Nexus: From a Phone to an Experience

The Nexus brand has made some major strides since it was first introduced to us back in 2010. At that point it only represented a phone with a vanilla version of Android. Its purpose was simple: show people the true power of the Android operating system.

Since then, the brand has grown to mean more than just the name of a specific phone; it now describes a specific experience. These past couple of months, starting with Google I/O, gave us much deeper insight into what Google plans to do with the Nexus program — and I couldn’t be more excited.

Where the Nexus Has Been

The Nexus One marked Google’s first major intervention, since the HTC Dream, into how Android devices were being created. This phone was a result of Google’s realization that a smartphone works better when software engineers and hardware engineers work in complete harmony.

The simple beauty of Android was that it was open source and that any hardware developer in the world could get his or her hands on it. However, that also meant that there were many different experiences to be had on the same operating system. This of course lead to the term ‘fragmentation’ being used in nearly every single blog post about the OS.

The Nexus One, Manufactured by HTC

In 2010, all the major players — like HTC, Samsung, and Motorola — sat in their own corners of the market attempting to run their own business model, essentially all just sitting still in the same stagnant pool. Google had to step in and remind the industry that they are partners first, and competitors second. With the Nexus One, Google blew up one side of the pool and caused all of the partners to rush out as a river, heading for the same goal.

The Nexus One was used to ‘test drive’ the Nexus program. The original Nexus did not come with a new version of Android as it was running Android 2.1 Eclair at the time of its release. It was, however, the first Android phone to receive the update to Android 2.2 Froyo. This marked a big transition in how Google was planning on using Nexus devices. The success of the phone combined with the Froyo update was all the evidence Google needed. From this point on, new Android software versions would be first released on Nexus devices (with one minor exception which we will get to later).

The Nexus S continued this method that proved to be so successful with the Nexus One. This would continue Google’s future habit of intervening in hardware manufacturing when they saw that things weren’t progressing the way they should be. It showed that Google still wanted Android to be an open ecosystem, but also that it was an ecosystem that still needed guidance from above. As the first device to sport Android 2.3 Gingerbread, the Nexus S experienced immediate success. This marked a turning point for Android; it was during the reign of the Nexus S and Gingerbread that Android’s numbers really started to skyrocket.

The Nexus S, Manufactured by Samsung

A funny thing happened with the next version of Android. Google released Android 3.0 Honeycomb paired alongside the Motorola Xoom. This was strange in that there was no Nexus branding anywhere in the release — but then Honeycomb itself was a rather odd release to begin with.

Honeycomb was rushed to release, for several reasons. The first was that the tablet market was absolutely exploding: with the release of Apple’s iPad, tablets were becoming more and more popular. Naturally, Android manufacturers wanted a taste. The problem was that the only weapon Android had to fight in this market with was Froyo and Gingerbread, two UIs that looked absolutely terrible on a larger device.

Google knew that it had to do something fast to accomodate the ever-expanding tablet market. That’s when a former Palm designer joined Google’s ranks. Just prior to releasing Gingerbread, Google had recruited the man behind Palm’s beautifully designed WebOS, Matias Duarte, who came on as Directer of Android User Experience in 2010 after experiencing frustration as HP took over Palm. From then on, Android’s UI would never be the same.

Honeycomb, although slow, buggy, and not quite finished, was the first Android operating system that had a true sense of beauty. Google made the effort to get Matias in on design from the very beginning and wanted to get the Matias-inspired Android into the market as soon as possible.

Where Nexus Is Today

Fast-forward to present day. Google is sitting high atop the mobile phone market and isn’t planning on going anywhere. They have cemented the Nexus brand as a top of the line experience that simply cannot be achieved anywhere else. This is of course due to the fact that Google has released two devices with two different Android versions that catapulted them to the top.

In November of 2011, Google released what has proven to be the single greatest advancement in Android’s short history: Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich. As one could have predicted, Google had a fancy new Nexus device ready to show off this achievement — the Galaxy Nexus. This release was so revolutionary because Google had plenty of time to work with Matias Duarte on the user interface that was in desperate need of a makeover.

