Google’s Nexus Program: Shifts and Future Challenges

Google’s Nexus program has been absolutely vital to the Android ecosystem over the years. In fact, most of the Nexus devices came along right when they were needed, acting as a guide for the Android OEMs. A couple months ago, the Android ecosystem was completely shocked when Hugo Berra took the stage at Google I/O. While many were expecting a new Nexus 7 to follow in last year’s pattern, Hugo dropped something different entirely. He showcased a Samsung Galaxy S4 with stock Android.

The excitement and speculation this generated only increased when Sundar Pichai announced a similar take on the HTC One at The Wall Street Journal’s D11 conference. People were of course very pleased to have two popular flagships running stock Android, but they were also concerned about the future of the Nexus program. There were rumors going around that some companies were losing interest in Nexus phones which only fuelled the speculation that the program might be finished. This, obviously, is not the case as the Android ecosystem needs a Nexus device now more than ever.


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The Ecosystem’s Need for a New Nexus

With the minor exception of the Nexus 4, all previous Nexus devices have come along when the ecosystem was in a rather negative state. In the past, Google has used the Nexus program to push hardware and software in the right direction so that it can gain more ground from a consumer standpoint. Historically, OEMs typically listen to these pushes and usually alter their habits a bit whenever a new Nexus device is released. What made the Nexus 4 so unique is that even when it was released, its specifications certainly weren’t mind blowing. Lacking LTE connectivity, and merely catching up with other flagships in other specifications, it was clear that Google was going in a completely different direction.

The Nexus 4

For the past couple of years, Android has been in the middle of a spec war. OEMs have been racing to see who can get the fastest processors and pair them with the largest and highest-definition screens. While this seems great on paper, the problem is that 4G technology would combine with these screens and processors and absolutely destroy the devices’ battery life. While there are some “mega-phone” devices out there that have decent battery life, most flagship devices that we’ve seen will barely last you a full day with regular usage. On top of that, durability has been an enormous factor for current devices. Seeing as smartphones are used all the time, it makes sense that they should be able to survive everyday mishaps that may occur without having to invest in alternate protection.

Moving even further, this spec war has unfortunately had a large impact on these devices’ affordability. A major downfall that occurs when we pack our devices with octa-core processors and large, high definition displays is that it makes them very expensive to manufacture. When the iPhone was originally released back in 2007, the price was $650 off contract. Over time, we expect that like other forms of technology, the price would decrease as the years progress. As we know, buying a flagship off contract will still run between $600-700 today. This is likely due to the fact that while the parts used in the initial smartphones are cheaper now, companies are more interested in newer processors and displays, which still cost quite a lot.

The LG-made Nexus 4

The LG-made Nexus 4

With the Nexus 4, Google set out to solve a couple of these overwhelming issues. For starters, Google purposely packed the device with “average” specifications. By doing this, the company challenged Android users by asking them if they really needed the fancy processors and displays that were being shipped on the latest flagships. It was also able to get the price of the Nexus 4 between $299-349 off contract. Google has successfully proven that a phone can have an average spec sheet and an average price tag while still performing fantastically, but the company still wasn’t able to address the other issues that had been plaguing Android recently.

Future Nexus Devices

While the Google Play Edition devices caused some question to the future of the Nexus program, Sundar Pichai was quick to reassure the community at D11. He stated very clearly that they will in fact carry on with the Nexus program. This is great news as the Android ecosystem desperately needs a new Nexus device now more than ever. There are fundamental flaws with the flagship devices that are on the market today that are significantly interfering with how people really use their devices. Smartphones have grown to become our personal companions. Devices that accompany us everywhere must be able to withstand average wear and tear and must be able to withstand regular use throughout the course of a day.

