A Few Years On, Do We Still Need Nexus Smartphones?

By Chris Mills on at

"Despite the buzz, it's not revolutionary". That's how the then-editor of Gizmodo described the first Nexus smartphone, almost three years ago. With the recent launch of the fifth Nexus (not to mention it being the Galaxy Nexus' UK birthday yesterday), it's probably a good time to ask: has the Nexus range been revolutionary, and do we even need it any more?

The Nexus One was, as Jason Chen pointed out, not revolutionary. Shipping with a 1Ghz Snapdragon processor, 480 x 800 screen and Android 2.1, it was certainly a decent standard-bearer for Android smartphones of the day, but according to commonly-held hype at the time, the main reason for its existence was to keep 'pushing Android innovation'.

In early 2010, Android was only just becoming a mainstream line. The first Samsung Galaxy smartphone was only recently launched; companies like Nokia were still messing around with their own in-house operating systems like MeeGo; Symbian was still a powerhouse, and even Windows Mobile 6.5 (hah!) still had a say in things. The point of the Nexus One was to push manufacturers, to give them a benchmark to compete against, and to give developers a well-powered (and unlocked) device to play with.

Three years on, and the mission statement of the Nexus range seems to have completely changed. The Android phone market is a writhing bear-pit of competition and innovation, moving so fast that a six-month-old device feels weighty and dated. Samsung, HTC, LG, Sony and Motorola are all fighting it out magnificently. There is no shortage of competition.

But, there is one more slightly dicey problem: fragmentation. See, there's now so much competition in the Android marketplace that manufacturers riddle the version of Android that their phones run with endless features and add-ons, most of which do very little but slow down the phones and fill the user with a blinding red haze.

Sadly, those builds also stop upgrades to the latest version of Android being simple -- they have to go through the hardware manufacturers, a process that often takes months on end, or worse, doesn't happen at all.

The result is a chart that looks like the one above: Only about half of devices are running Android Jelly Bean 4.1, itself a build that's been released for over a year. A pathetic 2.3 per cent are running the most recent version of Jelly Bean, 4.3, compared to over 75 per cent of iOS devices being on the latest build.

So, according to many fans, the modern role of a Nexus phone is to provide a flagship bit of hardware to show off the latest version of Android to the general public. Certainly, Nexus phones don't really seem to be aimed at the mass market, or if they are, they're a terrible failure -- three months after launch, the Nexus 4 seemed to have sold only 400,000 units. The iPhone 5S, costing double as much moolah, sold nine million units in a week.

But there's a problem with this theory too -- we don't really need a Nexus phone to show us what Android software should look like, either. In Motorola, Google's got an excellent hardware division that's proven itself by kicking out excellent, mass-market friendly devices like the Moto X that run near-as-dammit stock Android, and actually sell well.

 

Moreover, fragmentation isn't really that much of a problem for Google. Its main aim is to get its money-making services like Maps and Search into as many hands as possible. For that purpose, Android 2.3 is in many ways just as good as 4.4; new Google services are increasingly served through apps (Hangouts is an excellent example), so they really don't care if you're on 2.3, 4.4, or even iOS 7 -- as long as you're using Google's stuff, they're happy. (Fun fact: as of last count, Google makes about four times more money from iOS than it does from Android.)

So, all those things considered, why does Google still expend significant time and effort designing a brand-new Nexus every year, only to sell it for break-even prices, and even then only sell a handful of them?

Pride? Vanity? The need to wave a 5-inch, 440 PPI middle finger in Tim Cook's general direction? Quite possibly. But either way, enjoy it while it lasts.

Original Image Credit: Blade Runner / Warner Bros., via GetThatProSound