They Should Make It: Cheap Smartphones, Free Service

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Hear me out, hear me out. I’m not just calling for cheap smartphones and free service because I’m cheap (I am cheap). Rather, I think a company like, oh, let’s use Google as an example, could provide a viable alternative to expensive phones and even more expensive cell phone plans.

Google makes money by selling targeted advertising, plain and simple. The company has other revenue streams but the sales of targeted ads make up the bulk of its profits every year. As such, Google has a vested interest in getting its software products—namely its search engine and stuff like Gmail, Google Docs, and the like—in front of as many people as possible. More people means more eyeballs means more ads it can sell. And so far, the plan has worked. Google has a lot of money.

So now there’s Android, a Google-backed initiative to get a Google-centric mobile operating system in front of as many people as possible. So far, the plan is working. But there’s another step that Google could take: build its own network. Do you think Google likes to have to cow-tow to the mobile operators like Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile in order to get its Android handsets in front of consumers? Aside from providing voice and data streams to these devices, the providers add very little value to Google’s plan. They are so-called “dumb pipes” as much as they’d like us to believe otherwise.

Here’s what Google should do—or should have done with the Nexus One, a phone it developed based on its own desired feature-set. Build three tiers of Android phones and give them away for next to nothing. I’m talking, like, $100 for something like the Nexus One, $60 for something a little less capable, and maybe $30 for a lower-end phone. No two-year contract, no subsidies. The idea is to get as many consumers to buy them as possible. Make them expensive enough that people don’t take them for granted but cheap enough that just about everyone can afford one.

Then, instead of leaving consumers with no option but to sign up for a $70+ per month voice and data plan with one of the four big carriers, Google should leverage the power of Wi-Fi, VOIP, and mesh networking. Wi-Fi is already all over the place in most densely populated urban centers, Google’s got a killer VOIP product in Google Voice, and by making each Android handset mesh networking-capable, it wouldn’t need cell networks.

The idea behind the mesh networking concept would be that each Android handset acts as a signal repeater. So you’ve got Wi-Fi access points all over and the nearest Android phone picks up the signal and resends it out over the air to other nearby Android phones. The more phones in a certain area, the stronger the signal and the faster the data. The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project already pretty much does the same thing in impoverished areas without robust data networks in place.

But how does Google make money? Again, more handset equals more eyeballs equals more ads. They can sell the phones at a loss and still end up making money. If you could buy a Nexus One for $100 straight up and use it like a cell phone without having to pay for service, you wouldn’t just keep it in a drawer, would you? And each new phone owner that hasn’t dealt with Google before automatically becomes a new Google user since you have to have a Google account to use these Android phones.

Of course, this idea doesn’t work for everybody but it could work in big cities for people like me who don’t necessarily want a cell phone but need some sort of communications device every so often. There’s no reason I need a $200 iPhone and a $100 per month plan but that’s my exact situation because every once in a while I go out to the store and someone needs to get a hold of me or I’m at the store and I need to pull up my online shopping list. Seems silly, but there aren’t really any other great options.

This sort of plan would allow the cell providers to slowly shrink down or die off, too. It wouldn’t be an instantaneous movement of people away from the tried-and-true cellular model. Businesses would likely keep using standard cell carriers for a while, and the big four could have a year or two to propagandize about how their networks are more reliable than Google’s free mesh network and, therefore, worth the excessive monthly costs.

Rural and suburban areas might take a while longer to switch over, although since the mesh network would run off Wi-Fi it wouldn’t take any special equipment to do so—you’d just have to get enough people using Android handsets in the same area to make sure the signal got repeated strongly enough or build enough Wi-Fi hotspots that you wouldn’t need to worry about the mesh networking end of it.

And it’s no stretch to believe that Google might be interested in setting up a bunch of these hotspots itself or partnering with current hotspot owners. Let’s say you own the only coffee shop with Wi-Fi access in the small town of Jerkwater, USA. Google could set up a deal wherein if you made your hotspot open and free, you’d get a little cut of every Google Adsense ad that was delivered to a device using your connection.

The entire idea wouldn’t exactly be ideal for voice calls (especially if you’re moving around, like in a car) but for surfing the web and sending text messages, which is what most people do now anyway, it’d work pretty well.

So they should make it: cheap smartphones, free service. Google’s in the best position to do this but, hey, feel free to give it a whirl yourself.

More on Techland:

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They Should Make It: Connected Self Replenishing Refrigerator

They Should Make It: Silent Car Horns That Jolt Other Drivers

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