The current Nexus family of products

The current Nexus family of products

Google did in fact address some unfortunate aspects of the Android ecosystem with the Nexus 4. However, they were not able to zoom on several of the most important problems facing Android users today: durability and battery life. The device actually had a below average battery life compared to other phones on the market, which was likely a direct result of the cost. In addition, the device’s make-up was all glass, making it extremely prone to cracks when dropped, similar to some models of Apple’s iPhone. It is in the opposite of this direction that Google is likely to head in with their next Nexus release. Larry Page surprisingly took the stage at Google I/O this year and spoke of what the company is aiming for with their devices. Battery life and durability were at the top of his lists, so we can expect major strides in these areas.

There are of course obvious backlashes that occur when you downgrade the specifications of a device. When it comes to hardware, the primary reason people want large processors is because it makes the device snappier and multi-task better. This is not something that users are willing to sacrifice so if Google is going try and convince users that these processors aren’t needed, then they are going to have to make up for it on the software end. We haven’t heard much about Google’s next version of Android other than the fact that it will likely be dubbed Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie. The one rumor that does seem to make sense is that Google is going to push for this release to be compatible with older hardware. This of course implies that the operating system will be much less resource-intensive and allow the user a great experience when using “average” specifications. This will not only eliminate the need for expensive and battery-draining processors, but it will also hopefully help with Android’s fragmentation problem as it will allow more devices to run the same software release.

Google Edition Doesn’t Equal Nexus

When the Samsung Galaxy S4 was announced at Google I/O, Hugo Berra used the term “Nexus” quite frequently. He was implying that the device would be a Nexus experience in terms of software and simplicity. This led to quite a bit of speculation that the devices would get updates straight from Google. It was even further speculated that these devices were the new Nexus phones and that the Nexus line could potentially be in jeopardy. However, even if you disregarded Sundar Pichai’s statements that indicate otherwise, there are some clear aspects of these phones that contradict Google’s Nexus program entirely.

For starters, the Google Edition versions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC do not feature Nexus pricing. They are priced at $650 and $599 off contract. This is twice as much as the Nexus 4 pricing and while most would blame it on the significant spec bumps, it is likely due to the fact that Google isn’t subsidizing these devices like they appear to be doing with their Nexus line. Additionally, it is likely that both Samsung and HTC are making money directly off of the sales of the devices, something that is essential seeing as they were willing to part with their software customizations. Due to the fact that TouchWiz and Sense are ways for each company to differentiate themselves, it is likely that Nexus pricing was completely off the table from the start.

google play edition devices

After getting a complete view of these two devices, it was rather interesting to see various hardware features that depended on the software. Both devices are missing popular camera functions while the HTC One no longer has a working IR port or a Beats Audio toggle setting and the Galaxy S4 no longer supports Bluetooth 4.0.

Along the same lines, it is the various hardware aspects of these devices that go in a completely different direction than Google’s Nexus program. Both devices use capacitive UI buttons with the Samsung Galaxy S4 having a physical home button as well. Google has made it very clear that on-screen buttons are the future of their Nexus devices. This is most likely due to the fact that the buttons can change depending on what you are doing with your device. On top on that, the Galaxy S4 includes a micro SD slot. Google has completely moved away from these for a couple of reasons. The primary explanation is that having two separate volumes confuses the user when dealing with file storage. While this is true, it is also highly likely that Google wants people investing in their cloud storage services instead of expanding their physical memory.

Final Thoughts

While no one knows for sure what future Nexus devices will bring us, we do know that Google is looking to change the ecosystem a bit. The company is interested in a taking a step backwards and examining what users really want and need from their devices. Do users really need fast processors with large displays? While a strong argument can certainly be made for screen sizes, it seems as though companies like HTC and Samsung are beefing up their processors to compensate for the lack of optimization in their custom Android skins.

By comparison, Google is trying to make their devices simpler and more practical. They are looking to achieve snappiness and fluidity through software optimizations instead of raw hardware power. If the hardware is scaled down a bit, then this opens the door for significantly healthier battery life and much cheaper manufacturing costs. We have also seen evidence of this new shift in Motorola’s rumored upcoming Moto X device. We should know more about the future of the Nexus program during Wednesday’s breakfast with Sundar Pichai, but only time will tell us if Google’s new direction will be successful and perhaps, the change will make some users re-evaluate what they really need from their device.