When it comes to the world of smartphones, the mainstream business press likes to fixate on an imaginary zero-sum death match between Apple’s iPhone and Google Android-based handsets, including Google’s very own Nexus One.
On the surface, it seems a great story. You have Apple’s enormously successful iPhone serving as the protagonist, setting the benchmark as the “one to beat.” Journalists and market watchers have been searching tirelessly for an “iPhone killer,” somebody to take the fight to Apple and complete the narrative. The Apple antagonist they’ve found, it seems, is Google.
Never mind that the story doesn’t make sense, that it’s more hype than substance. That doesn’t matter. What matters is being able to trot out a hoary narrative mythology – hey, it’s Apollo Creed versus Rocky, Coke versus Pepsi — perspective and reality be damned. If the storyline puts bums in the seats or readers on the site, it will endure.
It’s sad, really, because there’s an even better smarphone story, one that’s just as compelling but anchored firmly in the real world. It involves Google on one side, yes, but its adversary isn’t Apple. No, across the smartphone ring from Google, girding for a battle to win the votes of the judges – represented, in this context, by handset OEMs – is none other than Microsoft.
It isn’t that Google and Microsoft are fighting for mobile-market dominance. Microsoft fell out of that contest a long time ago. It’s well behind the likes of Apple, RIM, and Nokia, and it is rapidly losing ground to newcomer Google.
Still, Microsoft and Google are destined to fight fiercely against one another for the affections of the handset vendors who don’t have mobile-operating systems of their own. These vendors – Motorola, Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson and the like – license their mobile software, from Microsoft historically and now, increasingly, from Google.
All of which makes Google’s decision to release a handset of its own somewhat perplexing. Crusty marketing types like to say you can’t suck and blow at the same time. But Google – in licensing Android to handset vendors while effectively competing against most of them (HTC partially excepted) with an Android-based handset of its own – is doing just that.
Microsoft is drawing attention to Google’s contradictory approach. In a Bloomberg story, Robbie Bach, the president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices Division, argued that Google will have difficulty attracting partners to its mobile platform after introducing its own Nexus One handset.
Bach reasoned that because Google now sells its own phone, handset makers are likely to be concerned that their software partner might favor its own handset over theirs. Such a scenario, he deduced, would drive Android licensees out of Google’s embrace, presumably into Microsoft’s welcoming arms.
Said Microsoft’s Bach of Google’s conflicted game plan:
“Doing both in the way they are trying to do both is actually very, very difficult. Google’s announcement sends a signal where they’re going to place their commitment. That will create some opportunities for us and we’ll pursue them.”
Microsoft needs all the help it can get. Its Windows Mobile operating system has been a nearly unmitigated disaster, serving to put out a welcome mat and open the door for Google’s Android-based appeals to Microsoft’s stable of handset-vendor licensees. If Microsoft had done its job, Google wouldn’t be enjoying the marketing opportunity it’s now exploiting with Android and Nexus One.
Google, for its part, tells us not to believe our lying eyes. Notwithstanding appearances, Google says all is peace and love around the Android campfire. Said Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman:
“It’s not our objective to compete with our partners. Our expectation is that the Nexus One will push the entire mobile ecosystem forward, driving greater innovation and consumer choice. We look forward to working with other hardware manufacturers to bring more Google-branded devices to market.”
In other words, there’s nothing to see here.
But that probably will sound like marketing pabulum to Android’s licensees. It’s all well and good for Google to say that Nexus One “will push the entire mobile ecosystem forward,” but, as the legendary Alan Partridge once said to a Geordie, “that’s just noise.” Google can be in league with its partners or working against them. And, if it chooses the latter course, you wonder how long they’ll remain Google’s partners.
Michael Gartnernberg, an analyst with market-research firm Interpet LLC, explains Google’s mobile dilemma:
“No one has ever succeeded in selling their own device while trying to license to partners simultaneously. As much as Google can say it’s not a Google phone, the phone says Google on it. They’re going to have to convince their licensees they’re not in competition with them.”
Gartenberg would be right, of course, if the mobile universe were unfolding as it should. But it isn’t – and the problem is Microsoft.
My supposition is that Google is breaking with convention partly because it can. At least in the mobile space, Google doesn’t respect Microsoft. It looks at the sad state of Windows Mobile, and it figures that Microsoft doesn’t offer handset vendors a viable alternative to Android. It’s arrogant and cocky of Google – and it’s entirely dismissive of Microsoft – but that seems to be the position Google has taken.
Google thinks it can have its cake and eat it, too – serving handset OEMs slices of Android while putting some aside for the Nexus One – because it believes its licensees aren’t about to visit the cake shop in Redmond.
It’s too bad Microsoft doesn’t appear capable of proving Google wrong.