like, to make sure that they have a compelling offering to match what’s already available on the iPhone.

Meanwhile, Apple needs to either beef up its capability in the kinds of data-backed applications, or partner aggressively with companies with more expertise than they currently have. They also need to re-factor their core applications like iPhoto and iMovie to make them web-native, turning them into a base for collective intelligence. Picasa and iPhoto both sport image recognition, but Apple has to train its algorithms on sample data sets, while Google gets to train Picasa on billions of user images. As Peter Norvig, Google’s chief scientist, once said to me, “We don’t have better algorithms. We just have more data.” Collective intelligence is the secret sauce of Web 2.0, and the future of all computing, and by locking user data into individual devices, Apple cuts itself off from this future. Rather than having MobileMe as a separate revenue add-on, Apple needs to make all of its applications web-connected by default, so that they can learn from all their users.

What we see then is a collision of paradigms, perhaps as profound as the transition between the character-based era of computing and the GUI based era of the Mac and Windows. We’re moving from the era in which the device is primary and the web is an add-on, to the era in which a device and its applications are fundamentally dependent on the internet operating system that provides location, speech recognition, image recognition, social network awareness, and other fundamental data services.

We’re in for an interesting ride.

P.S. Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb reminds us that new FTC guidance requires bloggers who receive free products to disclose that fact. Since the Nexus One didn’t go on sale until today, and I mention that I’ve had it for a few weeks, it should be obvious that I did not buy the phone, but received it from Google. However, they did not ask me to review it. O’Reilly often receives early access to software and hardware products from vendors so that we can plan our publishing and conference programs, and so we can provide feedback about the product. We believe that the FTC guidance is over-broad. It is designed to protect against potentially deceptive paid endorsements, not to prevent the development of third party documentation or other services.

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