Will HP Impact the Carrier – Manufacturer Dynamic?

ZDNet has an interesting article on how Google was unable to achieve their goal of separating the smartphone hardware from the carrier, due to lackluster sales of the Nexus One and Google’s own inability to properly support device. As ZDNet puts it:

After launching in January 2010, first with access to the T-Mobile network, the Nexus One was planned to arrive on all four of the big U.S. wireless carriers by spring. The phone was sold by Google, unlocked, for roughly $500. Then users could simply buy service (without a contract) from a wireless carrier. That’s the model that has worked so well for consumers in Europe and the Nexus One was supposed to be Google’s major initiative to start moving the U.S. in the same direction.

Unfortunately, sales of the Nexus One were tepid and customers were frustrated by Google’s poor customer support. By the time spring rolled around, Verizon was still dragging its feet and eventually the Nexus One on Verizon was canceled and replaced with the HTC Incredible, a nice device that nonetheless completely followed the old carrier model.

This is to be contrasted with Apple, who sells the iPhone locked to AT&T’s network but without an AT&T logo on any of the devices nor AT&T bloatware installed. So while Apple hasn’t contributed to the notion of unlocked devices that can be used on any compatible network, they did manage to retain control over their hardware in the face of the usual carrier pressures to exert their own control.

To my knowledge, HP hasn’t stated how they plan to implement their smartphone roadmap relative to the carriers. Will they play the same game as usual, pitching devices to carriers who will then dictate the look and feel of the devices? Or will they push out the same device on multiple carriers at once, with no carrier-specific customization (but likely with the typical carrier branding)? We really have no idea.

What’s most interesting to me, though, is that HP and Palm aren’t Google. Both companies have significant support infrastructure for both hardware and software products—if you have an issue with an HP or Palm product, and you can call them and speak to a live person. To put it kindly, Google has significantly less support (try to resolve an issue with a Google product like Blogger or AdSense and you’ll discover this for yourself). So, HP and Palm could, theoretically at least, avoid the atrocious technical support issues that likely contributed to the relative failure of the Nexus One. At least according to this metric, they would be far better positioned to successfully market completely unlocked devices.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping them from doing both. They could offer carrier-specific products according to the typical model, while also offering unlocked devices for full price that could be used anywhere. Simply put, HP has the scale and carrier relations to make such a plan at least remotely feasible. The question is, do they see any reason to try?

As with everything else in the webOS roadmap, however, this too remains to be seen.

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