If TechCrunch's Michael Arrington had his way, Google would be selling cheap Android-powered cell phones with Google Voice out of 7-Eleven stores around the country. With the company's high-end Nexus One failing to find a sizeable customer base at $530 a pop, bring on the Google phone for the masses!
That was the idea Arrington floated, anyway, to Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering at Google, on a panel on the future of mobile at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York Tuesday. Gundotra entertained Arrington's pitch with bemused politeness, the way a parent might patiently listen to a child's insistence that a UFO had just landed in the backyard.
During the panel, which also featured Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley and Facebook mobile head Chris Cox, the TechCrunch founder extolled the simple virtues of his LG 100 feature phone -- like long battery life and the ability to complete calls reliably. "Sometimes you need to make a call, and it's really nice to have a phone that does that," he said.
His plea for mobile simplicity echoed the comments of Marty Cooper, the spry 82-year-old cell phone inventor featured on last Sunday's "60 Minutes," who, with his wife, has developed the Jitterbug phone from Samsung as a retro alternative to the growing complexity of handsets. He demonstrated for Morley Safer that the phone even has a traditional dial tone.
But Gundotra wasn't buying the back-to-basics argument. Instead, the Google executive talked up the wonders of the new Android-powered HTC Incredible. (Cox said the Incredible was also his current device of choice, while Crowley is an iPhone guy.)
"I think you can have both," he said, of combining voice and data. "You should be able to have a great smartphone that allows you to browse the Web, use Facebook, use Foursquare, and make calls."
"When is Google going to make that phone?" challenged Arrington. OK, so he was playing the part of moderator/provocateur, but Arrington may be onto something. Google's top-down approach with the Nexus One didn't pan out. If the company ultimately wants to get as many people on the planet as possible using its Web services, why not adopt a bottom-up approach with mobile instead?
Google could partner with a manufacturer and wireless operator (Sprint?) on a prepaid phone with a stripped-down version of Android or Google Voice (with outbound as well as inbound service). Or the company could offer a simple Web access and text-focused device for users who don't care about voice, like Crowley. "The only people I'm calling are my grandmother and my parents," he said. "Like everyone else in New York, I just communicate with text."
The simplified phone strategy fits especially in emerging markets outside the U.S. Google last year rolled out SMS versions of search, Gmail and other applications geared to no-frills phones. And with Yahoo targeting emerging markets through its new partnership with Nokia, Google has all the more reason to attack the low end even as it helps crank out Andoid-based smartphones for the affluent.
Of course, what Arrington really may have in mind in pushing Google on a low-cost device is an Android-powered CrunchPhone as the follow-up to his ill-fated CrunchPad. And 7-Eleven could sell it as the cell phone that eats like a snack.