Opinion: It's Time For A Google Phone & A Clear Focus On Hardware

The last few weeks has seen a number of headlines coming through in regards to what is next in line with the Nexus range. Specifically, the last few weeks has seen what looks to be the specs coming through on Sailfish and Marlin, the upcoming Nexus handsets which are both said to be HTC-made. The HTC thing is not anything new, as for months it has been rumored that HTC was making both the Nexus devices for this year. Which raises many questions in itself as HTC has not exactly been having the best of times of late and while the HTC 10 does seem to have hit the right note with some of the Android community, the Nexus line is another thing altogether. Or is it?

As well as the specs that came through over the last few weeks, an image also came through this week. While the image is admittedly not a real image and is a mockup, it is one which is said to be based on known information. What was most revealing about this image is that it is thought to be a representation of both of the upcoming Nexus devices. Which in itself reveals that the design cues and aspects between Sailfish and Marlin are going to be minimal at best. It would seem that 2016 is the year in which the two Nexus smartphones will mainly be identifiable purely based on the specs. But the problem here is that they are going to be specs which only differentiate them from each other. In the wider smartphone market, the specs being touted seem anything but special. An issue which has started to plague the Nexus line for some time.

When it first came to light this week that the greater of the two Nexus smartphones, Marlin, was going to come sporting 4GB RAM. The first and initial reaction was - that is not enough. And not because it is not enough, but simply because the market is moving quickly these days and 4GB is no longer the now thing. Thanks to the likes of the OnePlus 3 and the rumored specs for the upcoming Galaxy Note 7, 6GB RAM does seem the new and current norm and this does seem to be the goalpost that all manufacturers are now aiming towards. Or at least, should be aiming towards as standard, with a flagship smartphone running on 4GB RAM now seeming very much like a Q1 2016 type of phone. However, in the reality of things 4GB RAM is exactly where the Nexus line should be, as last year’s model, the Nexus 6P, came with the same issue due to it arriving on the scene with only 3GB RAM, while the rest of the smartphone world was already moving towards 4GB RAM. An issue which is unlikely to change where the Nexus line is concerned. Which means Google needs another annual smartphone release. It has never been clearer that the Nexus line is one which drags its heels when it comes to specs. It simply does and while this was less of an issue a few years ago, with the ever-evolving and time-sensitive nature of smartphone saturation, the Nexus line is going to continue being behind the times. Speaking of which, over the last year (longer if you really get into the details), there has been a number of sporadic reports coming through suggesting that Google is working on its own phone, a ‘Google Phone’. This did immediately raise concerns for the longevity of the Nexus program with some assuming that the Google Phone will replace the Nexus program in the long term. This train of thought was further compounded by multiple reports coming through suggesting Google is taking more control and future Nexus devices will be void of manufacturer branding and more in line with Google’s vision of what their hardware should be like. When taken together, these points do paint a very bleak future for Nexus. But any sort of replacing of Nexus by a Google Phone would be a mistake.

The Nexus line is synonymous with software. Just like Samsung is to TouchWiz, Nexus is to Android. It is considered to be the purest Android software experience available, one which is untainted by carrier, manufacturer or third-party intervention and that is its selling point. More pertinently, that should remain the specific selling point for Nexus. While Nexus focuses on software, what a Google Phone needs to do is focus exclusively on hardware. It will need to be a device which comes to market with bleeding edge hardware and specs and one which essentially acts as a proof-of-concept hardware device for Google and Android. Much like the Chromebook Pixel already is for Chromebooks. The benefit of this approach is that the release of a Google Phone (independently of Nexus) will not be reliant on the timescale associated with the latest version of Android. It is commonly understood (and expected) that a Nexus in any given year will be the first device to arrive sporting the latest version of Android and that is fine for those who want the latest version of Android, in its pure form, and on day zero. In fact, it even goes as far as to explain why the Nexus range and in particular Marlin is already behind the times with its measly 5.5-inch AMOLED QHD display, 4GB RAM, 32GB storage, Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, 12-megapixel rear camera, 8-megapixel front-facing camera, USB Type-C fingerprint sensor, 3,450 mAh battery and Android Nougat. Chances are good that the next Nexus has been in testing with Nougat for quite some time to ensure everything runs smooth. The problem with this approach is that it limits how experimental they can be with the hardware, as they need the Nexus range to be based on solid and proven spec configurations to ensure the latest version of Android runs right when the new device(s) are released. Yes, they could test them on older Nexus devices (and they likely do), but that is a different and backward-compatibility thing. They also need to ensure Nougat runs right on current hardware, as well as outdated hardware.

So by definition, the Nexus range, which is highly centered on the Android experience, lacks the ability to push the boundaries with hardware. Enter the Google Phone. While we already have the likes of Tango and Ara, they are a little too far swung in the opposite direction and are essentially too experimental for the mass market, not to mention that neither device is looking to be that spec-heavy. What the Google Phone could be is a device which comes to the public in the early part of the year (think Galaxy S timescale) and running on the software that has been available for the last six months on the Nexus range, but boasting the absolute pinnacle of specs at the time. This would mean the Google Phone actually sets the tone for the smartphone arena for the year ahead. Unlike the Nexus range which comes out in the fall each year and is always playing catch up to the market. A Google Phone (released in conjunction with a Nexus phone) would have the freedom to be developed, brought to market (and analyzed by the market) independently of the newer version of Android. It would be able to offer those consumers who want the Google experience a true phone which is symbolic of the company that refers to its more outlandish endeavors as its “other bets”. It would be a device which is able to declare at the start of each year what Google considers an Android smartphone to be running for that year (at a minimum) in terms of hardware. And as a result, would mean manufacturers are continually pushed to improve their offerings as well. Not the case which we have now where smartphones manufacturers are content to define a handset's evolution against the status of its predecessor. A Google Phone could become the Android smartphone hardware benchmark, as many already expect the Nexus line to be.

Just like Samsung has the Galaxy S range and the Galaxy Note range, which are clearly directed to different consumers and capitalizing on the changing markets in each six month cycle, joint Google Phone and Nexus phone releases would be able to capitalize on both the ‘Android experience’ and the ‘Android hardware experience’. And the reality is, unless this is the case, it is starting to feel like the Nexus range is beginning to lose much of its appeal. They are no longer as future-proof as they once might have been and they are no longer the only manufacturer who looks to offer a lightweight approach to Android. In fact, for better or worse many consumers are starting to view the likes of the OnePlus 3 as the new type of Nexus. Spec-heavy, feature-light, unlocked and priced to suit everyone. While it was an interesting change for Google to start releasing two different Nexus devices each year, the fact remains that they now seem to have turned to the same manufacturer to produce both devices this year. Equally as important, they seem just as happy with the fact that they are essentially the same device, barring some basic spec differences, while keeping in mind that both seem to be lagging in the specs and hardware department in general. This does start to take the sheen off the fact there are two Nexus devices this year. HTC and Google can release ten different Nexus devices if they like, but unless at least one of them cuts the mustard in relation to the rest of the market, then what is the actual point? The time is right for a Google Phone. One which places its entire emphasis on hardware and it would be not too far from the truth to say that a Google Phone might not be what kills off the Nexus program. If executed right, it just might be just what saves the Nexus program from becoming an outdated program.

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About the Author

John Anon

John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]