By Rich Jaroslovsky
Google (GOOG) isn't the only software company that wants to be a hardware company, but it may be the one that's trying the hardest. Three newly introduced, Google- branded devices reveal, each in its own way, the depth of the company's Apple envy.
Google uses the "Nexus" designation for flagship phones and tablets built to showcase the purest version of its Android operating system. That means no manufacturer-designed custom user interface and no carrier-imposed apps linked to its own or partners' proprietary services.
The new Nexus 4 phone, made for Google by Korea's LG Electronics (066570), has a couple of other things going for it as well. It runs "Jelly Bean," the latest version of Android, which is fast and fluid. The big 4.7-inch screen is beautiful, with sharp images and deep, rich colors.
And, as far as these things go, it's cheap: It starts at $299 with no required carrier contract, so you can shop for plans (from AT&T or T-Mobile (DTE) in the U.S.) independent of the cost of the device itself.
By contrast, an unlocked base model iPhone 5 may cost $649 when it becomes available.
But there are significant downsides as well. For one thing, the base model has a stingy eight gigabytes of storage, while most high-end phones these days start at 16. (T-Mobile will offer a 16 GB version for $199 -- but it comes with a two-year contract.)
It also lacks support for the new 4G LTE networks being deployed in the U.S. by Verizon (VZ), AT&T and Sprint (S), instead using technology the carriers label "4G" that is significantly slower.
And while I appreciated the curved look of the Nexus 4, I didn't much like its feel, primarily because of a scratchy seam where the front glass is laid into the body. Although it wasn't as sleek, I preferred the LG Optimus G -- an Android phone from AT&T (T) and Sprint with similar specs but without the "Nexus" label.
Android tablets have had a lot of trouble gaining traction in the marketplace. The big exception is Google's well-received Nexus 7. (Both Amazon.com (AMZN)'s Kindle Fire HD and Barnes & Noble (BKS)'s Nook HD are based on Android, but used heavily modified versions that don't run standard apps.)
The Samsung-made Nexus 10 has little in common with the Nexus 7, which was manufactured by Asus. (2357) It has more in common with the Samsung (005930) Galaxy Note 10.1 tablet, such as the twin front-mounted stereo speakers.
But where I found the Galaxy Note dreadfully cheap-looking and plasticky, the Nexus 10, with its gorgeous 2560-by-1600- pixel 10.1-inch display and smooth, rubberized back, feels more like a premium product. Battery life isn't quite up to the iPad standard, but it's close. The tablet is also a bit thinner and lighter.
Finally, the Nexus 10 is attractively priced, starting at $399 for a 16-gigabyte, Wi-Fi-only version, which is $100 cheaper than its Apple (AAPL) rival.
So what's not to like? Principally, the same thing that's plagued most Android tablets: the lack of apps designed for them.
While the Android universe has largely caught up with Apple in overall numbers, the iPad has 275,000 apps designed specifically for it. Most of what's available for Android are simply smartphone apps that, in many cases, look and feel ridiculous on a big screen. (The website Ars Technica has collected some particularly egregious examples.)
It's the chicken-and-egg problem Google hasn't yet been able to solve: There won't be more tablet-optimized Android apps until more people are using Android tablets, and people won't want Android tablets until there are more apps that take advantage of them.
For a couple of years, Google has been trying to establish its cloud-based Chrome operating system on laptop and desktop computers as an alternative to Microsoft (MSFT)'s Windows and Apple's OS X.
With little to show for its efforts, the company and its manufacturing partners have embarked on what feels like a last- ditch effort to slash prices and reposition the Chromebook as a secondary device in the home -- the fabled "recipe computer" that can sit in the kitchen until someone wanders by and needs quick Internet access.
And you know what? For that, the new $249 Samsung-made Chromebook isn't bad. At 2.4 pounds and only .7 of an inch thick, it's unobtrusive, yet opens up to an 11.6 inch screen, full keyboard and webcam for video calling.
I'm not a big fan of the Chromebook as a productivity tool; it's just too dependent on having online access at all times. But it may be useful for a fixed locale where you sometimes need to jump online and don't always have a tablet handy. And for those who don't think the convenience is worth $249, Acer (2353) has just announced a somewhat bulkier Chromebook at an even lower price: $199.
None of these products is made by Motorola, the manufacturer Google now owns, so maybe the company wants to reassure its partners that it still values their longstanding relationships.
Or maybe Google is planning cooler things than what we've seen so far.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)