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The changing face of Google Nexus brand

Posted: , posted by Michael H.

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The changing face of Google Nexus brand
Some have commented that some of our coverage of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus has been too negative, and that certainly was not the intention. However, we do feel that there are some valid questions that need to be asked about the device and the path that Google is taking with it. Because, aside from whether or not the device is good or not, the handling of the device is a big departure from past Nexus devices, and we aren't sure if Google is controlling the experience properly, or how much Google is controlling it at all. The Samsung Galaxy Nexus is different from its Nexus descendants in a number of ways, and we want to look into what has been changing. But first, we need to start with what Nexus is, and what it should continue to be.

What Nexus is

The changing face of Google Nexus brand
Traditionally, the Nexus devices have had three main purposes in design:

  1. To be a pure Google Android experience.
  2. To be a developer reference device.
  3. To be a hardware reference for other manufacturers.

These are the main defining characteristics of a Nexus device. A pure Android experience is necessary and beneficial to the Android ecosystem as a whole because it creates a baseline for what the platform is and what it offers. Pure Android shows all of the features that make Android unique, and also serves to highlight how manufacturer customization benefits and harms the ecosystem. Custom UIs can add layers of polish and design spark, but will also serve to slow down device performance as well as software update times. Pure Android also showed how certain carriers were disabling standard features of Android, such as tethering or sideloading apps. 

Being a developer reference device is also about creating a baseline experience. It gives developers one device that will always have the fastest path to getting the newest update of the Android operating system. And, it is a device that is easy and hassle-free to unlock and root, so developers can get deeper access into the system and make sure their apps take advantage of what Android offers. 

Being a hardware reference device is a more ambiguous idea, but an important one nonetheless. Because there are so many devices in the Android ecosystem, certain hardware components and features will evolve simply by the process of competition. But, sometimes the ecosystem stagnates or takes a path that Google doesn't think is best, or is hesitant to adopt certain features. That's where the Nexus acts as a carrot to lure manufacturers towards certain features. 

The Nexus One pushed for more adoption of faster processors, AMOLED screens, LED notifications, and a secondary microphone for ambient noise cancellation. Some of these features were adopted (faster CPUs, secondary mics), some weren't (LED notifications). The Nexus S pushed for larger internal storage and less reliance on SD cards, front-facing cameras, NFC chips, and faster GPUs. Again, most of those features have become standard, with the exception of NFC. The Galaxy Nexus is pushing HD resolution screens, NFC (still), and no physical function buttons.

Unintended consequences

These basic characteristics of what a Nexus device would be had some unintended consequences. First, pure Android alienated more controlling carriers (Verizon, AT&T) because those carriers didn't want to give users free and easy ways to tether their phones to other devices, or install apps from any source. This meant that the devices were relegated to smaller carriers like T-Mobile, which were willing to take risks with more open policies, because they just needed more business. 

In turn, this alienated many mass market consumers because the Nexus devices weren't available on the most popular carriers, and could only be purchased outside of the traditional system. The Nexus One was the worst offender, being available only for purchase through Google's website. The Nexus S found a bit more success being sold in Best Buy and eventually Sprint stores, but it was still too limiting. Additionally, stock Android was not the prettiest OS, so simply the look of it turned off some more casual consumers, especially when viewed next to an HTC Sense device. In general, casual consumers either didn't know the Nexus devices existed, or they didn't understand the point of such a device. 

Consequently, the Nexus devices became synonymous with early adopters, the mod community, and hardcore Android fans in general. Only the most dedicated knew about the devices, why they were special, and why they were necessary to the Android ecosystem as a whole. As always happens with cult items like this, the hardcore community took something of ownership in the Nexus brand, and that brand is changing.

The Galaxy Nexus pivot

The Galaxy Nexus is the first Nexus device that is actively being marketed as a mass market device. This is not just a developer device, or an early adopter device, or a device for uber-geeks. This is a device for everyone. This new philosophy is shown not only in the UI overhaul of Ice Cream Sandwich, but in the advertisements for the Nexus, the selling price of the device in some regions, and its upcoming availability on Verizon. It is still a Nexus device, the trouble is that it's feeling less and less like a Google device because it seems that Google has had to cede more and more control in order to get this Nexus to a wider audience. We even saw that in the videos introducing Android 4.0 that Google posted yesterday show Galaxy Nexus phones where the Verizon branding on the back is by far the prominent logo.

