Google’s Nexus Program

Many people are confused about Android and the entire Android ecosystem. It seems very complex compared to Apple’s iPhone. In the Apple case, there’s only one phone a year and it’s made by Apple. It’s simple. In the Android world, there are a few big OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) playing in the field: Samsung, HTC, Motorola, LG, Sony, and Asus. In order to differentiate themselves, OEMs “skin” Android by adding their own propriety software that is built off of Google’s source code. Google’s source code, often referred to as AOSP (Android Open Source Project), is the foundation of Android. OEM skins is one reason why many Android devices are not updated as soon as Google announces a new version of Android. The other reason why devices aren’t updated quickly is because of carrier intervention. Both carriers and OEMs have little incentive to update older phone models to the latest version of Android since they would rather have you buy a shiny new phone and renew your cell phone agreement.

Enter Google’s Nexus Program

Every year since 2010, Google has partnered with an OEM to create a “Nexus” phone. Nexus phones run the latest AOSP version of Android and, therefore, tend to receive timely updates from Google itself. The Nexus program started with HTC’s Nexus One in early 2010, Samsung’s Nexus S in late 2010, and Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus in late 2011. Google tries to use their Nexus line of devices as a benchmark or template for other OEMs to follow. For example, the Nexus S was one of the first phones with NFC (near field communication) and the Galaxy Nexus is still the only phone with software navigation buttons.  Some would argue that the first Android phone, the HTC G1, and Motorola’s widely regarded Droid, Verizon’s first Android phone, are also “Nexus” phones since they ran AOSP. During the summer of 2012, Google also released its first Nexus tablet, the Nexus 7, in partnership with Asus.

Nexus devices are pegged as developer devices and are the easiest devices to unlock and root. Indeed, the developer community have congregated around these devices and provide support that augments AOSP for the better. Developers take the source code from Google and add even more features and customization on top of it, similar to what OEMs do with their “skins.” Through developer support, these devices are often rocking the latest version of Android even though, for whatever reason, the devices haven’t officially been upgraded.

The developer community that creates various ROMs (think of this as specific versions of Android that are customized by various developers) and kernels (the layer between the hardware and software) is the main attraction for owning a Nexus device. Custom ROMs and kernels take the customization Android offers to the next level. Hardcore Android fans tend to choose a Nexus device since they like to have the latest and greatest version of the OS at all times.

2012 Nexus

You may have noticed a trend of there being a new Nexus phone being released at the end of each year. 2012 appears to be no different. The rumor mill has been rolling at full swing for the past week and it seems there is adequate evidence to say this year’s Nexus device will be made by LG. Various photos are floating around of a LG Nexus running Android 4.1.2 with specs similar to the LG Optimus G, which I was fairly impressed with.

From what we know from XDA, the device specs are the following:

Screen: 4.7″ 1280×768 (318 ppi)

CPU: 1.5 GHz Quadcore S4 Snapdragon

Internal Storage: 8 GB / 16 GB options, no SD card

Other: 2 GB RAM, 8 MP Rear Camera

The hardware seems to be slightly inferior compared to the LG Optimus G; especially since it seems the test device does not have LTE. In addition, the internal storage is pretty paltry and mimics Google’s cloud strategy that it did with the Nexus 7. Google is looking for users to make more use of the cloud for their contents needs; particularly Google’s own Play Store services. Many businesses are seeing the merit of such a strategy. Amazon does something similar with its Kindle Fire line of tablets. The tablets serve as a “portal” to various Amazon services that generate revenue.

My Thoughts

I am a proud owner of last year’s Nexus phone, Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus. It was the first Nexus phone to appear on Verizon Wireless. Many don’t consider the Verizon Galaxy Nexus a “true” Nexus device since its updates are tied up in Verizon’s bureaucracy and it doesn’t have access to Google Wallet. However, the developer community behind the Verizon Galaxy Nexus is just as strong as the International/GSM variant and, to me, that is the mark of a true Nexus device.

While I am intrigued by a LG Nexus based on the LG Optimus G, I am skeptical that a LTE/CDMA version will appear on Verizon. Google’s current strategy involves being a direct seller of its own devices and this loans itself well to a GSM version. Also, because there is no carrier to subsidize the cost of the phone, the specs and features may be toned down, as we can see by the lack of a LTE radio and the limited amount of storage. However, if Google can keep the price down, a quad-core S4 Snapdragon with 2 GB of RAM is quite impressive. One thing is certain: this is just a rumor right now, so it’s hard to criticize the hardware and software; this can wait until after an announcement.

