What Does Google’s New Phone Mean for Social Games?

With the official launch of Google’s Nexus One phone today, the Google-created software operating system that runs on it, Android, is getting even more attention. Launched more than two years ago, it is now running on 20 devices, available from 59 operators in 48 countries and in 19 languages, according to the company.

But is Android now an exciting new platform for social gaming developers?

The OS is Google’s attempt to drive more mobile web usage, thereby increasing its ability to provide its search product and applications to users, and make more money from its ad business. It is also a way to counter the threat of Apple’s iPhone, as well as the latest attempts by other mobile handset manufacturers to create compelling software they control.

So, here’s a quick look at how the Nexus One, and Android, might affect social gaming:

First, there are still big questions about Android as a developer platform. Android is mostly open-source, and the manufacturers and carriers who use it can alter it for their own purposes. While this may help Android spread, it also creates multiple versions of the software, in often inferior environments. Social game developers who built for Google’s OpenSocial platform ran into this problem, as apps built for one social network using that standard would then need to be re-adapted to others based on differences in code, features and user habits. It’s easier for developers, especially smaller ones, to focus on the biggest and potentially most lucrative platform. This is what has happened with Facebook, and in terms of mobile, with the iPhone.

However, Nexus One could be so successful that it creates a new market for apps that run on the device. And Google will certainly be looking at ways it can make Android more hospitable to developers, in general. As the overall size of the Android market increases, due to the Nexus One, Verizon’s Droid, and the many other Android devices expected to come soon, the attractiveness of building for Android will also increase despite compatibility issues.

Another intriguing angle here is that Google is trying to tie in some social features to Android, most notably contacts from apps like Gmail. What if you could easily invite a friend in Gmail to download and play a game on the Nexus One with you? Sure, Facebook Connect is available for Android in some form, but Google is increasingly trying to offer its own social graph, of sorts, as can be seen with its profile features. The company has so far not had many successes with building social networking services, but maybe it will in the future.

Google also provided some more details about the Nexus One today that could also affect developers. Users will be able to charge their phone bills directly for applications they want to buy, similar to how mobile payments companies let users buy virtual currencies on social networks. The Nexus One currently only provides 190 megabytes of its 4.5 gigabytes of memory for storing apps, far less than the iPhone. However, Google said today that it plans to address this issue by greatly increasing app storage space within a future software update. A couple other notable features. Like other Android devices, this new one will let you run apps in the background, which may be useful for some game designs. Adobe also says that Flash will be available for Android and Nexus One, which may be appealing to developers who build in the plug-in.

It’s not clear how billing and storage are going to work on other Android devices, but these changes should create more opportunities for apps to be sold and downloaded.

While we have not heard any stories yet about social games succeeding on Android devices, the overall growth of the ecosystem along with Google’s ongoing guidance of the software suggests games — and other apps — have a bright future.