With the Galaxy Nexus, Google inadvertently sparked a discussion on what a Nexus-branded device really is. The past devices have debuted as unlocked GSM phones that were sold all over the world. The Galaxy Nexus, however, is only on Verizon in the US, and the carrier has some as-yet-unknown level of control over the device. If “Nexus” doesn’t mean what we thought it did, maybe it’s time to make it mean something new. Maybe Google should make “Nexus” its own brand within Android.
Google might look to Intel and its Ultrabook push for the way to do this. The chipmaker is spending big to promote its Ultrabook category of thin and light laptops, and OEMs are free to use the name (and capitalize on marketing benefits) if their notebooks meet certain requirements. Could the Nexus brand be something similar for Android? Let’s take a look at how Google could expand the Nexus brand for the good of Android.
Common Sense Requirements
If Google could leverage Nexus as a brand, OEMs would have an angle to sell consumers a stock Android experience. The first, and most important requirement of any Nexus branding program would have to be a stock UI. No skins, and no feature removals; just the AOSP version of the platform with necessary changes to optimize for hardware. The differentiation would not come from the software, but from making more killer hardware than the other guy.
Intel’s Ultrabook scheme has requirements related to internal specs, weight, and so on. Google would not need to go to these extremes. The goal of Nexus has always been to push the hardware forward, and a Nexus branding program would continue to do that by giving OEMs a free hand to make great, but varied, hardware.
The other part of this would need to be faster updates. We haven’t heard a thing about Google’s supposed update agreement from Google I/O 2011, but this could be a better way forward. If OEMs have just a few Nexus-branded devices that don’t need complete UI redesigns for each platform revision, they could be updated quickly. Google should require that Nexus phones be entitled to one major update past the version they ship with. That is where Google is with the in-house Nexus line.
A Nexus branding program would be different from the traditional Nexus program in a few ways, and these are the elements that would make it work. Google would not control everything a manufacturer does with a Nexus phone. While the Nexus brand would require updates as outlined above, they would be handled by the OEM, not Google. The Galaxy Nexus is updated by Google itself, but Google’s developers don’t need to be saddled with building updates for more devices.
Google would have to keep silent regarding the installation of carrier apps on a Nexus. This will help get the carriers on board with a new kind of Nexus. It’s an ugly truth that carriers make good money from these pre-installed apps, but this is a small price to pay now that we can do something about it. With Android 4.0, the platform gained the ability to disable any app on the phone through the Application Settings.
Why It’s a Good Idea
After spending a little time with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, it’s hard to go back to any other version of the OS. Similarly, it’s going to be hard to go to one of the OEM skins that will surely live on as devices are updated. Google’s new requirement that the stock be included on each device will help with app compatibility, but so much of the sharp design and good ideas in Android 4.0 will be obscured by layers of unnecessary UI flourish in the skins.
Android has been doing fine as a collection of disparate devices connected by an underlying framework, but it can be more. A more inclusive Nexus program, with common sense rules, could serve to standardize Android. All too often apps are developed to take advantage of the software features of the newest software, leaving other users out. If there were more phones running the new software early on, we would see more of this innovation.
If OEMs are unsure about a new Nexus program, how would Google get them involved? With money, obviously. Like Intel with Ultrabooks, Google could get the Nexus name out there to regular users. It’s presence in web advertising would make this a simple operation. The OEM gets a phone with instant name recognition, and Google gets a more cohesive platform.
Even though Android is the most common mobile operating system on smartphones sold today, many users don’t even know the name of the platform. Sometimes they think “Droid” is the OS, and other times they simply know it’s got something or another to do with Google. What they see when they use their phones, though, is HTC Sense (or something similar). For all intents and purposes, these users have HTC Sense phones, not Android.
Companies like HTC and Samsung are attached to their unique Android skins, and promote them heavily. HTC loves to get the Sense name out there, and even etches it on all its devices. These brands take the place of Android in the consumer’s mind, and that can be what Nexus is too.
People will know that a Nexus phone looks a certain way, and does certain things. If they are paying attention, they will know that Sense, TouchWiz, and Nexus phones are all Android-based. In this way, Nexus becomes an interface choice that is presented along side the OEM skins. The choice in the store would be, "Do you want Sense, TouchWiz, Blur, or Nexus?" This would finally let stock phones take their place on all carrier shelves.
A new Nexus-as-a-brand scenario does not need to kill the Nexus as we know it now; a once per-year reference device with slick new software. Rather, it would allow the yearly Nexus to be what it was always meant to be: a developer phone. Google could continue making its internally-developed Nexus each year, and selling it unlocked. A more widely used Nexus brand would just give users looking for stock Android and faster updates more places to look.