Google Brings the Mobile Operating System to the Fore

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Google Brings the Mobile Operating System to the Fore

Google introduced its Nexus One phone today, and it marks a conclusion in one phase of mobile evolution and the beginning of the next.

I’m not talking about the technology of the phone itself, though as a new owner of an Android-based phone, I can tell you it’s pretty cool. Maybe even as cool as the iPhone, which I have long said is “the coolest piece of software I’ve ever seen.” The Android hardware got me; I like the keyboard on my new Samsung Moment phone better than the touch screen on my wife’s iPhone.

What I have in mind is a milestone in the evolution of mobile device perception and naming, and it’s in the very words we use to name the devices. We here in the United States generally say “cellular phone” and are slowly moving to “mobile” or “mobile phone” as a generic name for what one Motorola engineer told me was referred to internally as “the device that used to be called a cell phone.” Read the 30 December 2009 Economist briefing “Mobile-phone culture: The Apparatgeist callsto learn more about what the devices are called and what that says about a country’s culture.

CNBC reported the first look at the “Google phone.” TechCrunch has the official Nexus One videos. Google and Android both refer more to the operating system than to the handset hardware itself. Therein lies the shift in perception and linguistic designation.

Manufacturers and Telecommunications Carriers

In the beginning, there were hardware and electronics manufacturers supported by telecommunications carriers. Motorola manufactured cellular phones, and they were called just that. It was the delivery technology, “cellular,” and the manufacturer, “Motorola,” that gave the devices their American English designations.

Later on it became more manufacturer and brand. I had a Nokia phone. Then a Samsung. I switched carriers as it pleased me, first MCI, then Sprint, then AT&T. I’ve landed back at Sprint, but I never called my phone a “Sprint phone.”

Carriers themselves were talked about in terms of whether they were good or bad: whether they dropped calls or had good coverage. That’s still largely true today.

Brands and Manufacturers

The next phase began with the Motorola Razr, in which the brand of the phone itself took over from the manufacturer. The phones were still cell phones in reference to the telecommunications technology, but everyone knew what a Razr was, that it was cool, and that they wanted one. Same with a Palm Treo.

Blackberry hastened this phase in perception in a subtle yet critical way. The Blackberry did email, and it used a telecommunications network designed specifically for it. The company Research in Motion (RIM) took to the background, and you only heard about them, even today, when there was a problem with the RIM network.

The brand name of the device itself trumped both the telecommunications technology and the manufacturer. At the same time, the operating system of the phone began to move to the fore, as Blackberry refers to the mobile device’s operating system as much as the hardware. In terms of naming and perception, the lines between manufacturer, hardware, and operating system began to blur.

So did the name of the device. They’re called “Blackberrys,” not cell phones, not even mobile handsets. That’s the RIMs perceptual innovation. They aren’t pure phones. They’re personal digital assistants (PDAs), a term that’s so awkward not many people would dare use it in polite conversation.

Hardware, Operating System, and Manufacturer-Brand

Enter the iPhone. The name “iPhone” refers to both the hardware from Apple and the software, also from Apple. Gone is all reference to the telecommunications network. The official iPhone carrier, AT&T, only has a competitive advantage with the device because of its exclusive deal, as a way to differentiate its commodity services from its competitors’ commodity services.

The linguistic designator has shifted to the hardware, the software, and the manufacturer all at once with the iPhone. Have you ever heard a phone that uses Windows Mobile referred to as a Microsoft phone or a Windows Mobile phone, except perhaps for people like me who used one? Have you ever heard the average person refer to a Nokia phone as a Symbian phone? Not likely, even though Symbian happens to be the world’s most pervasive mobile operating system, in terms of market share.

With the introduction of Google’s phone, the shift to the primacy of the brand and the operating system is complete. No reference to the carrier at all, except that the devices seem to still have “phone” somewhere in the syntax of the name. Google now isn’t using telecommunications carrier-specific hardware, which may speed the commodity status of both handsets and mobile telecommunications delivery services. Now you see references to “Android phones”—Droid, in Motorola’s advertisements—and “Google phones.”

If successful, it will also be a major shift in perception for Google, which, after all, started as a search engine and became the newest way in a generation or more to publish and deliver advertisements to an audience. Now that it has an operating system, Google appears to be turning into a software firm, like Microsoft, with a slick piece of mobile telecom software, like Apple. As with both of those companies, the operating system lies at the core. Just as it always has been for a software company.

I would like to see the shift hasten the uses and pervasiveness of high-function “smart” phones, another designation that ought end up in the verbal trash bin (what’s “smart” about email, calendaring, and contacts?). Credit-card and contactless payments may yet be on the horizon in the United States, which still has a long way to catch up to Japan and Europe in that regard.

Nokia and the other handset manufacturers, as well as the U.S. telecom carriers, will have a lot to say about future shifts like that. Certainly the language of device designation will continue to evolve as well. My guess is that the next perceptual and linguistic shift will consider device daily function and use as much as branding and software considerations.