The changing face of Google Nexus brand
Nexus devices have always been first and foremost Google devices. Google would partner with manufacturers in designing and producing the hardware, but at the end of the day you were left with the Google Nexus One and the Google Nexus S. There were no compromises made to the idea of a pure Android experience, and Google always felt in control, for better or worse. This tended to mean that the device would be a great piece of hardware and software that wasn't marketed well, and ended up with a limited reach.

Now, Google seems to be taking a backseat to everyone with the Galaxy Nexus. First and foremost, this is not a Google device, it is a Samsung device. It is not a descendent of the Google Galaxy Nexus, or the Google Nexus Prime. Rather, it is a cousin of the Samsung Galaxy line, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Those of us who dive more deeply into news and happenings will see the Nexus tag and understand what the device is and what it offers, but few casual consumers are likely to understand that this is a Google device, because Google's name is not on it. 

Making concessions

This may seem like a relatively small thing, because in our community we automatically connect "Android" to "Google" anyway. The trouble is that many casual consumers don't make that connection. That has been a major effect of Verizon's presence in the Android ecosystem. The DROID commercials have been the only iconic marketing campaign for Android that has resonated with consumers. The trouble is that because of this, it is common for many people to substitute the word "droid" as a blanket term for all Android devices, and connect the idea of droid to Verizon, not Google. All of this takes away from the primary reason for Nexus devices: to be a pure Google Android experience. As writers, we may believe it more than most, but words have power, and Google has ceded a lot by removing its name from this Nexus device. The name implies authorship, and this makes it seem like Google wasn't as big a part of the creation of this device as you would expect from a "pure Google experience" phone. 

The concessions go past just the name of the device of course. We had already seen with the Nexus S on Sprint that Google was willing to compromise on features in order to appease carriers. With the Nexus S a software update removed free WiFi hotspot and tethering capabilities in favor of giving control to Sprint. We're sure that free tethering and WiFi hotspot capabilities will not be part of the Galaxy Nexus, at least not on Verizon. We've also seen that there are at least two pieces of bloatware packed onto the Verizon Galaxy Nexus. Again, this is a small thing, but it adds to the list of compromises that Google has been making. Those two pieces of bloat add to the subjugation of Google. For many consumers, this will not be a Google Nexus device with a pure Android experience, it will be Samsung Galaxy device with Verizon branding. 

The biggest concession of all is one that we've talked about before, which is that Google has seemingly no real control over the release of the Galaxy Nexus. Google has made deals with carriers around the world to bring the Nexus to market, but those deals obviously have not included any kind of marketing campaigns. Google hasn't made any comments on the specific release dates or even specific carriers. We know that Verizon will have the Galaxy Nexus, but we still don't know when, or if that will be a full or timed exclusive. 

Conclusion

The Google Nexus line of devices is not the same thing that it once was. It used to be a study in a pure Google Android experience, and it still is a developer device, and shows the direction Google wanted the hardware to move. Because they were wholly Google controlled devices, they were a sort of spiritual flagship device for the ecosystem, and could never move past being a spiritual flagship because it had a limited reach from being outside of the traditional carrier system. Now, Google is increasingly taking a back seat with the Nexus to the point where the only thing that can truly be said to be Google is Ice Cream Sandwich. And, Ice Cream Sandwich is definitely pure Google, and looks amazing, however the handling of the Galaxy Nexus as a whole has us questioning who is in control.

Whether you like or hate Apple products or the way Apple has traditionally done business, Apple does not take a back seat with its devices, especially those considered to be "flagship" devices. Apple creates products to a standard and markets them well; that drives the success. Google makes products to a standard and assumes that will be enough to make them successful. And, when that failed, rather than creating better marketing and communication with consumers, Google ceded control of the device to carriers and manufacturers in hopes of getting it out to the masses. Google gave away the ability to build up its own name in the market for a chance that the established Samsung Galaxy name will lead to more success for this Nexus device. 

To be clear, Google's way may still work. We haven't seen the Galaxy Nexus in all markets. We haven't seen if there are holiday advertising campaigns planned. And obviously, we don't know if it will sell well or not. But, that's not the point of this discussion. The point is that Nexus devices are, above all else, supposed to be pure Google experiences, free from outside control. Google is supposed to be the author of its story. To push the literary metaphor, Nexus should be Google's Android autobiography, but with the Galaxy Nexus, Google has become little more than a ghost writer. That may lead to a more successful device that can legitimately be called the flagship Android device, but it also fundamentally changes what Nexus is, and it takes control away from Google. And, we don't know where that leads.

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