By Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Wireless
After the hype comes the backlash – and in the fast moving world of smartphones, the whole cycle only takes a day. So on Thursday the new Google Nexus One smartphone was going to turn the mobile business model on its head, and some ardent Google fans even thought it was a ground breaking handset design. By Friday, there was already mounting anger among programmers and target consumers, about delays in the software developers’ kit (SDK), poor support and likely Android fragmentation.
Early users said they had encountered many problems with the phone, and a severe lack of help. Many complaints focus on poor 3G performance, and confusion about pricing terms. In particular, existing T-Mobile users are angry that they have to pay more than new users.
Carrier friendly observers were quick to point out that, by adopting a model of selling handsets directly to consumers, Google might have bitten off more than it could chew in terms of supporting those complex devices (reminiscent of how it underestimated the time and resource it takes to make a new phone network-ready, leading to launch delays in the early days of Android. This is a very unfamiliar market for the search giant.)
Google is only accepting email customer queries, says Techworld, and promises to respond within two days, which users complain, on many forums, is unacceptably long. And there is confusion too, with some consumers approaching HTC or T-Mobile for help. Although Google will sell the Nexus One with a T-Mobile (or Verizon) contract in future, this option is not yet available, but that has not stopped HTC referring complaints to the carrier, according to online discussions. “T-Mobile said Google hasn’t provided them with any support documents for the phone. Welcome to direct sales Google!” wrote one disgruntled user.
As for Android developers, many are angry that there is no SDK as yet for Nexus One. This, in turn, has highlighted the issue of fragmentation, with different OS releases and even different devices requiring different SDKs, with limited compatibility between apps written for the various versions. Until there is an SDK for Android 2.1, the latest OS upgrade, which so far runs only on Nexus One, programmers cannot be sure their apps will work properly with the new handset.
“How is it even remotely acceptable that people will have 2.1 in their hands before developers even get to touch the SDK?” wrote a developer on one forum, who had received complaints that his widget did not work well on the Nexus One. Developers are angry that Google distributed Nexus One devices to employees in mid-December, but not to its software base.
One response from the Google engineering department was to say that the “changes in 2.1 are really not that significant”, which seems to go against the amount of time the firm spent talking up its new OS update when launching Nexus.
All this just increases nervousness about the lack of unity in the Android platform. Some of this is ill-founded, or will be reduced once the OS stabilises and fewer updates are needed. But some of the most well respected figures in mobile software are concerned too, even those working for companies which are Android partners, such as Benoit Schillings, formerly CTO at Nokia and now in the same position at cross-OS, mobile Java firm Myriad.
“They are using Java, but they aren’t implementing any well-known Java framework, and really that just creates another standard to support. The risk they take here is that they might fragment the market further,” he said. Google pushes a hybrid approach combining a subset of Java and native apps, rather than pure mobile Java, and Android does not fully support C programs.
Google has talked up its flexibility for developers. Senior engineer Mike Cleron said in a recent interview: “We wanted the platform to be open in a lot of different ways. The idea is that anybody can come along and replace the pieces of the Android experience on a very fine-grained level. The existing APIs didn’t really allow the level of openness we were hoping to achieve in Android.”