Google isn't a stranger to bad publicity. Privacy advocates aren't exactly the biggest fans of the company. And CEO Eric Schmidt didn't win over many people with his infamous statement about online privacy last month: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Those recent Gmail outages stung too.
But the Nexus One debacle -- combined with investor concerns that Google's potential pullout of China could negatively affect its future growth -- could make this one of the search powerhouse's worst weeks ever.
When Google took the wrapper off of the HTC-built Nexus One smartphone on Jan. 5, some were disappointed that Google didn't have more to do with the device's design. On the other hand, tech reviewers really liked the phone, and many observers were intrigued by Google's new sales model. In what many considered a pretty innovative approach, Google announced that it would be selling the smartphone directly to consumers, rather than through HTC or carriers like T-Mobile.
There were concerns about the approach, and more than a fair share of doubters, but in general the Nexus project looked ... maybe not golden, but certainly bronze. Google VP Andy Rubin even pitched the idea of an enterprise-oriented Nexus phone.
But as Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis, told Dow Jones, "Google is trying an entirely new distribution model: the operating system vendor as the retailer, and an online-only retailer at that."
Had the launch gone off without a hitch, that new model might -- might - have rolled out smoothly. But the customer complaints have been piling up over the last few days, and Google is the only one out there offering support (or lack of support, some would say) for the phone. T-Mobile can't help. HTC can't help.
Turns out, when people spend $539 for a phone, they want it to work, or they want a live person to tell them why it's not working; they don't want to fire off an e-mail and then wait for a slow response. And the Nexus One device is not, shall we say, working quite as well as one would hope. One look at the Nexus One forum on Google's site offers plenty of evidence:
"My Launcher app is consistently force-closing during the course of normal use."
"Edge only works part of the time. I have had no problems at work with Sprint, ATT or Verizon. TMO and NI stinks. Does not work in bathroom, elevator, at my desk."
"My wifi is on but will not connect to my router. It connected yesterday for a while but since then won't reconnect. Help." The same user later added: "i don't want to have to re boot the router several times a day. there is something wrong here with this phone."
"What works: phone, email, calendar, messaging, maps, and usually browser. What doesn't work - most everything else."
And the complainers didn't let Andy Rubin, who days ago was basking in the glow of Nexus One, off the hook: "Since Andy Rubin (Google VP of Android) kinda rushed this phone to be distributed without sufficient customer service, are they gonna fire him or cut his bonus?"
Google obviously has some kinks to work out. But then what should we have expected? This is a new business for Google, and the company obviously wasn't ready for the customer service side of being a retailer -- something Apple, for example, excels at.
"There are some aspects of the experience that Google didn't think through as carefully as they should have," said Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin in an interview with Wired. "This has implications for the store they have launched and their future ambitions for it. Google, clearly, has a lot of work ahead of it."
Or, as one frustrated user pointed out on the Google forum: "I have posted this, e-mailed it, even googled it and can't get an answer... who ever would have thought I would have found a worst customer service then Verizion, Dish Network and Fry's electronics combined."
Google sold a mediocre 20,000 phones in its first week, estimated Flurry on Wednesday. Any of those Nexus One users who are having second thoughts about their purchase are facing sizable penalties: a $200 early termination fee from T-Mobile and a $350 equipment recovery fee from Google."We're flexible and prepared to make changes to our processes and tools, as necessary, for an optimal customer support experience," said a Google spokesperson. There's little doubt that changes will need to be made if Google's mobile adventure is to have a happy ending.