Making a deal with the Mafia is never without risks. Some mobsters require particularly steep payments, including, but not limited to: broken kneecaps, a horse’s head for a pillow, or a bad trip to the barbershop. Others, like, say, AT&T and Verizon, require other concessions, like an exclusive device here or the installation of crapware there.
Google, which announced new Nexus products yesterday, decided not to make a deal with either of the big carriers, and now we all get to see what happens when you don’t play nice with the mobile industry’s gatekeepers.
For those unfamiliar with Google’s particular branding, “Nexus” products are devices designed (though often not built) by Google to showcase its pure, stock Android operating system. The two biggest announcements were the new “Nexus 4″ device, a handsome smartphone that costs just $299 off-contract and the “Nexus 10″ tablet, a (logically) 10-inch tablet that starts at $399. Though Google is said to have played a large role in designing both products, the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10 were built by LG and Samsung, respectively.
Unfortunately, the Nexus 4, unlike every other high-end (or even midrange, really) smartphone shipping today, will not operate on LTE networks. Though Google’s Andy Rubin told The Verge that this had to do with cost and battery life concerns, Nilay Patel and Dieter Bohn make a strong case for this being a case of Google refusing to bend to carriers and having to work without carriers’ mafia-esque “blessing.”
No matter the reason, the end result is, as Patel and Bohn put it, a “flagship phone that’s missing an essential flagship feature.” Beyond being a nuisance for potential customers, this distinction makes the Nexus 4 a prime example of just how much control carriers have in today’s mobile ecosystem.
How many Android phones do you know of that have shipped without LTE in the last couple of months? My money’s on “none,” because all of the heavily marketed devices ship with LTE radios – think the Samsung Galaxy S III, HTC’s One X, or the trio of me-too Motorola Droid devices. If Google can’t ship its (and LG’s) flagship device without bending to the carriers, how can other manufacturers?
Answer: They don’t. There’s a reason why Motorola’s devices still ship with the “Blur” skin onboard – Verizon wants it that way. The carriers want to be able to put their own services (VZ Navigator and the like) on the devices and have some say in their design, perpetuating the cycle of manufacturers slapping skins on Android phones and keeping most consumers at least one layer away from a “true” Android experience.
Earlier this year I referred to the carriers as having a “white-knuckle grip on Android’s throat,” which I argued “has left its mark on the operating system and left Google’s dreams of an open platform wheezing out its last breath.” Google, for its part, has committed to making stock Android available in some capacity, which is commendable – one can only imagine how difficult it is to say “no” to carriers in today’s mobile landscape.
Unfortunately that won’t make a difference to consumers. If they want a Nexus 4 their options are “buy it unlocked for HSPA networks” or “buy it from the little-carrier-that-couldn’t (merge with AT&T), T-Mobile.” Neither sound very appealing, even to someone still using a year-old 3G (the horror!) phone.
There will probably be some diehards that purchase the Nexus 4 to avoid signing a contract with another carrier, or to experience the core Android operating system. Some people might even buy the Nexus 4 as an Android analogue to the iPod touch – the device is cheap enough (relatively) to justify its purchase as a WiFi-only personal media player, and can serve as a nice counterpoint for people like myself that want to use Android without a manufacturer’s custom wrapper. But as a main, “this is my only device” phone, the Nexus 4 simply isn’t that appealing.
Which is sad, considering the fact that Google’s finally sticking it to the carriers. Phones that don’t have carrier co-branding or ridiculous exclusivity arrangements (**coughthelumia920cough**) would be preferable to the current system, where carriers get first say and Android manufacturers try to fit the mold that Verizon or AT&T lay out for them.
As an idea, the Nexus 4 is amazing. As a piece of hardware, the device looks like a stunner. But as a phone, as a retail product, the Nexus 4 feels pigeonholed by Google’s unwillingness to play along. What may have been a good “fuck you” to the carriers has instead turned into what might be the strongest example for why manufacturers are better off doing what Big Red or Ma Bell want.
It isn’t about the lack of LTE, strictly speaking. It’s about Google trying to offer a shining example of what can happen if one company that isn’t named after a fruit (kinda) controls the hardware and isn’t afraid to tussle with the carriers to get what it wants, and instead offering a photo-negative that offers a stark contrast to those same ideals.