Could Google's Nexus One justify “iPhone killer” moniker?

Latest handset from Google is most serious contender to date

Nearly every smartphone that has been launched since the Apple iPhone has been accompanied by a flotilla of articles asking the same question: is this new device an "iPhone killer"?

Indeed, a Google search throws up 701,000 instances of the phrase "iPhone killer" on the web. Yet, for all the noise, nothing so far has been a barrier to the growth of Apple's iPhone: recent smartphone market share figures from Gartner, the analyst firm, show that, if anything, Apple is closing the gap on the smartphone market leaders, Nokia and RIM (maker of the Blackberry).

It's hardly surprising that the iPhone continues to do well. As I've noted before, Apple fans are about the most passionate consumers on the planet. Witness the scene in the first five minutes of the first episode of the new television series Nurse Jackie, in which a bicycle courier with critical injuries sits up in bed just before he dies to tell a doctor using a non-Apple phone: "Doc, you gotta get an iPhone!"

Subtle, perhaps not, but good branding nonetheless. (My bet is that Apple paid for such valuable coverage. But the script is not so contrived, considering the evangelism of many iPhone punters.) Somewhat ironic, too: the actor playing the doctor, Peter Facinelli, is a known iPod nut, whipping it out for people he's never even met before (his phone, I mean, obviously).

Anyway, getting back on track, the Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC saw unit growth of almost 61 per cent year-on-year. Which is where this story starts, in a roundabout kind of way, because that growth is coming not only from devices running Windows Mobile, but also from those like the Click, Dragon and Bravo, all of which run Google's mobile operating system, Android.

Google announced Android back in 2007, with the first devices based on the system shipping in October 2008. There are now over 20 handsets available from various manufacturers that run Android -- the likes of HTC, Motorola and Samsung.

Early signs have been good, rather than spectacular. The research firm Canalys has said that Android captured 3.5 per cent of the entire smartphone market within a year of it going on sale. Google, perhaps sensing it needed to give the Android market a bit of a boost, this week launched a new Android-based phone called Nexus One. The key difference, however, is that Nexus One is the first Android-based phone that Google is calling its own. It's the first real Google mobile, or Goobile (I made that up, and confess it's unlikely to catch on).

Sure, it's still manufactured by HTC, and it's not the first Android-based phone to have the Google logo on the back, either. So what's changed? This time, Google is putting itself centre-stage. It did the launch not at HTC's headquarters, as with some previous Android phones, but at its own Mountain View HQ. What's more, you can buy the Nexus One from Google's own webstore, making this the first time Google has entered the phone retail space.

So, dare we use the term iPhone killer about the Nexus One? Well, it makes few radical improvements on what the iPhone can do, it's still not quite as pretty, in my view (and Apple buyers are design-sensitive, to say the least), and it'll be a while before applications for the device match what's available for the iPhone (well over 100,000 and counting).

It's true that Nexus One's voice-recognition input -- which is built in to every text input field on the device, enabling you to answer emails, navigate to a particular place via Google Maps, or (naturally) search Google -- is something the iPhone can't quite manage today. One strong feature won't put the brakes on iPhone sales, mind.

Perhaps more appealing is the somewhat more open nature of the Nexus One. The iPhone is sold by a relatively limited number of operators on a limited number of price plans, while Google is suggesting that you'll be able to buy a Nexus One and put pretty much any SIM card in it that you like.

But the more important development is the way Google is playing a more serious role in its own mobile future. Google, remember, makes most of its money from advertisers, which buy advertising around its search-engine results. While in mature markets mobile web browsing is on the increase, it's growing even faster in emerging economies, where some consumers spend most of their time on the internet on a mobile device, not a PC.

As Erick Teng, Google phone project manager, told CBS News: "What we found is that if you make the website browsing experience better and faster, people do more searches. It's pretty obvious." More searches, mobile or otherwise, mean more revenue for Google.

The Nexus One, then, is not an outright iPhone killer. But Google's increased focus on peddling not just its Android operating system, but its own "Goobiles", too, is likely to take at least some of the phenomenal growth away from the iPhone. It won't kill the iPhone dead, but it may knock it from the top of the growth charts.

Last October,analysts at Gartner predicted that by 2012, Android would become the world's second most popular smartphone platform, behind only the Symbian system, which powers Nokia smartphones. In that sense, Nexus One and subsequent Goobiles are iPhone killers.

But with Gartner predicting that Apple will remain in third place with the iPhone, and Apple making far higher margins on the sale of every iPhone than Google or other operators are said to make from Android-based devices, let's just say that reports of the iPhone's death are greatly exaggerated -- unlike the sad Apple fan in Nurse Jackie.

Jason Stamper is the New Statesman technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.