Every year, Google unveils the latest in its lineup of Nexus devices, the Android smartphones that are intended not to be international bestsellers, but to demonstrate to Google hardware partners and Android fans alike the real extent of the capabilities of the latest version of Android.
The version of Android running on Nexus phones is untouched by the modifications and extra software that phone makers will add, and includes the updated apps and services that are sometimes entirely absent from Android phones that later ship to consumers, especially in developing markets.
But Google’s Nexus phones aren’t made by Google itself. Instead, the company chooses one of its Android partners to make each year’s Nexus model. This year, it chose two: Huawei and LG. Walt Mossberg reports for The Verge that even though Google works closely on the resulting devices, the company doesn’t have the sort of full control over these “pure Android” devices as Apple has over the iPhone or Microsoft has over the Surface. And Mossberg thinks it’s time for that to change.
Mossberg proposes that it’s time for Google to start making its own hardware, at least for smartphones and at least for the Nexus line and a line of low-priced smartphones aimed at customers in developing markets. While Google briefly owned, and subsequently sold, phone manufacturer Motorola, and has dabbled in hardware with devices like the Chromecast and the Chromebook Pixel, Mossberg thinks that Google needs to do more. And he thinks that it’s “perfectly possible” for Google not only to hire more hardware engineers and designers, but to create unique devices and even outsource their manufacturing.
Perhaps the best reason for Google to do so is the close relationship between hardware and software, and the many ways that a software platform benefits when it’s running on hardware specifically built for the purpose. Because Apple has full control over its hardware and software, Apple beat Google’s Nexus line to fingerprint recognition by two years. Also thanks to its integration of hardware and software, Cupertino has introduced a new feature called 3D Touch, which, in the long run, could turn out to be no big deal or could be the beginning of an important new era in user input.
Mossberg spoke to a “top Google executive” who said that the company’s close coordination with Nexus device manufacturers accomplishes the goal of keeping software closely integrated with hardware. He pointed out that both new Nexus phones use the same camera and fingerprint sensors even though they’re made by different companies. But Mossberg is dubious that “that sort of component specification is the same thing as reaping the gains of simultaneous software and hardware development.”
As The Cheat Sheet recently reported, Google appears to be considering integrating Android and its Chrome OS into a new, unified operating system. Mossberg argues that in a future in which Android could run on laptops (or even desktops), it would make sense to have a Google-built line of Nexus hardware, which could include not only phones and tablets, but also laptops that could be “the first compelling new alternative to Apple’s desktop platform in decades.”
Additionally, as Google works to keep Android dominant around the world, Samsung — the only Android partner with global reach, significant market share, and profitability — is faltering. A Google-made hardware line could prove key to keeping Android on top as the standing of top phone makers changes.
Another problem facing Android is the tendency of phone makers who build low-cost devices for developing markets to strip out the Google apps and services that enable Google to make money when people use the phones. Android is both free to use and open to modification, which means that Google has been unable to effectively protect itself against the trend. A Google-made line of smartphones, however, could help Google regain some of the revenue lost. And as the European Union investigates whether Google’s bundling of apps on other manufacturers’ phones is illegal, it might do well to take control of the situation with its own line of hardware.
Mossberg notes that even though a line of Google-manufactured Android smartphones would likely annoy the company’s partners, the situation could be managed, especially if Google’s hardware efforts were limited, and “targeted to specific areas like hero phones and those for people in low-income countries.”
Of course, not everyone agrees with Mossberg on the future of Google’s smartphone line, and some argue that Google should stop making smartphones altogether. Nate Swanner recently wrote for The Next Web that “Google doesn’t need to make Nexus phones anymore” because, in his assessment, they no longer serve their original purpose of showcasing Android’s capabilities and progress.
Swanner argues that “the past few Nexus devices have brought nothing new to the table,” pointing out that Nexus phones aren’t faster than the competition, don’t have better screens, offer nothing new stylistically, and aren’t the only phones that offer competitive specs at modest prices. Additionally, a few manufacturers, Motorola in particular, are offering devices that run almost-pure versions of Android, and as the platform matures, fewer manufacturers and carriers make modifications that cause their phones’ performance and usability to take a significant hit. Swanner thinks that Google’s Nexus efforts are largely pointless as Android matures, and that the utility of the reference platform has run its course.
Jackdaw analyst Jan Dawson recently wrote for Re/code that Nexus is “a program that needs a new purpose.” He characterizes the program as “odd” considering that it combines the purpose of providing pure Android devices for developers while introducing a series of devices “with the fanfare and branding of a consumer product.” Dawson thinks that Google needs to find a new purpose for the Nexus program, a purpose that it’s possible the company’s Google Fi wireless service and its financing program could provide.