Mad Dog 21/21: Gun-bae, Google, And Thanks For All The Tuna
May 7, 2012 Hesh Wiener
In late April, Google started selling the Galaxy Nexus GSM mobile phone from its Play Store, the website that dispenses Android applications. The Nexus is a developers’ phone. When it first became officially available in the United States last November in a CDMA variation sold exclusively through Verizon it was aimed at app developers who wanted an Android 4 platform. But then Google realized that it had overlooked another market, and a very important one at that: web creators. Now Google and its manufacturing partner Samsung are scrambling to educate site builders about the promise of yakju and takju on maguro and mysid on toro.
Yakju and takju are Korean liquors made largely from rice. Maguro and toro are tuna and its prime cut, usually from the highly valued bluefin used in the best sushi and sashimi. Yakju is thoroughly filtered, so it’s clear; takju not so much. Either way, if you imbibe you’ll soon learn to say gun-bae, which corresponds to the English toast, cheers!
Inside the Nexus skunkworks, yakju is the code name for the international version of Android 4 loaded into phones sold in Europe and elsewhere that is directly supported by Google, which means it gets patches and updates early in the software cycle.
Takju, another code name, is also directly supported by Google. It’s the Android software on the version of the Nexus now sold directly by Google to American visitors hitting its Play Store. It is basically yakju with Google Wallet woven in.
Google Wallet is a secure commerce app that manages the near field communications (NFC) radio in the Galaxy Nexus that lets the phone act like a credit or debit card if it’s brought near a merchant’s NFC radio reader. These radio readers are popping up all over the place lately, and they seem particularly well received by major drugstore chains, such as CVS and DuaneReade. Right now, widespread NFC purchasing, Google style, is only a possibility in the United States, and in part because Google’s marketing has fallen short. NFC is simply not quite as ubiquitous as alternatives, such as cash money. But these days, with a lot more people having mobile phones than money, it’s easy to see that Google has missed an opportunity.
The Wallet app is only one aspect of Google’s big worry: the slow rate of systems software progress in the mobile phone Android base. Ever since the Nexus was announced last fall, Google has been trying to get phone manufacturers and their customers to migrate to Ice Cream Sandwich, aka Android 4 aka ICS. But Google’s own data shows that so far ICS has overwhelmed only about 5 percent of the Android market, and thus an even smaller slice of the total smartphone market, which also includes iOS and Windows Phone devices as well as others from Blackberry and a base of Nokia Symbian smartphones. The Budweiser of the Android world is version 2.3, also known as Gingerbread, with about 64 percent of the market.
Now, it is likely the Android base is even more skewed towards older versions of the software than Google says, because Google’s analysis is based on visits to Play Store. Users with newer phones, particularly those who are first growing into recently acquired devices, tend to visit Play Store to pick up apps more often; those with mature phones are must less inclined to add apps. (There’s still a fair amount of Play Store activity from mature phones, but not because users are adding new apps. Many Android phones are set up to automatically seek and install updates for their existing apps, and they log into Play Store to do this.)
Like a shark, the Android market has to keep moving ahead or it will die. Or, in the case of the Nexus, perhaps the fish that has to be kept in motion is a tuna.
There are two basic hardware platforms inside the phones sold as the Galaxy Nexus (and more may be on the way). One is code named maguro and it is aimed at the worldwide GSM market including the two USA GSM systems, AT&T and T-Mobile. The other is code named toro, and that is the variant that works on carriers using CDMA in the United States, Canada, and a few other places. (Verizon and Sprint in the USA also support LTE for mobile data; the Nexus toro talks LTE, too.) The Android software for the CDMA toro Nexus is called mysid, not yakju or takju.
