JR Raphael wrote a piece about the issues surrounding the Galaxy S4 Google Edition, and the thus far vaporware HTC One Google Edition for ComputerWorld. While he gets it right on so many levels, he missed the real elephant in the room.
His larger point is that these are not Nexus devices, they are phones that are meant to run their manufacturers skin, and to strip that away in favor of a vanilla Android installation isn't enough to qualify these devices to be true Nexus class phones. That much is true, but it doesn't end there.
The real issue as I see it: these phones are an excuse.
Google has been selling the Nexus 4 for a heavily subsidized price of $349 in the Google Play Store forever. The Nexus 4, like the other Nexus devices before it were purpose built to be Nexus devices, with Google's input on the hardware design. Sure, you can root it and run any number of ROMs on it, but at its heart it is still a Nexus.
Google isn't going to subsidize the Galaxy S4 Google Edition. They're going to sell it in the Google Play Store, and in fact that's the only place that you'll find the S4 GE available for sale. It isn't going to sell for $349 though. It won't sell for $449, or $549 either. This "special" device is going to set you back a full $699 if this is the phone that you just have to have.
Plenty of people are more than willing to pay full freight to get the phone of their choice, be it an unlocked GSM phone, or a Verizon device that allows them to keep their grandfathered unlimited data plan. Plenty of people do it, just not enough people. What counts as enough people?
These Google Edition phones, with their vanilla Android version running on existing handsets fly in the face of what manufacturers have always said about their Android overlays. Samsung and HTC both claim that TouchWiz and Sense are an improvement to Android, and that their efforts to refine the experience add value. In their eyes, nobody wants a vanilla Android experience. Customers prefer to have the Samsung or HTC vision for an Android UI, not the plain Google vision for how things should operate.
These Google Experience devices will be used as an excuse. A reason for Samsung (and HTC) to forever turn their corporate backs on a vanilla Android experience. Instead of releasing a device to carriers, with carrier subsidies to go along with it, they'll release these devices to Google and let them choke on the inventory overhead.
Sure, plenty of people will buy the S4 Google Edition. Plenty more will buy the One Google Edition. Plenty, but it won't be enough. It won't be enough to make Samsung or HTC change their minds about releasing a flagship device to carriers sans their bloated overlays. Instead, they will forever give Samsung and HTC the ability to say, "nope, we tried vanilla Android and it didn't work".
Samsung won't say that it didn't work because of the price, and neither will HTC. That would be the truth, and the truth rarely helps much when corporate decisions are being made. The convenient thing for them to do it to just say been there, done that. It didn't work. And that's exactly what's going to happen.
I'm not at all sure why Google would play along in this circle jerk. There's nothing for them to gain, but there really is nothing for them to lose. At the end of it all, these Google Experience devices will go the way of the Nexus Q: here today, gone tomorrow. Google will make a few bucks because plenty of people will buy these devices, it just won't be enough people.