Once again, when the Android ecosystem was a mess, Nexus came to the rescue.

The Galaxy Nexus, Manufactured by Samsung

It’s importent to note that this phone was manufactured by Samsung. What Google typically has done, is partner with the best hardware manufacturer at the time to build the next Nexus. The Nexus One was manufactured by HTC, the Nexus S by Samsung, and the Xoom of course by Motorola. Google’s choice to turn to Samsung for a second time was the best thing they could have done. This partnership gave Samsung the ability to gain a title as one of the world’s biggest smartphone manufacturers while also inspiring others to step up their game.

The reason Google had to come in and save the day was because the phone user interface and the tablet user interface were so far apart that most people didn’t even recognize them as the same operating system. What was happening was you had this flush of phones being released with an extremely dated Gingerbread OS, while all new Android tablets were being released with a slow, laggy Honeycomb OS. Google had to unite these two markets. Behold Ice Cream Sandwich, one operating system for both phones and tablets. Finally! So now that Google had united the market, Android can now live happily ever after, right? Wrong.

Several months after Ice Cream Sandwich, Android was in trouble again. Google had put in all this work to make a comfortable user interface for phones and tablet alike… and although the phone market was doing fine, Android tablet sales were absolutely abysmal. The iPad still dominated the tablet market and while there were some major competitors like the Samsung Galaxy Tab line and the Asus Transformer series, there wasn’t a single tablet out there that was selling as well as it should be.

In fact, the most popular Android tablet was Amazon’s Kindle Fire, which was NOT a good thing. Amazon’s Kindle Fire ran on Android, but you would never know it by looking at it. Amazon used a heavily skinned version of Android and used their own market with their own media sources, blocking Google out almost entirely.

I’m sure most of you know what happens next. This time Google wasn’t playing games. They had become very frustrated with the lacklustre tablets their partners were putting out, so once again took matters into their own hands and pushed out yet another Nexus device alongside yet another Android version: the Nexus 7, manufactured by Asus, and Android 4.1, Jelly Bean.

As reviews began pouring it became very clear: Google had a winner on their hands. As these advances are still quite recent, only time will tell exactly how this release will affect Android in the long run.

The Nexus 7, Manufactured by Asus

On the same day, Google also unveiled something rather peculiar: the Nexus Q. Essentially, the Nexus Q is a media device that streams your content from Google Play directly to your home theater system. While it’s not surprising that Google decided to make such a device, the fact that they introduced it under the Nexus brand is. Up until now the term Nexus was only used for phones and tablets, so why all of a sudden did Google decide to expand the Nexus brand?

The answer is quite simple. Google wants the Nexus line of devices to be their own ecosystem.

Where the Nexus Is Going

Front and center of Google’s products sit three Nexus devices: the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus 7, and the Nexus Q. The latter doesn’t seem to fit in any category or really any program that Google has developed, but this will change. The Nexus Q will begin to make more sense as more Nexus devices roll out — and believe me, they are coming. It has been widely rumored for quite some time that a whole new fleet of Nexus phones are on their way. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google threw in some surprises here and there as well.

It is becoming very clear that Google wants the term ‘Nexus’ to not only describe a specific device, but describe an ecosystem created by Google themselves. Google has realized that the only way to keep the market advancing is to have a direct impact on what hardware manufacturers are doing. I think the Nexus line will quickly become Google’s pride and joy and ultimately become the very face of Android and Google Play.

So what does this mean for Google’s existing partners? Will they be left out in the dark, and get frustrated that Google is seeking more ‘closed-source’ methods? Only time will tell. However, Google’s recent acquisition of Motorola Mobility is certainly a sign that Google isn’t planning on abandoning their other hardware partners. Samsung, HTC, and Motorola will continue to do their thing, using their own custom skins to make their Android experience unique. Periodically one of them will be called from above to work directly with Google and make the next great Android device.