Nexus One: All that and a trackball

Google ups the ante in the smart phone frenzy with the Nexus One, a smart phone running the Android OS.

After testing the waters by letting other people make Android-based phones, Google is now jumping into the mix with the Nexus One. I’ve got to say that naming a smart phone after a character from one of the greatest movies of all time, Blade Runner , is pretty cool. And doing it right before the opening of the Consumer Electronics Show, when the tech world is primed and ready but still relatively unfocused, shows marketing aplomb. Presumably, there will be a lot more of the Nexus One at the show for Labbie Trudy Walsh to inspect.

The Nexus One is unique among smart phones in one important area. It’s not locked in to any one carrier. That could be the holy grail for people currently using iPhones but not happy with their network coverage. Playing a game of cat and mouse with Apple and (possibly illegally) unlocking an iPhone is not an option most people probably want to try, though this move by Google may force Apple’s hand.

The downside to an unlocked Nexus One out of the gate means that nobody is going to be subsidizing the cost of the phone. So buyers in the U.S. can expect to pay about $529 at launch, a pretty hefty fee for a phone. But at least then consumers could take the phone they love and bring it to whatever carrier gives them the best coverage in their area, making the whole slew of map-based television ads fairly relevant. Google did say that a Nexus One with T-Mobile service would be available for $179 with a two-year contract. I assume you could buy a T-Mobile Nexus One and then switch it away after two years to another carrier if you really wanted.

In terms of the phone itself, the specs look pretty impressive, though mostly what you would expect from a touch-screen ready smart phone. There is a 3.7-inch 480-by-800 WVGA display and 512M of flash memory standard, plus 512M of RAM. And you can use an SD card to expand the memory up to 32G, just in case you want to download a big chunk of the more than 10,000 free, and open-source, applications that are available for the phone at launch. The processor is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 8250, which is pretty speedy and can actually go up to 1 GHz. That and the flash memory should ensure quick launch of applications. And there is a trackball, which I think is a great extra feature. I played with one when I reviewed the Blackberry Tour, and I really loved having it included.

Of course, there will be talk about whether the Nexus One is an iPhone killer. And if my last smart phone review of the Verizon Droid is any indication, there will be strong feelings on both sides of this question. It will be interesting to see if a phone not tied to a specific carrier can make a splash in the market even with a high price. If it does, I do think it may force Apple to drop the exclusive lock on its iPhones even though Apple has said doing that would gut its core business model.

And the announcement also bodes well for CES this week. It’s no surprise that Google made the announcement now, and many more surprises may end up coming out of that show as companies try to recover from a depressing 2009 and add some pizzazz to 2010.