Last night, the Wall Street Journal filed a startling report: according to its sources, Google is massively expanding its Nexus program for the next Android release, codenamed Jelly Bean. Instead of sticking with one launch partner, it’s roped in no fewer than five this time. With this new approach comes a brand new business model – and it might just help Google seize control of its operating system back from the all-powerful mobile networks.
With previous releases of Android, Google has worked with one manufacturer (HTC, Samsung or Motorola) to create an optimum device running a vanilla version of Android, usually branded a ‘Nexus’ device. It’s meant to be the benchmark model for others to follow, but only once it’s gone on sale does every manufacturer get access to the source code. That means a big delay: in the case of Android 4.0, five months went by from the Samsung Galaxy Nexus’ launch to the arrival of HTC’s first Android 4.0 phone.
The upshot? An incredibly slow roll-out for every version of Android: it takes months, or even years, for the latest release to become the most used, and by that time, a new Nexus device is almost upon us. That’s a headache for app developers who find themselves having to test apps on a myriad of devices and Android versions, compared to just a handful of iOS devices. The limited support for Sky’s Go Android app is testament to that.
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But according to the WSJ’s report, Google will work with as many as five different manufacturers to get Android Jelly Bean phones and tablets on sale by Thanksgiving – just in time for the Christmas rush. Coinciding with this, Google would also sell these devices directly in the US, Europe and Asia.
It’s a smart move, not least because it should act as an olive branch from Google to the manufacturers in the Android Open Handset Alliance who may be otherwise concerned that it will give Motorola, which it is acquiring, first dibs on Android going forward.
The WSJ also points out in the article that an expanded Nexus program will help diminish the influence the American networks have over Android. The likes of AT&T and Verizon famously gimp their Android phones with huge suites of needless bloatware, and even remove core services. Verizon’s version of the Galaxy Nexus, for instance, does not support Google Wallet, Google’s NFC payment service.
The networks elsewhere don’t exert such absurd control, but an expanded Nexus program will help Google the world over through sheer brute force: more devices, running the latest version of Android, can only be a good thing.
If more people can get a device running a bleeding-edge version of Android, they’ll be less likely to want a non-standard Android phone: both Amazon and Facebook are rumoured to be planning forked versions of Android which cut Google out of the equation entirely. Amazon’s already done just that on the tablet front, and met with some success with its Kindle Fire Android-based tablet.
Such a move would also help increase the level of expectation amongst customers that Android updates should happen swiftly and universally, just as Apple rolls out upgrades on iPhones simultaneously. That currently doesn’t happen right now – the Samsung Galaxy S2’s disastrous Ice Cream Sandwich update being a very good example of the problem.
But if multiple Nexus devices all got a new update right away – and people bought them in large numbers – then manufacturers might reconsider making alterations to Android, as most do now. And that would mean Google’s new design guidelines for Android might actually be observed.
In that respect, the move means the once famously open-source Android is almost mimicking Microsoft’s Windows Phone model: manufacturers cannot modify the core operating system, and as a result it’s able to roll out updates to all devices relatively efficiently (It’s not actually clear from the report whether these new lead manufacturers can modify Android or not, but you’d have to assume they won’t be able to, if only due to lack of time). Google copying Microsoft’s mobile strategy? As odd as that sounds, it’s happening.
In truth, I only see half of this project working: Google has actually attempted to sell phones itself before, with the original Nexus One. It was a huge failure, in part because Google simply doesn’t have the expertise to deal with customer support.
But regardless, the benefit for the customer is obvious. Now that Google has some design nous, we can expect lots of lead devices, all running the same wonderful software. That’s not happened with Android before.
The Nexus gadgets we’d like to see
The Sony Xperia Nexus
Sony’s not had much success with Android so far, and most of that seems to be down to its inability to launch devices with up to date software. But its latest flagship, the Xperia S, packs a stunning 720p display, and the best camera on any Android smartphone – it’s got the potential for Nexus greatness, if only Google would give it the chance.
The Asus Nexus Transformer
Rumours have been whirling around that Asus, the only real Google tablet success story, has been picked to make a Nexus tablet to go head to head with the Kindle Fure. Given its fantastic Transformer devices, we should expect to see a slate with an impressive IPS display, and prompt software updates.
The Motorola Razr Nexus
Motorola’s Razr Android phone was strikingly thin, but still suffered from the same horrible interface mess as its Atrix phone. The company has a well-earned reputation for excellent call quality and battery life, but an abysmal one for software updates: a Motorola Nexus device ought to make that a lot less painful.