Why Google’s new Nexus smartphones are irrelevant
By Keith Liu October 6, 2015
- The new pair of Nexus models unfortunately will not light the market on fire
- Google should really stop dishing out new smartphones if its heart isn’t in hardware
READERS who keep in touch with the latest in technology would already know that Google Inc last week unveiled a whole slew of hardware at an event in San Francisco.
Key among them were the pair of Nexus smartphones, the Nexus 6P, made in collaboration with Chinese telecoms giant Huawei; and the Nexus 5X, developed alongside South Korea’s LG Electronics.
But just like last year’s model, the Motorola-made Nexus 6, these new Nexus models are headline-grabbing but are no longer impactful from a technology standpoint, nor are they meaningful from a sales perspective.
In other words, they are irrelevant.
That is, unless you can’t wait to experience a device running on the new Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) software first, since at some point it will be made available on other devices, including previous Nexus smartphones.
In fact, except for a (small but vocal) group of Android aficionados/ fans who want Marshmallow on a decent piece of hardware, the new pair of Nexus models unfortunately, will not light the market on fire.
Firstly, it would take some time before these models hit our shores in South-East Asia, so they won’t really be widely distributed (the Nexus 6 still isn’t officially available).
Secondly, they’re not terribly cheap either, so you would probably want to have a full hardware warranty with that purchase, which usually aren’t available through third-party online retail sources.
Beyond these models, Google should really stop dishing out new Nexus smartphones if its heart isn’t in hardware. The company’s profits don’t depend on hardware and it doesn’t manufacture the phones.
Google doesn’t take the devices to retail stores, it doesn’t make them widely available for sale worldwide, and beyond some fancy launch videos and maybe a Reddit AMA session, its marketing efforts for Nexus smartphones is limited and nowhere at the scale of Apple’s, Samsung’s … or even Oppo’s.
Google has shown that doesn’t need to do all that because it’s relying on its OEM (original equipment manufacturer) partners to do so.
After all, the company has clearly stated that Nexus devices are meant to showcase what ‘pure Android’ smartphones should be like, guiding the Android ecosystem towards a Google vision of an ideal smartphone experience.
That was somewhat necessary back in 2010 when the first Nexus smartphone, the HTC-made Nexus One, was introduced.
At that time, it provided a platform for a non-hardware company like Google to introduce a reference device for hardware OEMs and app developers to work on, and to receive the latest operating system updates from Google as soon as they became available.
When the Nexus 4 (2012) and Nexus 5 (2013) were launched, it became a strong message to Android device manufacturers to get their act together and stop fragmenting the operating system, to show that it was possible to produce an affordable smartphone running Google’s original version of Android, without the bloatware or user interface ‘enhancements’ like Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense.
Today however, the market is clearly different, with top-tier brands offering competent Android smartphones at different price points, along with software which helps to enhance rather than hobble the Android OS.
Samsung has scaled back TouchWiz, Sony’s version of Android is close to stock Android, and Motorola’s time within Google has allowed it to enhance the Android experience without causing delays to software updates.
Not to mention the emergence of new low-cost Android smartphone makers from China and India, providing good (or good enough) hardware running clean versions of Android without the unwanted bells and whistles.
The Nexus programme gained the most traction in 2013, when Google launched the Nexus 5, a smartphone co-developed with LG; as well as the second-generation Nexus 7 tablet, a collaboration with Taiwan’s Asus.
Both devices came with high-end hardware specifications but priced so affordably that they took the industry by surprise.
Google’s message was to make Android available for as many people as possible, but it also kicked off the race to the bottom in terms of pricing for Android hardware.
No surprises then, that these devices became sales winners worldwide, helping LG and Asus gain important traction and brand recognition as credible Android hardware manufacturers.
Unfortunately, when the pricing strategy changed the following year for the Nexus 6 and the HTC-manufactured Nexus 9 tablet, these expensive models hardly made a dent.
The large size of the Nexus 6 also limited its appeal, and the general decline of tablet sales worldwide worked against the Nexus 9.
The problem didn’t lie with just pricing, but also distribution. It is well-known within the industry that if you partner with Google to make hardware, the profit margin is going to be lower than with your own products, since the search giant dictates the hardware specifications and the retail price.
If you were Motorola then, wouldn’t you rather spend marketing dollars and distribution resources on the new Moto X (2014) than the Nexus 6? Probably yes.
Would you work doubly hard to ensure the Nexus 6 is sold through carrier and retail channels, especially since it’s more expensive and less appealing than products from your own portfolio?
Probably not – even though to be fair, the Nexus 6 was available through a number of US-based carriers.
This time round, it seems Google has learnt its lesson and has offered not one but two Nexus smartphones targeting different size and price brackets.
The Nexus 5X (pic above) is a 5.2-inch smartphone with a US$379 price tag, while the premium 5.7-inch Nexus 6P model starts at US$499.
Both come with fingerprint readers (called Nexus Imprint) that support Google Pay, enhanced camera sensors (featuring larger pixels) and support for the new USB-C charging interface.
Disappointingly, both these smartphones don’t feature any technology that isn’t already out there, nor a drool-worthy design. The Nexus 6P (pic) in particular looks awkward in my books, with that large black strip across the back in an attempt to play down the camera lens.
The Nexus 5X meanwhile, features only average specs, such as the 2GB of RAM (when the clear standard in late 2015 is 3GB).
Both devices also lack removable storage (a necessity for some users).
But while they aren’t significantly cheaper than Huawei’s and LG’s own smartphones, they are more affordable than Apple’s iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus – so this could provide Android users thinking of switching to iOS a reason to stay, especially with Marshmallow in tow.
Currently available for pre-order in the Ireland, Japan, South Korea (5X only), the United Kingdom and the United States, how soon these models will be made available locally will very much depend on Huawei and LG, and to a smaller degree, Google itself.
But don’t hold your breath. Considering the broad portfolio from both these OEMs this year, I can’t believe this would be a priority for them right now, except in Western markets where Huawei is keen to expand its brand presence in the premium smartphone space.
In fact, based on the current Android smartphone landscape, the investment required to develop, manufacture and distribute Nexus smartphones for OEMs may already outweigh the benefits from the ‘halo’ effect of being a Google partner. Just ask HTC.
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