By Stephen Schenck | February 20, 2013 7:02 AM
Watching Google’s evolution over the past fourteen years has been nothing short of fascinating. While it started out as the latest search-engine-of-the-week, its meteoric rise to dominate that market has allowed the company to branch out to fields I don’t think anyone could fathom back in the late ’90s. At its heart, it may still be a company that sells advertising, but who could have imagined that would lead to its own smartphone platform, wearable devices like Project Glass, and even self-driving cars?
As we see Google mature, and branch out into new fields, it only seems sensible that it might think about creating a retail presence for itself. After all, peers like Apple and Microsoft have already headed down that road, and as Google starts offering more hardware online through Google Play, physical Google stores could create new opportunities to reach more and more customers.
Recently, such rumors have started picking up a lot of steam, and they’ve presented the idea that these Google stores could become a reality as soon as later this year. I really hope that’s true, because I think being able to pick up Nexus devices at your local mall could be a huge blow against the current sales models the major carriers use to keep service prices high and device selection limited.
Chances are that the Nexus 4 will be yesterday’s news by the time Google stores finally pop up – at least before they’re around in any appreciable number – but I’d wager that the next Nexus phone will be more of the same: cheap and off-contract. Google may have made a big gamble with positioning the Nexus 4 like it did, but given all the headaches it faced with CDMA carriers and the Galaxy Nexus, it had to try something. Luckily for us, Nexus 4 sales sure seem to have started strong, as should be painfully obvious by just how difficult it’s been to get your hands on one. Unless something unexpected happens, this feels like a sales model Google will want to stick with.
What Needs to Change
There’s something rotten with smartphone sales and service in the US. The splintering of the nation’s wireless backbone into incompatible networks, the ubiquitous nature of subsidized pricing, and the highway-robbery prices for voice and data services are thorns in the side of what should be a pleasant, affordable smartphone experience. Unfortunately, with a dearth of better options, we put up with it all just because we love smartphones so much. There needs to be a force beyond the consumer to effect any real change, and I sorely hope that force could be Google.
When the day comes where you can walk into a Google store, pay $300 for a top-of-the-line smartphone, and get hooked up with $70 a month or less no-contract service, who in their right mind would rather shell out $200 for a subsidized phone, and then quickly blow those initial savings on monthly charges running from $80 to well over $100 a month?
The Google Store Difference
Right now, you can set that sort of thing up yourself, but for the non-smartphone-savvy, it can be a scary proposition. What if the phone you buy turns out not to be compatible with the carrier you’re thinking about? How are you going to set this up by yourself? The presence of a brick-and-mortar store, with employees willing to talk you though the process and help you get your new phone up-and-running, could make a huge difference in how attractive this non-subsizied, no-contract option looks to your average smartphone user.
I can’t overemphasize that enough. Google stores selling affordable, no-contract, high-end smartphones could be transformative for how your everyday smartphone user purchases devices and services.
It would be a godsend if Google could align itself with some of the carriers to offer their services directly in-house, whether that’s AT&T’s GoPhone or T-Mobile’s Monthly 4G, but even if customers have to purchase their service elsewhere, the presence of a local Google store ready to help them set it up once they get that SIM in-hand could be nearly as useful. Anyway, I doubt that the carriers would be very interested in making it easier for people to give them LESS money, so I’m not holding my breath. AT&T, especially, already makes it a pain to set up prepaid service with anything other than a short list of under-powered smartphones – another reason why Google helping you through everything could make a world of difference.
Riding the Wave of Change
Maybe Google could get the ball rolling, but I’d love to see some other smartphone companies follow its lead. Even if they can’t meet Google’s rock-bottom pricing, the savings available through cheaper service plans could still make a major impact on how affordable their phones look. With AT&T’s unlimited voice, text, and 1GB data plan, for example, the difference between its on-contract and GoPhone pricing is a solid $20 a month. Over a two-year contract, that’s nearly $500: some pretty major wiggle-room in finding un-subsidized prices that are still attractive.
I realize I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, as Google has yet to confirm these plans nor release any details on just how these supposed stores would operate, but I’m giddy with excitement all the same. Something’s got to be done about how we pay for smartphones and wireless service, and Google just might be the one to do something about it.
Image: Dan Barker