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Google and its strategy of “meh”

This article appears in the issue April 2010 [Volume 19, Issue 4]
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“Meh” has become a way to signal indifference. In one syllable, a person in step with current lingo can say “meh,” meaning “so what” or “who really cares.” Feigned indifference can be maddening. Ask a Microsoft executive about Google and you get an earful. Ask Google about Microsoft and you may elicit a meh.

The traditional mobile phone market is a big one, resistant to change. It works by rolling out confusing services and devices. Customers are forced to extend their contracts in order to get the latest device. In the United States, mobile phone pricing requires the patience of Job and the mathematical skills of Leonhard Euler.

Google is now a key player in mobile telephony, and it is taking some steps that are deeply disruptive. In the United States, anyone can buy a Google Nexus One phone from the Google Web site. The idea is that a person buys a Nexus One and uses it on the networks Google supports. Note that this is not the carriers that support Google, but there is a deal of some sort in place.

Google positions the Nexus One device as similar to the Apple iPhone. On the surface, the Nexus One looks like a competitor to Apple, but upon a closer look, Google seems to be taking the position that the more phones out there with the Android operating system, the more developers will code for the gizmo. And the more developers, the more applications will be available. Google, therefore, is priming the Android pump with Googley indirect method, not the top down, ramrod approach of the traditional mobile phone company.

Playing coy

Google is making the Android operating system an open source software offering. In tough financial waters, what mobile device maker can resist a “free” operating system? Not HTC, the manufacturer of the Nexus One. Even more enticing is that Google wants to leave the gatekeeper role to other parties, a tactic that clearly avoids the Apple approach. Apple decides which apps get into the Apple App Store. Google exercises minimal control.

Google has avoided making the phones running Android into a BlackBerry killer. One has to look hard to find evidence that Google is targeting the enterprise market. The coyness is not fooling me, and I don’t think it is fooling the (BlackBerry’s) Research in Motion (RIM) engineers either. Google’s seeming lack of interest in pushing Android into the enterprise is another Googley strategy. Playing coy can be a nattering problem. That too is disruptive because Google is mounting a push in the enterprise and not spelling out how the Android fits into that particular puzzle.

In short, Google’s Android operating system and its seemingly aimless marketing strategy are different enough. I describe the approach Google is taking with the positioning of the Android as the meh strategy. The company seems to be content to let whatever happens just happen. But I think Google cares about Android in the enterprise.

And Apple, Palm, Microsoft, RIM and Nokia? Uncertainty, and uncertainty sets worry in motion. Those outfits like to slug it out in the market. Apple and Microsoft spend millions insulting one another in commercials crafted like eggs from the House of Fabergé. Not Google. That company is just dumping puzzle pieces in front of customers, developers and integrators. The approach says, “Have fun. We’ll check back with you later.” Nothing could be more removed from the “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC” school of marketing.

The options

The Android operating system allows a mobile phone company an open source toolkit. Open source software, despite some drawbacks, provides manufacturers and developers with considerable freedom. Did I mention that the Android system, as I write this, costs nothing? In today’s financial climate, manufacturers and developers can enjoy a low-cost respite.

Android allows more developer freedom than some of the alternatives. For example, if a developer wants to use Windows Mobile 6.5, the cost and technical baggage issues must be considered. RIM provides an operating system, but some technical requirements and costs keep BlackBerries in check. Other options exist but are unwieldy (Symbian), without sizzle (Palm OS) or closed (Apple iPhone OS).

Apple has some enterprise business, but at its core, Apple is the champion in the consumer sector. RIM’s BlackBerry has an enterprise focus but is working overtime to gain a share of the consumer market. RIM, unlike Microsoft, can lose in the enterprise and be left with a sliver of the consumer mobile market. Nokia is fighting financial demons. Palm is not a factor in North America. If Apple enters the enterprise sector, RIM may be road kill, not Google.

The tactics

Google appears to have no real strategy in play for the Android. In fact, Google seems to be tackling the mobile phone market in a manner that is 180 degrees different from Apple and BlackBerry. Nokia asserts that it sells a large number of mobile devices, but the Googlers are taking a very non-directive approach. Its mobile initiative motto  can be summed up in one word, meh.

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