Joining the Smartphone dots

Google has made a big splash with its launch of Nexus One, even though technically it is not all that exciting. A neat phone; 1 Ghz Qualcomm processor; runs Android 2.1; good for web video with its inclusion of Adobe Flash 10.1, along with the ability to capture your own videos at 20 frames per second in 720×480 pixels. No keyboard though; and the q&a at the press briefing revealed a few limitations, such as lack of tethering support (using the phone to connect a laptop to the Internet), and that downloaded applications all end up in the 512MB on-board RAM rather than on an SD card, making it more likely that you will run out of space. Tethering is being worked on, apparently, and the application restriction is for copy protection, supposedly making it more difficult to pirate paid-for downloads.

My biggest disappointment is the price. It is a fraction cheaper than an Apple iPhone, but still far from a mass market product; though it won’t feel that way in the tech influencer community.

All this is rather unimportant; even prices will fall eventually. What matters is that attention is shifting from web+desktop (or laptop) to web+smartphone as the computing platform of the moment. That shift is far from complete; most of us still need the large screen and comfortable keyboard of a laptop to do our work. It is real though, and it is obvious that the need to carry around a bulky laptop with a short battery life is diminishing. Netbooks and Apple’s rumoured tablet are part of the same movement towards smaller, lighter and web-connected.

Although these gadgets are getting more capable, there is no sign of them following the desktop model with feature-rich local applications and heavy use of local storage. The applications being downloaded in huge numbers from Apple’s app store – a breathtaking three billion to date according to today’s announcement – are small, single-purpose apps where speed and usability is valued over richness of features, and where data comes from the Internet. This is the new model of application development.

Google’s announcement is also an important move in the identity wars. Most computer users have multiple identities: maybe an Active Directory account on a Microsoft network, a Facebook account, an Apple ID for iTunes and MobileMe, a Google account for Gmail and Google Docs. All these competing players gain hugely if they can increase the importance of your identity on their platform versus the others. If Microsoft can keep your Active Directory account at the centre of your world, then you will be a customer for Exchange, Office, SharePoint and so on. On the other hand, if your Google sign-in becomes more important, then Google’s products are correspondingly more attractive and it can sell you more services and advertising. Buy a Google phone and you hook directly into Google’s world. In ChromeOS the link is even more obvious, since you sign onto the computer with your online Google credentials.

The power shift is obvious. And as Tim O’Reilly implies in his excellent post, Google’s lack of legacy desktop baggage is helping it to compete against Apple as well as Microsoft.

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