• It looked like it could be the ultimate iPhone-killer, but delay after delay has kept it from market. Some reports say it will be ready soon, while others suggest it's been abandoned all together. Will we ever see Garmin's [GRMN] nuvifone?

    RIM's [RIMM] BlackBerry Storm, T-Mobile's [DT] G1 and other contenders have already taken their shot at dismounting the iPhone from its pedestal, but Garmin's nuvifone has always looked like the most disruptive of the group. It boasted an ultra-thin form factor, 3.5-inch display, and an easy-to-use touch OS (see a demo video below). It was plagued by none of the dumb gimmicks of other phones: folding keyboards, clicking screens, and so on.

    The nuvifone seemed ready to ship as far back as January of 2008; back then it would have been an industry leader, with 3.5G connectivity, full GPS navigation and all the usual tricks: Internet, email, and text messaging.

    Then July 2008 rolled around, and there was still no nuvifone. In a statement, Garmin said that it was taking longer than anticipated to fulfill some "carrier-specific requirements," and that the company was working to resolve the problems. 

    It's nearly 2009, and Garmin has said that it will finally launch the nuvifone in the first half of next year. But Garmin has also recently joined Google's [GOOG] Open Handset Alliance, spurring speculation that it will release an Android phone next year. The original nuvifone, which is now purportedly being released on AT&T's network, pre-dated Android; it ran a Linux-based operating system all its own. Does this mean that Garmin scrapped the original nuvifone OS and switched to Android? Or will it release the nuvifone as is, and then make it obsolete a few months later by shipping an Android edition?

    According to several reports, Garmin has claimed that the nuvifone it will release next year won't be an Android device, but that seems hard to believe. The existing nuvifone OS is a proprietary platform with no third-party software ready — meaning that even if it's a great device, the nuvifone will already have a handicap against devices backed by the BlackBerry, Android and iTunes application stores. Sure, it might have map-based GPS to boast about, meaning it won't need a cell signal to give you directions. But that's about it. It'll flop.

    And the few people who buy the first nuvifone will be mighty pissed if Garmin later releases a nuvifone based on the Android platform, which can load up all the Android apps. Only Apple [AAPL] has the gumption to do that kind of thing to their customers. 

    So what's more likely? Garmin might be taking a page from Apple, but not the screw-the-customer one. It's flatly denying a product that is very much under development. It's a PR move only Steve Jobs could love.

    The nuvifone, when it is released next quarter, will probably be Android-based but look like the nuvifone of yore, with Garmin's own proprietary interface. Garmin can't openly say that the nuvifone has jumped to the Android platform, because if it does, everyone will assume it means more delays for a product that already seems near-mythical. That would hurt the company's stock price as well as its credibility. As it stands, there probably isn't a firm deadline for release, so setting one in public would be nothing more than a Microsoftian move of self-flagellation. 

    Whenever we do see the nuvifone, it will have the power of the Android marketplace behind it, along with the same smaller-than-iPhone body and big-screen beauty. Oh, and it won't have any of the stupidities that hamstring the iPhone: the inability to multitask, or the stupid SDK regulations that prevent things like software-driven maps. For once, Apple might meet its match in the mobile marketplace, if Garmin can ever get it out the door.

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