Give Andy Rubin, the architect of Google’s Android mobile operating system, points for honesty in discussing the failure of the company’s experiment in selling mobile phones directly to consumers.
“We bit off more than we could chew,” said Rubin, in reference to the company’s move almost a year ago of offering its Nexus One smartphone for sale directly to consumers from its web site, free of ties to a carrier.
The new Nexus S, by contrast, is launching with T-Mobile at a subsidized price of $199 and being sold at Best Buy stores next week. (It’s also available, unlocked, for $529 — but not directly from Google, as the Nexus One was.)
Unlocked phones are commonly sold in Europe, but in the U.S., carriers subsidize the price of a handset in exchange for forcing consumers to sign long-term service contracts — a tie that Google hoped to break with the introduction of the Nexus One.
What ultimately killed the experiment, Rubin said, wasn’t pushback from carriers, but the burden of setting up systems to provision phones with wireless service. Google also faced criticism from users when it didn’t make telephone customer support available at first.
Rubin said Google looked at the length of time it took to set up each connection with a carrier and multiplied that time across the hundreds of carriers in the world and decided it made more sense to spend that time developing new features, like Google’s recently introduced Gingerbread version of Android.
He made the remarks in San Francisco at D: Dive Into Mobile, a conference organized by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, two veteran tech journalists affiliated with News Corp.
Swisher and Mossberg probed Rubin repeatedly on the question of Android’s profitability as an arm of Google. “I bring my accountant with me everywhere I go,” cracked Rubin.
Google executives have said Android is profitable if one considers Google’s sales of advertisements on Android-powered phones.
“When I was a startup company, there was no way I would be profitable,” said Rubin. Before Google bought Android in 2005, the company was planning to give away its software and make money providing development services to carriers.
But Rubin wasn’t bullish on that plan, he now admits: “I probably wouldn’t have made it as a startup company.”