CDMA is a popular but doomed mobile phone technology. CDMA phones cannot move data and support voice telephony at the same time. That’s poison in this era of smartphones. By contrast, GSM phones can juggle everything at once, at least to the extent the phone’s hardware and available signal quality support the activity. As Verizon gets its customer base to move to LTE in the U.S. for data communications and migrates its voice services to VoLTE (voice over LTE), it will relegate CDMA to users of low end phones. The GSM carriers are also expected to move to LTE, but they are driven there by market opportunities, not by customers who buy the most expensive service plans only to discover that they can’t walk the web and talk at the same time.
If the iPhone 5, widely expected to arrive by this year’s fourth quarter, supports VoLTE, that could be a game-changer. Google and its Android partners would at best have to react and at worst have to live with a major feature deficit for months, which works out to a long time in phone years. The Android vendors failed to leap past the iPhone 5’s potential threat as they unveiled phones for 2012. The cream of this year’s Android crop, so far a least, boasts quad core processors and superlative screens but nevertheless lacks technology to deliver VoLTE.
This unfolding scenario helps explain why Google, working as fast as it can to enhance Android and help phone makers deploy it, is mortally afraid of humiliation. Now, to strengthen its base among key influencers, it has decided to appeal to the audience that has made it so wealthy: business customers. Google is trying particularly hard to get Galaxy Nexus phones into the hands of web developers working for small and medium enterprises. These developers make webs for the same companies that buy zillions of ads on Google’s search system, and they are a key reason Google decided to sell the Nexus directly via its American online Play Store.
The Google store offers, for $399, the GSM version of the Nexus running takju on maguro with no carrier lock and the versatile international radio firmware designated XX, another part of the Google-Samsung world of code-named code. (Actually, the phone costs $10 less, because Wallet comes with $10 credit in it.) Before that the phones were sold for about $600 by grey marketers who brought them in from Europe or elsewhere. The grey market phones were sold without a vendor warranty; the Google phones have a one-year warranty. Because the two American GSM carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, didn’t offer the Nexus, American developers who wanted to test web pages or apps on Ice Cream Sandwich using a GSM phone had to either shop at unauthorized sources or import their own devices.
Other than by buying a Nexus, at least until the very recent announcement of other phones running Ice Cream Sandwich, the only other way a company could get ahead of its market when it came to developing mobile websites was by using an emulator or, if they were hooked up with Samsung’s development support group, by testing selected Samsung phones through servers in Korea. This wasn’t very inviting. Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich emulator is free but it’s woven into a big package built for app developers not web developers. Business web developers have been understandably a bit reluctant to do all the work necessary to set up a whole development environment just to get at the imitation flavor Ice Cream Sandwich browser in the kit. (At least one party has made a Google-based emulator available via the web, but that’s not the high level of support Google’s huge business market warrants.)
There are more accessible facilities on the Internet for web developers who want to test pages on an emulated iPhone or emulated iPad. Why Google hasn’t created or backed similar support sites for webmonkeys who want to try pages on various Android phones (with differing Android versions and differing screen sizes) as well as emulated Android tablets remains baffling. Samsung is doing a pretty good job, but it should not be carrying all the weight for Google to say nothing of all the other makers of Android phones who want website developers to feel confident that their pages will look right and work right on every client.
But all that is likely to change for the better very soon. Google is really trying to reach out to ordinary web creators working for ordinary businesses. It has not only opened up a device store, it has also rolled out Android updates, service packs if you will, that are so good even the chronic crybabies in the phone hacking community have nearly run out of bugs with which to taunt Google. (Okay, the ICS volume control for event sounds is flawed in a way that annoys people who sleep while their phone doesn’t, but there’s an app to fix that glitch until Google rolls out a patch. Still, ICS, now at 4.0.3 or 4.0.4 or maybe 4.0.5, is pretty good and obviously better than its initial release.)
This is shaping up to be the year that IT departments, or at least the ones that manage or oversee websites, are going to be getting smartphones and tablets for their web developers and site supervisors. The gadgets they buy will shape the way their webs work and the way their companies hook into the ecosystems of the cloud giants Google, Amazon, and Apple. Google sure wants to be at the top of the list as developers search for devices that define the future, even if it can’t be the only fish in the sea.