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Hey Google, Anybody Home?

Google’s celebrated algorithms may power the Web’s most popular search engine, but they have not yet been programmed to answer a call when a customer has a problem.

New owners of the Nexus One, the latest touch-screen smartphone to run on Android, Google’s mobile operating system, have found themselves at a loss when it comes to resolving problems with the handset. They cannot call Google for help, and the company warns that it may take up to 48 hours to respond to e-mail messages.

Unlike other phones that run on Android, like the Motorola Droid or the T-Mobile G1, the Nexus One was developed and branded by Google and is sold directly by the company to customers.

But ever since the phone went on sale Jan. 5, customer forums have been filled with a cacophony of gripes about the Nexus One. And Google, more accustomed to providing minimal support for its free services, has been unprepared to deal with the higher service expectations of customers who are paying as much as $529 for its high-end smartphone.

The Google Nexus One
Source: google.com/phone
The Google Nexus One

Early buyers of the device, like Kiran Konathala, a 27-year-old database programmer in Long Branch, N.J., have complained of dropped calls, plodding download speeds and connectivity snags. “The hardware is great, but the software is a mess,” he said. “It’s not been a happy experience so far.”

The phone presents a puzzle for users like Mr. Konathala: Who do you call when you have a problem?

Most people use the phone on T-Mobile’s network, which offers a subsidy if a customer buys a contract, and the phone is made by HTC, a major Taiwanese manufacturer. But it is sold exclusively by Google through a special Web-based store.

Despite its central role in the process, Google does not appear to have built a significant infrastructure to provide customer support. There is no phone number for support, for example, and customers who send an e-mail message may wait for days to hear back.

“So far, I have yet to hear from an actual person,” said Mr. Konathala, who first contacted Google for help on Jan. 6. “All I’ve gotten are canned replies.”

Katie Watson, a Google spokeswoman, said no one was available to speak about the service problems. But in an e-mail statement, she said, “Solving customer support issues is extremely important to us.”

She added that Google was working to address problems quickly. “We’re flexible and prepared to make changes to our processes and tools, as necessary, for an optimal customer support experience,” she wrote.

Andy Rubin, Google vice president for engineering in charge of Android technology, acknowledged last week that the company needed to improve. “We have to get better at customer service,” Mr. Rubin said during an on-stage interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Instead of taking three days to respond to e-mail messages, he said, “We have to close that three-day gap to a couple of hours.” But Mr. Rubin said that the release of the Nexus One had gone smoothly.

Some analysts said that Google appeared to have misjudged the service demands that come with being in the business of selling sophisticated gadgets.

“They may have been clouded by their own personal experience and way of thinking about how they deal with technology,” said Charles S. Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. “They’ve got a long way to go in terms of understanding all the components of the retail process — not just selling phones but the after-sales care — to be as skilled in this endeavor as they are in the rest of their endeavors.”

A spokesman for T-Mobile, David Henderson, said that although the Nexus One was not being sold through T-Mobile retail stores, sales representatives knew enough about the family of Android-powered devices to help customers with some questions.

T-Mobile, which addressed the connectivity problems in its support forums, said it was working with HTC and Google to determine the root cause of the problems some Nexus One users were reporting.

Google is not unfamiliar with the business of charging for products. More than a million businesses pay to place ads on Google’s search engine or on Google’s vast network for publishing partners.

But the Nexus One is Google’s first foray into selling hardware directly to consumers.

Relying heavily on automated responses and Internet forums to handle customer service queries may not be sufficient for that kind of device, said Soumen Ganguly, a principal at Altman Vilandrie & Company, a Boston consulting firm that specializes in the communications industry.

“Selling someone a piece of consumer electronics is a very different ballgame,” Mr. Ganguly said. “If you’re a cellphone user and this is your primary phone, waiting one to two days for a response is a long time.”

With the Nexus One, Google aims to extend the reach of its Android operating system for mobile phones. And it hopes to eventually change the retail model of the cellphone market in the United States by becoming a major seller of Android phones made by various manufacturers.

But if that is the goal, it will need to impose a better customer support strategy, Mr. Ganguly said. “Right now, they’re leaving troubleshooting up to the customer,” he said.

Some analysts said the early missteps were fixable. But a black eye from customer complaints could hurt Google’s longer-term goals.

“Having a consumer backlash because of their lack of customer support is not going to help its cause,” said Youssef Squali, an analyst with Jefferies & Company.

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