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Google to unveil phone; world ends at noon

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Free doesn't make it good

A quick look at the profitability of Nokia's multimedia and enterprise business units - dissolved in this year's reorganisation - shows what potential there is. Neither makes money, which given the company's engineering and marketing muscle, as well as its unrivaled routes to market, counts as a colossal failure.

But it isn't clear whether cost is an inhibitor to market growth, here. It's possible to pick up a Nokia N95 for free with a new contract in the UK, and for not much more in most of Europe, where there's less subsidy. Here's a phone that does "many things" the company boasts on the box, but these "many things" still go ignored.

As I wrote here recently, the "smartphone" category has really become a distinction without a difference.

(I'd bet that the top reasons for customer satisfaction with the Nokia N95 are performance [it's not sluggish, like its S60 predecessors], a decent keypad, large fonts and a big screen, and an interface that offers some respite from the clumsy and antiquated S60 UI. Wi-Fi and GPS are appreciated - but only by only a few tech enthusiasts).

The man in charge of the Google mobile platform business has already shown that a rich feature set doesn't have to be forbidding. After Web TV, Andy Rubin founded Danger Inc, whose Sidekick was so simple that even a blonde could use it. Rubin left Danger to start Android, which via acquisition is Google's new phone platform. As with Google Earth, sometimes it's better not to start from scratch, in house. Google has also hired considerable technical talent for its London-based mobile operation, particularly from Symbian. So it should work well, and look good.

But Nokia's problem in stimulating demand for mobile data services could soon be Google's problem.

The "web" in your hand sounds great on paper, and the numbers chart great on PowerPoint™ - but it rarely translates well to real life, and that's a place Google's maths PhDs aren't really that well acquainted with.

This summer I warned against inflated expectations for mobile data services - where users are more demanding, and where the device's input and display are much more limited than on a PC:

"Mobile data services simply are almost always beaten by "real life". Need directions? No mobile service can compete with a good dedicated GPS - they don't know where you are precisely enough - and you'll typically find it's quicker and more rewarding to ask. The same applies to asking for recommendations for local bars or restaurants. Again, local knowledge beats 'virtual' information."

Yes, the iPhone has a breakthrough browser. But it's still the web at the end of the day. And to make Google's task even harder, contextual advertising bombs on a phone.

And in the meantime, operators and equipment manufacturers, still wondering how to stimulate demand, might just wake up and realise the answer has been staring them in the face for years. ®

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