The era of the superphone?
Bad news, everybody. That smart phone for which you paid a fortune (or locked yourself into a mobile contract until the end of time for a discount)? Worthless. Google's created a whole new category: The superphone.
Cue the sound of thousands of iPhones being chucked in the bin.
But hold the phone, everybody (pun intended). Is the Nexus One, launched Tuesday at an event at Google's Mountainview, Calif., headquarters, really a revolution, or even a game-changer? On the surface of it, no.
Yes, it's slick. Andy Rubin, vice-president of engineering for Google, said its power is comparable to that of your laptop of three or four years ago: 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset, 512MB of flash memory, 512 MB of RAM, up to 32MB on a removeable SD card. It's got microphones on the front and back for noise suppression. It has a trackball with a three-colour LED to notify the user of incoming e-mail, chat and text messages arrive. Hey, look, the picture gallery tilts in 3-D!
In other words, hardware-wise, the revolution was not being televised (er, Webcast). It doesn't support multitouch, for example, so pinch-and-spread zoom fans will not be knocked out. And many of the flashy software features demo'd in the Webcast were, well, more flashy than functional.
Asked point-blank what the difference between a smart phone and a superphone is, Rubin talked performance, the new delivery channel (Google will sell them online as well as through operators, though the device was designed and built by HTC), the app store and the ecosystem of developers. Which, on the face of it, sounds an awful lot like the iPhone, and even its legion imitators.
There's a hint of what really sets it apart, though, in its voice-enabled keyboard, which works in every text field. Say it, the Nexus spells it. Not so impressed? The key is, that speak-and-spell functionality is on the server side, not the device. The system that's training the voice recognition isn't training on a single user, but on what will eventually be a pool of millions.
As technology icon Tim O'Reilly notes, it's not the hardware, or the apps, really, that set Google's offering apart. It's the data sets and the algorithms, and they don't make 'em bigger or better than Google's.
“Collective intelligence is the secret sauce of Web 2.0, and the future of all computing,” O'Reilly blogged. “We're moving from the era in which the device is primary and the web is an add-on, to the era in which a device and its applications are fundamentally dependent on the internet operating system that provides location, speech recognition, image recognition, social network awareness, and other fundamental data services.”
The Nexus One isn't a huge improvement on the iPhone, and in some ways, it's not even as good. Apple's App Store is bigger, its interface more intuitive, its music retailing infrastructure is superb. But if you buy O'Reilly's thinking — and nobody in tech journalism ever got fired for doing that — the revolution may be just around the corner, and Web-native phones might be the fifth column.

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