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

Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”