The Google Phone: what we know... and what we don't (updated)

Joshua Topolsky
J. Topolsky|12.13.09

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The Google Phone: what we know... and what we don't (updated)
There's been an immense amount of crosstalk, speculation, and just plain noise over the past 48 hours about a device allegedly called the Nexus One, or as it's more commonly known: the Google Phone. We've heard all sorts of reports about the HTC-made device, and figured it might be helpful to put together a little roundup about what we know -- and don't -- on one of the potentially more exciting devices we've seen recently. for an exploration of what this device could mean, as well as a little editorial perspective on some of those "confirmed" stories of the day!
  • The phone doesn't really have an official name, though it's obviously being referred to as the Google Phone, and both its user agent string (browser identifier) and EXIF data on pictures taken on the device identify it as the "Nexus One," which we take to be a code name for the phone (it's also a reference to a line of replicants in the film Blade Runner). Some shots identify the device as "Phone 88," apparently an earlier code name. It is highly unlikely it will be released to the public as the Nexus One, in our opinion.
  • The phone was given to Google employees at an all-hands meeting on Friday, December 10th. The story broke when a number of Googlers tweeted about the phone.
  • Google posted on its blog that it was experimenting with "eating its own dogfood" on the Android front by giving employees "around the globe" a device to test. There have been zero -- zero -- official statements about Google selling the device to retailers or directly to consumers. There is a Wall Street Journal article which claims that this is the strategy Google is headed in, but the post contains a number of poorly sourced and suspect facts, so we say take it with a major grain of salt. Other reports say "what if" and "could." That doesn't make it so. As of right now, the only way to get this phone is to work for Google.
  • The phone itself appears to be the HTC Dragon / Passion (with at least the specs of the Bravo, which looks to be a variant of the other models). All are Snapdragon-based phones with a 3.7-inch AMOLED displays, 5 megapixel cameras, and no physical keyboards.
  • There have been rumors (or fact, as stated in the aforementioned WSJ report) that this phone runs a "real" or different version of Android. Based on the pictures we've seen, this is inaccurate. It appears to run a version of Android that looks nearly identical to the version currently found on the Droid (2.0.1) -- Google's latest, most official device. The version number we've heard is Android 2.1, which would not be a drastic departure from 2.0.
  • There are rumors that if sold, the device will be available unlocked and able to function on both AT&T and T-Mobile 3G bands. A source tells us that they have spoken with someone with first-hand knowledge, and this is the case, despite earlier rumors that it would only function using T-Mobile's 3G network.

And now, some philosophical perspective on what this device could mean, depending on how it ends up coming to market.

As we said, there is currently a theory floating around that the Google Phone will be sold directly by Google to consumers, or by the company to retailers and carriers. If that is the case, it should cause a real splintering of the Open Handset Alliance, and could also be a sign that Google is moving away from its "all in" mentality demonstrated at the birth of Android. Positioning itself as the purveyor of the "real" Google Phone, while controlling distribution of both hardware and software for that device could be hugely disruptive to its current strategy of 'one platform, many devices' (clearly taken from the Windows Mobile handbook). A move to full control over its ecosystem and hardware in this way certainly calls to mind something closer to Apple's strategy, though it is still confusing as to why Google would make this move given the relative success and growth of Android worldwide. Our guess would be the pressures to homogenize the experience and give developers a single path to app creation may now seem more logical to the company; it's worked beautifully for their biggest rival.

What everyone seems to be ignoring is the fact that Google has created two other "Google Phones" in the past; the Dev Phone 1 (shock, an unlocked phone that Google sold online!), and the Ion. Both were "Google" phones, both were given out to employees early on, and both were built by HTC. They also both went on to become "with Google" devices, and it's entirely possible that the Nexus One is the next generation of those phones. Given the fact that there is currently no developer device with specs similar to Android's current high water mark (the Droid), seeing a new dev phone with a faster CPU, newer version of Android, and higher resolution screen actually makes perfect sense. If we were the betting type, we'd say you were going to see this phone come to market much in the way the myTouch and G1 did -- as official, Google branded devices. Google Phones, if you will.

Regardless, all we know of this phone and Google's strategy behind it has been built largely atop rumors. The phone clearly exists, and some employees clearly have it, but as to what the long term positioning will be, Google has been 100 percent silent -- a point to note when reading articles claiming that this device is "confirmed" as being sold by Google. There is no evidence of that. For now, stay tuned -- we'll have more info as we get it!

Update: Peter Kafka over at All Things Digital says that T-Mobile is now on-board to sell this device as an unsubsidized, unlocked phone through its retail channels (he claims the big G first went to Verizon, but was turned down). That doesn't really make a lot of sense if the phone does indeed work on both T-Mobile and AT&T 3G networks. We can't see what's in it for T-Mobile in that scenario, unless this were 3G only on its network, like... previous Google dev phones. We can't help but feel there's a crucial piece of this puzzle still missing -- here's hoping we get that info soon.

Update 2: A tipster who has played with phone has some interesting tidbits about the new version of Android. Our source says that the app tray has been changed, and that instead of scrolling through icons, it now "flips" to a new page with a "3D tinge." We're also told that it's fast -- faster than the Droid. One disappointing note: our tipster says there's no multitouch to be found in the browser... AKA, no pinch to zoom.
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