Google’s “superphone”: who’s in control?

The Google Nexus One “superphone” has been attracting a great deal of media coverage since its launch last week – though the coverage has turned sour for Google today, with widespread reports of customer dissatisfaction as early adopters receive their new purchases.

Most complaints relate to technical problems (such as getting the phone connected to a 3G network) or to the availability (or otherwise) of discounted deals. A further layer of “meta-complaints” then quickly sprang up as people expressed their dissatisfaction with how Google had handled their original complaints. However, the complaint that caught my eye was the seemingly more minor one of the 190 MB limit on installed applications.

The Nexus One’s storage capacity can be expanded to 32 GB using a Micro SD card. However, at present applications have to be installed on the phone’s internal memory of 512 MB. In practice the amount of space available is reported at only 190 MB. Google explained at the Nexus One launch event that this is to “protect [software developers] from piracy”, and that they are working on other means to achieve this through encryption.

The point is that it is Google that has imposed this restriction, not the customer who buys the device. If I buy a netbook – a concept seen by some as threatened by the rise of the smartphone – I can install any software I like on it and use the hardware as I choose. (Indeed, the netbook on which I’m typing this has an entirely different operating system from the one with which it was supplied). If I buy a smartphone, I’m subject to whatever restrictions the manufacturer and/or network operator decide to impose on it (a point made eloquently by Jeff Atwood in this post).

This highlights a wider problem as we move into an era of mobile technology and cloud computing: who’s in control? As computers move into our pockets and our software and data move out into the cloud, we gain a great deal in convenience, but we may be losing out on control. At the very least, we need to make sure we understand the trade-offs we’re making, whether as individuals or businesses.