Rating the field: who should make the 2012 Nexus phone and first Nexus tablet
The Samsung Galaxy Nexus has only been on the market for about three months now, but chatter has already started with rumors about what company may be chosen by Google to be the hardware partner for the next Nexus phone. The thing is that the next Nexus phone isn't due out until the fall, likely November/December again, and there is a Nexus tablet due out in just a few months, but no one has mentioned what company may be building that reference device. So, we wanted to run through both the Nexus tablet and the next Nexus phone and talk about not just what companies are most likely to be chosen to build each, but which companies should be chosen to be Google's hardware partners.
Before we even get into the tablet and the phone talk, we just want to squash something right away. Motorola is not a realistic choice to be the hardware partner for either Nexus device that is going to be released this year. When Google first announced its intentions to purchase Motorola, there was a backlash from Android hardware partners that were scared that this meant Google would start putting out its own hardware and essentially alienate other hardware partners. Then, of course, there has been the inevitable scare tactics by Google competitors, starting with Microsoft and Nokia and continuing on with repeated accusations by HP's CEO Meg Whitman that Google's purchase of Motorola, Android would become a "closed" system.
We have tried to be the voice of reason, pointing out that favoring Motorola or "closing" Android would not only be an extremely silly business move by Google, but it would go against every action that Google has ever made. Companies are like people in that they have personalities and you can predict future actions based on past actions. Google has never done anything to "close" Android, or favor one manufacturer over another, and has always pushed towards open standards. Of course, Eric Schmidt has continually denied that Google would favor Motorola over other manufacturers, but as always actions speak louder than words.
As far as actions go, Google has already put in place a "firewall" between Motorola and the Android team, according to Android chief Andy Rubin. So, the Android team has no idea what Motorola is working on, and Motorola gets nothing more than any other Android partner. The logical extension of these actions is to keep Motorola away from the Nexus brand, at least for this year.
Google has never been good at combatting negative allegations by competitors, or by the media. Google recently got a lot of flak from all sides because news came out that it, just like many other companies, used a workaround with Apple's mobile Safari browser in order to create working +1 buttons on websites. Google never came out to not only explain its actions clearly, but to point out that the workaround it was using was based on a loophole in the open-source Webkit code that Google had patched back in 2010, but Apple had never adopted in its Safari browser. So, yes, Google was doing something a little suspicious, but it was using a loophole that Apple had never bothered to patch, even though it was available 2 years ago.
Now, consider the media and PR backlash that would result if Google were to choose Motorola as the Nexus partner for either the Nexus tablet or the Nexus phone this year. Google could probably assuage the fears of major Android partners in private, but the media and public backlash is something that Google has no resources to deal with. So, why would Google even put itself in that position in the first place?
There is no real upside to choosing Motorola as the hardware partner either. The one Motorola built reference device, the XOOM, may have been an outlier in that it was the reference device for the lost version 3 of Android. Honeycomb was rushed and never found success as anything more than the basis for Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. The XOOM also seemed rushed and never found any real success, both because of the unfinished feel of the OS and because the hardware was blatantly first generation - too heavy and SD card support was missing at first. Motorola has made good handsets, and the new Xyboard tablets aren't terrible, although they certainly aren't at the top of the Android tablet pile, but at least for this year, there is no benefit for Google to use Motorola as a hardware partner. It would be far better to keep other partners happy and stay away from the troublesome PR fiasco that would undoubtedly come if Google were to use Motorola.
The Nexus tablet
The more pressing story should be who Google is using as the hardware partner for the Nexus tablet, which is very likely going to be released in time for Google I/O at the end of June, but for some reason, no one is really talking about it. Perhaps, we all just assume that because we're so close to the release date that we'll have leaks soon enough and we'll know what is happening with the Nexus tablet, but it still deserves some mention here. All we know right now is that the Google Nexus tablet is expected to be a 7" device with a 720p display priced around $199. Eric Schmidt has said that the tablet will be of the "highest quality", but we don't really know what that means.
As we've said, there has been no talk about who is Google's hardware partner for the Nexus tablet. There has been talk that Google is building some of its own hardware these days, but that seems to be solely in connection with the Android@Home project. Building the tablet alone seems as though it would raise the same issues as if Google were to choose Motorola as the hardware partner, so it seems more likely that Google has an outside manufacturing partner for the Nexus tablet.
The world of Android tablets is filled to the brim with myriad manufacturers putting out their own versions of what an Android tablet should be. That said, as far as quality, there are two companies that have risen above the rest when it comes to Android tablets: Samsung and Asus. HTC and LG have put out pretty good tablets, but don't really have the proven track record with the form factor to be serious contenders in our estimation.
Samsung certainly has an impressive resume, as the Korean company has been the partner for the last two Nexus handsets (the Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus), and was the biggest smartphone maker in the world for last year. Samsung's Galaxy Tab series has been a critical hit, with solid build quality, but the company has admitted that it is "not doing very well" in the tablet market. It seems to us that Samsung has simply been too aggressive and has over-saturated the market with all of the different sized tablets that it is offering. Keep in mind that where many companies have one or maybe two form factors available for tablets, Samsung has models clocking in at 7", 7.7", 8.9", 10.1" and reportedly there is also an 11.6" model in the works. And, on top of the various sizes, there are often both 3G and WiFi-only models for each variant. Choice is a good thing, but that seems like far too many products. Samsung needs to focus its efforts, and adding a Nexus tablet to its lineup seems unnecessary.
It doesn't really make sense from Google's perspective either. Given how many different Samsung tablets there are on the market, Google would just be adding one more to the mix by choosing Samsung as the hardware partner for the Nexus tablet. Besides that, Google shouldn't want to be seen as favoring Samsung any more than it would want to be seen as favoring Motorola. Since Samsung has been the hardware partner for the past two Nexus phones, it would seem best to choose another company for the Nexus tablet.
That brings us to our choice: Asus. Asus has been the most successful company in the Android tablet market. The Taiwanese company has been focused, only releasing the Asus Eee Pad Transformer, Asus Eee Pad Slider, and Asus Transformer Prime. The tablets have been very high quality, hit very impressive price points, and have been some of the fastest on the market to get software updates, because Asus has tended to work with stock Android. The only real issue that Asus has faced has been with the GPS reception of the Transformer Prime, which has a solution that would be very easy to implement in a new piece of hardware.
Asus also has a pretty impressive 7" tablet in the works that seems like it could be the basis for a Nexus tablet. The upcoming Asus MeMo 370T is a 7" Ice Cream Sandwich tablet with a quad-core Tegra 3 and is set to be priced at just $250. We would expect a different processor in a Nexus device, but Asus obviously has the resume to build a 7" tablet of the "highest quality" that could be priced at $199.
Of course, there isn't really a race to talk about here as Google has likely already chosen the hardware partner and designed the tablet. The Nexus tablet is due out in June, so it is probably fairly close to production at this point as well. We hope it's Asus as the partner, but let's move on to the 2012 Nexus phone race.