The potential ripple effect of Google's new Nexus strategy
A couple days ago, we talked about how Google's rumored new Nexus strategy of releasing multiple devices through multiple manufacturing partners could help to stop the vocal minority within the Android user base from complaining about "fragmentation". Today, we want to talk about the potential ripple effect, and how more Nexus devices will affect the ecosystem as a whole.
The Nexus brand itself has undergone some changes in recent years. Originally, the Nexus brand was something of a beacon for early adopters, and those who loved to really tinker with what a device could do. It was a device for developers, and it was a device to push forward the hardware in the Android ecosystem. Nexus meant that you would get a pure Android experience with no alterations. But, over the years, the brand has changed a bit and evolved with the times.
The evolution of Nexus
Google decided that the number one goal of the Nexus brand was to be a pure Google experience, and realized that the way to offer that on every carrier was to make one concession: tethering couldn't be a standard feature, and so the hotspot and tethering options were hindered in some variants of the Galaxy Nexus. Also, the idea that the Nexus has to be a device that pushes forward Android hardware has lost traction. Google still uses the devices to try to push forward certain hardware features, like NFC; but overall, Nexus devices are not the very best of the best as far as hardware specs. Instead, Nexus devices get their value from being on the cutting edge of software.
The idea of a pure Google experience device is something that extends beyond a device having stock Android installed. Pure Android isn't just a lack of a custom UI, or a lack of too much preloaded software. Possibly most importantly of all the characteristics of a pure Google experience is that platform updates come directly from Google. This means Nexus devices get updates far far faster than any other devices in the ecosystem... well, all Nexus devices not running on Verizon, of course.
One of the original hopes of the Nexus brand was to show customers how fast updates could be, and maybe shame manufacturers into pushing out updates faster. The problem with that idea was that the Nexus brand, as we mentioned, was something of an ubergeek symbol, and didn't hold much weight with the majority of customers, so the anger that increased after seeing the disparity in update speed came mostly from the tech elite. We talked last time about how the added choice of Nexus devices could help to quell the anger of that population, but additionally, we have to remember that the larger the Nexus brand grows, the more the average user will see that same update disparity.
Visibility leads to change
Having one Nexus device has certain advantages, like being the default "flagship" device, and getting focused attention. It helps with word of mouth advertising, and in building an iconic brand. These advantages are ones that Apple has been benefitting from with the iPhone, because Apple loves creating iconic products. However, the new strategy of having a line of Nexus devices helps Google achieve the original goals of the brand. Nexus was never intended to be an icon, it was intended to be a role model. Manufacturers need not try to emulate the Nexus devices, but can learn from them, and the same goes for users.
We tend to believe that almost everything in the world comes down to knowledge and perspective, which ultimately leads to understanding. A lack of one of those former components leads to an inability to truly understand an issue, product, etc. Fanboys lack perspective, and therefore can never truly understand the opinions of others. Similarly, without the knowledge of how slowly updates are coming to their devices, and how far behind an Android 2.3 device truly is, users can't understand why this happens and how best to avoid the problem.
Of course, users can't learn about or from a device if they don't know about it, and visibility has always been a problem for Nexus devices. Sure, we all know about them, because we actively seek out information on the mobile ecosystem. There are many casual users who still think that "Droid" is a term that can be used to refer to any device in the Android ecosystem, and not just a specific line of Verizon devices. Those users tend to not know or understand the importance of the Nexus devices. But that could easily change if there are multiple Nexus devices, and Google pushes the visibility of them, maybe with dedicated Nexus sections in retail stores, but definitely with the dedicated section in the Play Store.
Manufacturers benefit too
The part that no one has really touched upon yet is that manufacturers may not even need the increased awareness and push by users in order to be better about offering updates for devices. Sure, when more casual users understand the problem better, there will be more complaints, which will push manufacturers. But, we tend to ignore one of the major benefits for manufacturers of being in the Nexus program: early access to software.
Early access to Android updates will obviously help a manufacturer build a Nexus device, but it also means that company has a head start on adding its own software layer for its own devices. Ever since the days of the Nexus One, HTC has been one of the best companies around at pushing updates to its devices, and we think its fairly likely that was because the company has a history of working so closely with Google.
Samsung may not always be the best about pushing updates, but since it began working with Google for the Nexus S and then the Galaxy Nexus, Samsung has been one of the better manufacturers about launching new devices with the newest version of Android. That may not apply to Jelly Bean updates so far, but Samsung is unlikely to have gotten any early builds of Jelly Bean, because it wasn't building the launch device.
Asus had the honor of being the Nexus partner for the launch of Jelly Bean, and wouldn't you know it, the company was also pretty quick on pushing Jelly Bean updates to its other tablets. Granted, Asus has always been one of the fastest, because of its very minimal customization, and the fact that tablets don't need to worry about carrier testing.
Additionally, we have to remember that Google handles the promotions for all of the Nexus devices, and has been taking over support as well. This means that a manufacturing partner needs to just build the device and collect its cut of the sales, while Google handles everything else. That's not a bad deal for hardware partners.
Now, just imagine what the Android landscape could look like if it is true that Samsung, HTC, LG, and Sony are all getting early builds of Android software, and all have more time to work on their own customizations. At the very least, we should see more and more non-Nexus devices launching with the newest version of Android faster than before. If that work can be done before the launch of a device, that should leave manufacturers more time to dedicate towards building the updates for older devices. And, that's where the users step in. More Nexus devices should also mean more aware customers, and more pressure on manufacturers to push out updates to more devices on a faster timeline.
We should all realize by now that Google isn't going to mandate updates. Google isn't an authoritarian company that forces companies to play by the rules they set, and we wouldn't want that from Google anyway. If Google suddenly clamped down on Android, it would fundamentally change the platform from what it is into something we may not want. Google has certain ideas of what it wants Android to be, and uses the carrot-and-stick to try to lead manufacturers there. The strategy is changing, and that could mean better results for users.