The Achilles' heel in Google's phone plan

Can Google be a partner to cell phone makers? Only if the company can force itself to beg, beguile, and bluff, says CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos.

Can Google grovel?

Probably not well, at least not initially, and that could become a major problem in its plans to create a cell phone platform that will compete with Microsoft, Research In Motion, and Apple. Technically, a subsidiary called Android will oversee the project, but it's an appendage of the big G.

The problem is that Android (and by extension Google) will inherently be in a subservient position to the carriers and cell phone makers. The carriers own the direct contracts with the customer. The carriers and the handset makers as the customers, meanwhile, can pick and choose which software layers to include in their phones. Most likely, they will work with all of the big platforms and chronically play them off against one another.

Being stuck in that sort of sales beauty contest is no fun. You have to laugh at a prospective customer's jokes, travel at a moment's notice, and go into minute and dull detail as to why your particular widget remains superior while your "strong alliance partners" pretend to listen. When retail prices get compressed, the software and component makers feel the pain too.

There's a whole tribe of people out there who live this lifestyle. They travel the country with a deck of PowerPoint slides and a collection of $5 Starbucks gift cards. If Johnny Cash were alive, he'd write folks songs about them.

There's a whole tribe of people out there who live this lifestyle. They travel the country with a deck of PowerPoint slides and a collection of $5 Starbucks gift cards. If Johnny Cash were alive, he'd write folks songs about them.

Contrast that with the extravagant, youthful lifestyle to be had at the Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. They go to meetings on Hippity Hops. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will speak to Googlers at lunch--and then personally toss a Caesar salad for them in the Google cafeteria. Thursday is Bring your Ocelot to Work Day!

Granted, Google does currently have sales representatives that crisscross the country, but the balance of power is tilted in favor of the search giant. They get to visit Fortune 500 companies, or even small outfits, to inform them how they can optimize their pages for Google's search engine.

The relationship will be reversed for the Androids. They will have to listen to project managers from Pantech (the South Korean handset maker) or SingTel complain about how the Android interface does something funny with the number of nits of light that emerge from the screen, or that the Google/Android badge should be smaller and below their own logo.

At some point, the Google Android will mention that he speaks three languages and got a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Harvard University. Fists will soon fly soon.

Some companies thrive in this environment. Chips based around designs from ARM, the U.K.-based chip designers, sit inside around 98 percent of the phones in the world today. But ARM also bends over backward to placate its customers.

The second big problem is that Microsoft is exceptionally good at corporate diplomacy, as strange as that may sound. Although the company has a reputation for being pushy and demanding, it knows what motivates people and can structure deals in a way that gets others to do its bidding. You can become rich by making us wealthy--that's been the nub of Microsoft's business plan since the beginning.

A CEO at a software company once called the Microsoft contracts "intelligent entanglements" because he, as well as anyone else he knew, never fully figured out all of the implications of the contracts until three weeks after they were signed.

In his case, the company found itself shifting more of its business toward Microsoft to gain lucrative bonuses. In some ways, Bill Gates, an avid card player, is the Otto von Bismarck of his day.

Google might be good at this. Who knows? Android has already signed up an impressive list of partners. The brand has resonance, and what Google has achieved in the past 10 years is truly astounding.

But to date, it's been a solo act.

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