One of the first things that people may notice about the new LG Nexus 4 is that despite its suite of powerhouse features, there is not LTE model. At first, we thought this could be just because Google was only announcing the version that was going to launch in the Google Play Store, and not the variant for certain carriers. But, it turns out that it was a conscious choice by Google to not build an LTE model, and it looks like Google may be going back to its old ways of trying to disrupt the carrier system a bit.
According to Android chief, Andy Rubin, it was a "tactical decision" to not build an LTE model, and the reasoning included issues of cost, target audience, network availability, and carrier control. As a simple overall reason, it is just cheaper to build a device that doesn't have an LTE radio in it. Even with new hybrid chips, LTE adds cost to the handset, and causes issues with battery life
. Apple seems to have sorted out the battery issues with the iPhone 5, but even so, Google had to decide if the extra cost was worth it, which brings us to the other issues.
One of the top issues, according to Google, is that LTE networks simply aren't built out enough yet
. Carriers have been working hard to roll out LTE networks, but Andy Rubin says, "A lot of the networks that have deployed LTE haven't scaled completely yet — they're hybrid networks [...] which means the devices need both radios built into them. When we did the Galaxy Nexus with LTE we had to do just that, and it just wasn't a great user experience." For example, if Google had built a Nexus 4 for AT&T's LTE network, it would only reach 77 markets in the US, and AT&T wouldn't be helping at all with the costs associated with building the device. And, since each carrier uses a different frequency of LTE band, that adds even more obstacles, according to Google.
Some carriers, like Verizon, have built out large LTE networks, but that leads to another issue, which we have all seen first hand: carrier control
. According to LTE Open Access rules, Verizon is legally obligated to allow unlocked devices on its LTE network, but right now, there is no such thing as an LTE-only network. Verizon and Sprint still use a combination of LTE and CDMA, and the proprietary nature of CDMA keeps Google from selling a Verizon or Sprint-compatible device unlocked in the Play Store. Without an unlocked device, Google has to rely on the carriers to push out software updates, which means months of testing and delays, especially from Verizon, neither of which are what Google wants with the Nexus brand.
As we've seen from Apple and the iPhone 5, it is possible to make a phone that is compatible with almost all 3G and 4G mobile networks without compromising battery life. The issue of cost is still a real one, and readily apparent in that Google will be selling the LG Nexus 4 for just $349, while a 16GB unlocked iPhone 5 will run you $649 when they are made available. Even with the Apple tax factored in, that's a big difference in price. Google could have added LTE at least for AT&T and international users without adding too much cost to the device, even if Verizon users were left out, but that leads to the last issue: audience size.
Even with the big push last year, and the release of the Galaxy Nexus on so many major carriers around the world, Nexus devices are still essentially niche devices that appeal mostly to early adopters and developers. This limits the size of the audience that is actually going to buy a Nexus device. Combine that audience limitation with the limitations of LTE networks, and suddenly the potential customer base is that much smaller. And, really, we think that this last issue is the real key to the whole argument for Google.
Yes, LTE adds cost, and LTE networks aren't fully formed yet, but the fact is that Nexus devices still aren't mass market devices. Average customers don't necessarily understand the benefits of a Nexus device, and maybe early adopters and developers don't make up a large enough audience to make up the added cost as far as Google is concerned. Add that to the fact that Google now has a viable way to sell directly to users in the Play Store, and Google can go back to one of its original aims from the days of the Nexus One: full control.
Google doesn't want carriers dictating what features can and can't be enabled in stock Android, because once features begin to disappear, it is no longer really "stock" Android. On top of that, Google doesn't want bloatware on a Nexus device, even if it is just a couple "My Account" apps. And, of course there is the big issue of interference and carrier control which not only lead to the CDMA Galaxy Nexus being removed as a developer device, but it has added months of testing and delays to what should be fast, straight from Google updates.
It may not be good news for users who have been hoping for an LTE Nexus this year, but for those who had worried about what the Nexus brand was morphing into (including us), it is nice to see Google taking control again. We may be years away from having unlocked LTE devices, and it is still possible that an LTE Nexus 4 will come in the future, but for now Google has brought the Nexus brand back to its roots, and that's a potentially very significant move.