Rating the field: who should make the 2012 Nexus phone and first Nexus tablet
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
The next Nexus phone
Recently, the rumors have started up about who will be the hardware partner for the next Nexus phone, which isn't due out until late this year. Google seems to be settling into a yearly cycle of releasing the new Nexus reference phone and major Android OS update in November/December, so it's pretty safe to assume that is when we'll see the Android 5.0 Jelly Bean reference phone. So far, we've heard LG claim that it is "heavily in discussions" with Google about being the hardware partner for the 2012 Nexus phone, and we've heard HTC claim that Google hasn't made a decision yet, and that there are multiple manufacturers still in the running for the deal.
As we've mentioned already, it seems very unlikely that Google would choose Motorola as the hardware partner, and choosing Samsung again would be viewed as the kind of favoritism that Google is looking to avoid. That narrows the field of potential hardware partners quite a bit. While there are a large number of manufacturers in the Android ecosystem, Google tends to like highlighting major partners. With this in mind, we think that there are only really 5 manufacturers in the running: LG, HTC, Sony, ZTE, and Huawei. We'll work our way in reverse order through this list.
We feel that we can rule out Huawei because while it is a big manufacturer for Android, most of its handsets are middle to lower-tier phones, and that isn't what the Nexus brand is about. Nexus is about being the pacecar and trendsetter for the Android ecosystem, and so it needs to be one of if not the best handset on the market. ZTE is also an enormous manufacturer, and does have a growing portfolio of high-end devices, but it is just beginning its move to expand its market share outside of China, so it seems unlikely that Google would choose the company for the 2012 Nexus. Google is far more likely to choose a company with an established global brand name.
That's where Sony comes into the game. Sony feels like a dark horse to us, but an interesting one nonetheless. Sony had a rocky road early on with its Android devices, and didn't have the best track record for quality or software updates while it was under the Sony Ericsson brand, but the Sony seems to have really turned things around in the wake of its buyout of Ericsson. The company has been incredibly progressive in releasing both an alpha and beta version of its Ice Cream Sandwich ROM to let the community test it and help suggest ways to make the software better.
Where Sony's bid falls short is in the quality of its high-end devices. The upcoming Xperia S (formerly codenamed Nozomi) is the only device that the company has put together that even comes close to the level of a Nexus device, but even that falls somewhat short in the size of the device (10.6mm thick). However, Google does like to choose Nexus hardware partners based on what companies have the most intrusive custom UI on its devices. Former Nexus partners HTC and Samsung both have heavy skins on their Android devices, and Sony is no different there. Sony puts a very intense custom UI on its Android devices, and Google likes to choose companies like that for Nexus partners because it accentuates just how much custom UIs delay software updates. Of course, if Sony really does move away from Android in favor of its Vita OS (which seems highly unlikely), it would be very unlikely that Google would choose the company for the Nexus partnership.
HTC sees itself as a viable option in the race to be the hardware partner for the 2012 Nexus, but we're not too sure that is all that accurate. HTC has been enough removed from its past Google reference device experiences with the G1 and the Nexus One that Google probably wouldn't get too much flak for showing favoritism to the company by choosing it for this year's Nexus device. HTC has been putting out quality devices, and has been innovating in interesting ways, especially with the integration of Beats audio into its handsets. HTC also still fits the notion of having a stock Android reference device from a company that has a heavy custom UI on its devices, which has been slowing down software updates. Still, we're finding it hard to get too excited about another HTC Nexus.
Don't get us wrong, we loved the Nexus One. It was a revolutionary product for the Android ecosystem, and HTC has continued to put out quality devices since then. The trouble we have is in the design of HTC devices. When you see an HTC device, you know it's an HTC device. This is a good thing as far as brand recognition, but it doesn't fit so well with the Nexus brand. If HTC were to make another Nexus device, we would really hope that it wouldn't look like a typical HTC device. We are hoping that the 2012 Nexus will be made with more premium materials, and have a more dynamic look to it, something that speaks more to its Google heritage rather than the hardware partner. Theoretically HTC can do just that, but it doesn't have much of a track record for taking chances with its designs.
Of course, that's a relatively small complaint in the grand scheme of things. HTC is still one of the better handset makers out there and does have a history of working with Google on reference devices. But, that history alone may be enough to keep Google away.
The Nexus brand has gotten a huge visibility boost with the release of the Galaxy Nexus, especially in the US because of its availability on Verizon. It may be time to try giving a boost to an Android partner that deserves some more visibility. LG has been an Android partner for a long time and has a proven track record for quality handsets, but hasn't really garnered as much attention as other Android manufacturers like Samsung, HTC and Motorola. LG's best device, the Optimus 2X (or T-Mobile G2X depending on where you live), was a great handset, but didn't gain too much traction due to the fact that 1) it was stuck on T-Mobile in the US, and 2) it pushed forward with a dual-core processor, but still had a WVGA screen. LG's most visible device in the US, the Revolution, was another quality device, but had the sad distinction of being an Android device where the default search and Maps app were both Bing, not Google. Bing may be good, but it's just not the same Google experience on Android if Bing is the default.
Still, LG seems to be back on track with the Optimus 4X HD, which looks to be an incredible device. So, LG has the pedigree for making quality handsets, and could use the recognition from Google as the hardware partner for the 2012 Nexus, but that also could be something of a double-edged sword. LG hasn't had the visibility of other companies like Samsung, and it is possible that Google could raise awareness of the company's quality handsets by naming it as the hardware partner, but it also could be that LG doesn't have the name and brand power to push forward the Nexus name.
The marketing of Nexus devices tends to be split between the hardware partner and Google. Google's ads focus on the Android software, as we've seen with commercials for Face Unlock, Google+ Hangouts, and panorama mode, whereas the hardware partner is in charge of marketing the Nexus handset itself. LG has very little as far as a marketing footprint. We can't remember ever seeing a commercial for an LG handset. The Nexus brand has gotten a boost with the release of the Galaxy Nexus, but that was due mostly to the combination of Samsung's brand name and Verizon's marketing power. LG does have a relationship with Verizon, but it may not be able to add much to the marketing of a Nexus device.
There is still quite a bit of time before the release of the 2012 Nexus phone, but Google will likely have to choose a partner sooner rather than later in order to get moving on the design of the device. It seems as though the frontrunners to be chosen as Google's hardware partner is a race between LG and HTC. Although, we would hope that Google is at least giving Sony a bit of a chance. Sony may be a dark horse, but it has been doing some impressive things in the Android community recently, and although Sony has had troubles with some creepy marketing in the past, it does have the best worldwide brand recognition out of any contender, and it has the biggest marketing clout as well. Not to mention, it would be really nice to see just what a Sony device could be like if it were running stock Android. It seems unlikely given Sony's interest in pushing its own products though.
HTC and LG essentially come out as a pick'em. HTC has a better track record for quality devices, better brand recognition and marketing, and it has been a hardware partner for Google twice before. But, maybe Google needs an injection of new blood into the Nexus line. LG could be just that, and also has a record of building quality handsets. Its brand recognition is okay, but its marketing leaves something to be desired. Overall, we'd like to see either Sony or LG as the ultimate choice, but it seems far more likely that Google would go with LG.
As far as the Nexus tablet, the actual choice has likely already been made and the tablet itself may be pretty close to production at this point. That said, it could be any company as the partner there, but we do hope that it is Asus. Asus has been putting out the best Android tablets at competitive prices, and deserves a shot to be the Nexus partner in our book.