Also, all of the previous Nexus devices have launched with a new version of Android: Nexus One with Froyo 2.2, Nexus S with Gingerbread 2.3, Galaxy Nexus with Ice Cream Sandwich 4.0, and Nexus 7 with Jelly Bean 4.1 (for those who are curious, the various codenames for Android are named after desserts and follow the alphabet in ascending order). The Nexus 7 just came out this year, so it seems unlikely that a new iteration of Android will be revealed. The various test models are all running Android 4.1.2, which was just rolled out to the Nexus 7. The release of this LG Nexus, which rumor points to being announced at the end of October, could point to a change of strategy for Google and how it’s been handling Android.

In the past, Google would only partner with one OEM to create a “flagship” Nexus device. For the most part, the Nexus phones were the only phones with AOSP running on them. Every other Android phone, with a few exceptions, ran a modified “skinned” version of Android, which delayed updates for users. Launching a Nexus phone without a new version of Android can be seen as the start of releasing multiple Nexus phones that will all be updated to the latest version whenever it is ready for prime time. This seems to corroborate earlier information from the Wall Street Journal that pointed to multiple OEMs creating Nexus devices. Rumors are still swirling that Sony (Xperia Nexus), Samsung (Galaxy Nexus 2), HTC, and even Motorola may be whipping out Nexus phones. One potential pitfall with this strategy is making sure AOSP plays “nice” with all the various CPU processors that various phones have. No doubt, having multiple OEMs on board will increase the options Nexus fans have when choosing a device and, hopefully, a carrier. One of my fears here is that multiple Nexus devices will splinter the development community, but this is mere speculation. Some of the more popular ROMs such as AOKP already support a wide range of devices although the Galaxy Nexus is still their primary device.

The Competition

There’s quite a bit of competition in the Android space. In fact, it’s this competition that drives down the price of Android devices since newer devices are cropping up every quarter. The Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X are still fantastic phones. In the future, there’s Samsung’s “mini” Galaxy S3 for people looking for a 4″ option. As I mentioned before, there is the LG Optimus G, which seems like a strong contender. In the “phablet” space, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 2 is set to come stateside in November and has already received some rave reviews here and here. HTC is also looking to enter the “phablet” space with its HTC One DLX.

Outside of the Android ecosystem, we have Apple’s iPhone 5, which broke some more sales records when it went on sale in late September. In addition, Microsoft and its OEM partners are gearing up to launch Windows Phone 8 in late October, early November. Nokia, Samsung, and HTC are positioning themselves for success with some excellent hardware. Personally, my favorite is Nokia’s Lumia 920 for its top class camera. However, the true hurdle will be getting consumers to adopt Microsoft’s newest mobile OS. When perusing comments on various tech blog sites, I come across quite a few people who are already predicting Microsoft’s failure, similar to what happened to Windows Phone 7 and Mango, Windows Phone 7.5. The Trojan Horse here is the desktop version of Windows 8, but it may take some time for adoption of Windows 8 to ramp up and begin to have an effect on smart phone purchase decisions.

Closing Thoughts

To be honest, the Nexus line of devices still seems like a tough sale to the general population. The Nexus devices, which are aimed at developers and Android enthusiasts, are just that: they’re for the more geeky, technologically-inclined consumers. Google either needs to market the benefits of its Nexus devices to convince the general consumer why they should be interested in a “Google Phone” or adopt new policies with OEMs and carriers to reduce the time lag between the release of a new version of Android to AOSP to roll out across a wide variety of devices.

My hunch is that most Android owners don’t even know what version of Android they are even using and are perfectly happy as long as the experience is on par with their expectations. However, this shouldn’t excuse OEMs and carriers from passing on updating devices. Since U.S. carriers tend to use 2-year contracts, they should continue to update a phone for at least that duration.

Moving forward, it should be interesting to see how Google adapts its strategy for Android. It is currently the king of the mobile OS and the decisions it makes over the next couple of years will be integral to the continued success of Android as a mobile OS.

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