You could probably pick up any two Android devices and fail to notice that they are both running the same operating system. Google has allowed everyone, from Amazon and Samsung to HTC and Facebook, to obfuscate the core Android experience with their own, often-frustrating software meant to help differentiate one plastic-bodied smartphone from another. These devices are all using Android as a foundation — and might not exist if it weren’t for the operating system and Google’s commitment to keeping it “open” — but you’d never know it by looking at them.
Google does offer a glimpse at what Android devices unfettered by manufacturers’ custom hardware might look like, however. The company has long used its Nexus program, through which it develops an Android smartphone or tablet with a hardware partner, as a way of sharing its version of Android. If you wanted to get a taste of what Android might be like before it makes its way through Samsung’s TouchWiz, HTC’s Sense, or the software on Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets, a Nexus-branded device was just about your only option. The only problem is that the Nexus product line is rather limited, requiring you to either accept the one or two devices Google is offering or abandon your hopes for a Google-controlled Android experience.
That is starting to change, however: Google has recently announced that the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One, two of the most noteworthy Android-powered smartphones released this year, will be available contract-and custom software-free through its online store this June. The Nexus program is expanding, and it’s bringing Google’s vision for the future of Android along with it.
“From Google’s perspective, we deeply care about the user experience. How do people use Android? How do we have a guiding hand by which we get the user experience to all the users we want? And I think that’s a challenge,” said Sundar Pichai, Google’s VP of Chrome, Apps, and Android, at the D11 conference. The Nexus program is the “beginning steps of us thinking hard about how we can get the right user experience — including the differentiation OEMs want — in a more thoughtful manner throughout the ecosystem,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Pichai has said that Google is going to become a more central aspect of the Android experience. He told Wired in his first interview after succeeding Android co-founder Andy Rubin that the challenge of Android is, “Without changing the open nature of Android, how do we help improve the whole world’s end-user experience? For all your users, no matter where they are, or what phone or tablet they are buying[.]” Google is now in the unenviable position of trying to keep its hardware partners happy by allowing them to at least partly control the user experience on their devices while trying to get its own version of Android in front of more people.
Google expanding the Nexus program is reminiscent of Microsoft’s decision to develop the Surface tablets. Microsoft released the Surface tablets to make its vision for the hardware Windows 8 and Windows RT would operate clear to its hardware partners, which have released shoddy products that tarnish the perception of Windows-powered devices for decades. Google is expanding the Nexus program to help its vision for the future of mobile software clear to consumers and the manufacturers that have made it increasingly difficult to recognize, and from Google’s perspective truly experience, Android.
“I think what we are in this stage is, we want to make sure that users, when they switch phones and go from one Android phone to another there’s a commonality,” Pichai said at D11. He compared the Nexus program to Apple’s approach to product design, which is to develop the hardware and software together instead of relying on other manufacturers or software-makers. Now Google is trying to answer the question, “How do you get the best of some of those elements without sacrificing what makes an open system great?”
The answer might be found by looking at Facebook Home, the application launcher and homescreen replacement released by Facebook to transform every Android device into a “Facebook phone.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in April that developing Home was better for Facebook than building its own device because it would allow the company to reach the largest possible number of users. Releasing a single device might help Facebook or Google get their vision for mobile computing in front of a few million people; taking advantage of Android’s “openness” to repurpose many devices could help that vision reach a far larger audience.
Google’s decision to allow manufacturers to repurpose and redesign Android could ultimately become the reason Google is able to show consumers what Android looks and feels like without layer upon layer of manufacturer-produced software on top. Facebook Home practically dared Google to take control of Android and now, just a few weeks later, it seems that that’s exactly what Google is doing. Home is emblematic of just how difficult it has been for Google to present pure Android — now it seems that emulating the software through an expansion to the Nexus program might just help Google retake the operating system.