Sunday, January 24, 2010

Google's risky attempt to rewrite the carrier-customer relation

Google has finally decided to put its weight behind phones that ostensibly represent their vision of a smartphone, making for a, er, Superphone. The Nexus One in many ways, has been viewed by many as a response from Google to take on Apple in its (now) own backyard, the high-end smartphone. While Google has indeed made a strong effort to meet the expectations of its own fanboys, by coming up with what many claim to be the best implementation of Android, however, in the process, Google is also attempting rewrite the traditional rules of the mobile industry in the US. In a market where carriers have historically held an iron grip over the consumers, and any other stakeholder in the value chain, (including device vendors, content creators, app developers) was kept on a tight leash, by opening up its own distribution channel, and encouraging people to buy directly, the company is attempting to break the nexus between carriers and device vendors.

For long, the US mobile market has grown on a diet prescribed by the carriers, that had made it extremely difficult for handset vendors to directly take a device to the market. With rampant handset subsidies, device vendors were left with little chance of trying to engage directly with consumers who were happy paying a fraction of the device cost upfront. While multiple others have also attempted to go direct to the consumer, however, few had the weight of a large player such as Google. Lacking the presence of an iTunes-like ecosystem, and a handset-presence, Google is now trying to create alternate channels to carriers and in the process displace them from their 'hallowed' position. By making it clear that it is going to only showcase a limited number of handsets on its channel, Google is making it amply clear that they now want to take the position occupied by the carrier in terms of driving device specifications, and now, tightly integrated applications.

The initial uptake might have been low, but this move is not really about one handset or of the resultant margins. Combine the Android marketplace, with Google Voice and Gizmo5, and a direct distribution channel to customer that's free of carrier-interference, and you are increasingly looking at the prospect of Google creating AND monetizing several over-the-top services and in the process bypassing the carriers completely.

All these moves are however, not without their more than adequate share of risk. Google's pseudo-entry into the handset space will prove quite uncomfortable with its handset partners that decided to latch on to the Android bandwagon. The fact that the Nexus One used the latest Android version before it was made available as an SDK will definitely not be lost on its partners. And by declaring that only select 'superphones' will be retailed through Google's online channel, the company runs the risk of negatively impacting sales of Android 'smart' phones that it has deemed not worthy of the 'super' tag!

Google sure has embarked on a pothole ridden path to controlling the customer relation on the mobile platform. It has its task cut out if it is to emerge unscathed, without antagonizing its partners, whilst hoping to significantly change consumer behavior.
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