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Android Headliner: Google Taking Control Of Nexus Will Be A Mistake

February 4, 2016 - Written By John Anon

Google, Apple, Nexus. Those three words alone have the power to turn an article viral and conjure up a whole host of follow-up pieces and that is exactly what happened this week when a report from The Insider emerged. Suggesting, Google wants to make the Nexus line more “Apple-like”. If true, this would mean much more than simply making Nexus, Apple-esque. Without wanting to make use of too much dramatic license, this would be the death of Nexus.

To be clear, the statement is not meant as a death of Nexus as we know it sentiment. It literally will be the death of Nexus. In the circles, we, as tech enthusiasts travel within, Nexus is the pinnacle of Android. It is the brand name which we immediately pay attention to when news emerges. If HTC were to announce tomorrow, they are making the new Nexus, all of the talk from now until the release (and way beyond) would be on whether HTC was the right partner for the latest Nexus. And therein is the crux. From the superficial hype level, to the fundamental manufacturing level, Nexus requires Google to have a partner.

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As much as we all believe that Google builds a Nexus from the ground up, and they do, it is still a joint affair. The very fact that pre, during and post Nexus announcements are defined by the manufacturer who is building the latest device is confirmation of the role the partner company plays. They do not just build a Nexus smartphone (or tablet, if that ever happens again), they build attention, hype, excitement, disappointment and everything else we attribute to a Nexus smartphone. Their stock is far more than the sum of the physical properties of the phone. To remove partner-manufacturers would be removing much of the anticipation that comes with a Nexus smartphone. It would just be another phone, in an already crowded market, albeit, one running stock Android. In fact, it would just be a stock phone. One which comes with baseline Android and baseline hardware. Lacking in all the final touches, smarts and experience that comes with a manufacturer like Samsung, HTC, Motorola Huawei and LG.

That said, it is difficult to argue that the first-generation non-partnered Nexus device will be the talk of the tech world all year. But, it would be worth wagering this would only be the case for the first-generation. By the time the second-generation starts to roll through (if it was deemed viable enough to bother with a next-gen), what more would the market expect? Latest run of the mill specs, latest Android, slightly refined design, but nothing new. The very essence of Nexus is that with a new manufacturer, albeit, one which is heavily guided and micromanaged by Google, will bring something a little different. Something new and exciting and not just another recycling of last year’s model – like we see from many manufacturers with their own flagship ranges, year-in and year-out.

Of course, it is understandable Google is contemplating the idea. It is becoming increasingly obvious that Nexus is not the winning formula those involved had hoped for. Unit sales are never big enough to substantiate the investment. So neither Google nor the associated manufacturer see Nexus as a money spinner. On occasion,  it can work as a brand-igniter, much as it seems to have done for Huawei. But, it can also just as easily be a brand-killer. Build a bad Nexus and regardless of whether you are just following Google’s instructions or not, you will always be remembered as the company that built that Nexus. Not to mention, the belief that Google does like to micromanage the process so much, is certainly going to be off-putting for manufacturers. Essentially, building a device for someone else, based on their wants and needs, with minimal input, for minimal recognition and with minimal financial reward. Hardly, motivating stuff.

So it does stand to reason in its current form, Nexus is unsustainable. Google likely wants to end the relationship as soon as is humanly possible and likewise, manufacturers are probably not queuing up to be the company that helps build the next Nexus. Enter, the latest news. An Apple-like Nexus

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By Apple-like, we are talking about a device which is wholeheartedly built by Google. It still is unlikely to be physically built by Google. As in the real world, that is just not something that is going to happen in any sort of near(ish) future. Google is not a company who builds smartphones and it is unlikely to be one in the next decade. So the phone will still be put together by a third-party manufacturer, but will be put together exactly to Google’s spec and without any brand affiliation or input. A made to order handset. Stock build, stock software, a stock phone. However, where this stock Nexus phone (or ‘Pixel Phone’ if you prefer) will not be like Apple – is in the delivery. While Google might be weighing up whether cutting a third-party brand-partner would help them more effectively compete with Apple, it won’t. Building the smartphone is only one side of the multi-faceted coin. Apple, in particular, bank on their brand, the fact that they are a smartphone brand. This is not something Google has and once again, is not something even Google can expect to instantly create. While you or I might buy a Google phone, there is nothing to suggest that the average consumer, in an average carrier store or Best Buy, would opt for a Google Phone over an iPhone…or even the new Samsung.

To bring a smartphone to market and presumably at the level Google hopes will be achievable will require substantial advertising and marketing investment. While Google might be fine throwing cash at balloons, self-driving cars and even Star Trek Communicators, the difference here is that these more novel projects are designed to be creative, push boundaries and take technology to the next level. A new smartphone will not do that, even a Google Phone. If you need a real-world example, then look at Project Fi. Coincidentally, almost exactly one year ago (give or take a week), the rumors behind Google becoming a carrier emerged (and from the same source). Rumors which were again met with feverish reception. Then Project Fi was announced and since then, much of the hype has died down. It is available and you can be on Google’s network (well, T-Mobile and Sprint’s network), although you do need to have one of the very few devices, namely Nexus and namely, a recent Nexus. Project Fi, is a long way away from making Google a carrier and by the same token, any sort of non-manufacturer or brand-irrelevant smartphone from Google, would be a long, long, long way away from taking on Apple in the smartphone game.

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Of course, with Project Fi in mind, the big picture does start to become a lot clearer for what Google’s end game is. Their software, their (sort of) hardware, their network (Fi), maybe even their home Wi-Fi (Fiber), provided by their router (OnHub), which connects their other platforms (Android TV, Brillo) and controlled by their smartwatch platform (Android Wear). The ecosystem is all there and it is this view that likely keeps Google focused on whether this route is possible. And while they are close to creating this unified world of Google products and platforms, they are not there yet and the little threads that are needed to complete the ecosystem – and especially with a mass market smartphone, is the business aspect. The run of the mill and boring – invest, build, advertise and sell on street corners – well, e-commerce corners.

And this is the other aspect where a manufacturer’s value is added. While Google gets most of the credit for a Nexus smartphone, brand affiliation is priceless. When it works, it REALLY works. To give you an example, if Samsung were to make the next Nexus device, it would sell like crazy. Not because it is a Nexus, or made by Google, but because it is a Samsung device. That is what would matter. If Samsung were behind the project and made the active decision to make it one of their flagship devices, then it would be unstoppable. The might of Samsung’s advertising arm would be in full force, churning out videos promoting the smartphone, while throwing the odd insult Apple’s way en route. The device would hit all carrier stores, be available everywhere, on finance and be in consumer’s minds and as a combined result, in customer hands. This is what a manufacturer adds to the Nexus brand. They have the scale to mass produce at minimal costs (compared to hiring the services of a manufacturer), they have the know-how to bring to market, to promote, they are global smartphone brands. Google is not!

Of course, the recent rumors do not in any way make the suggestion that Google is planning to do this anytime soon, but no matter how far ahead they may be thinking, this is unlikely to be a move which deals with the real underlying issues with Nexus smartphones. Google is unlikely and probably unwilling to invest in the smartphone industry as much as they would need to. In fact, many smartphone manufacturers are unwilling to invest enough either, which is likely a reason why so many smartphones come and go unnoticed. This is just not Google’s game. There is no real ability for them to innovate in this area and in spite of their desire, this would just not be a viable or worthwhile move.