We’ve talked a lot about Google’s Nexus strategy this week. Hurricane Sandy forced the company to cancel its planned unveiling event, but didn’t stop it from officially taking the wraps off its new Nexus 4, Nexus 10, and revamped Nexus 7 devices in a considerably less-bombastic manner. The new smartphone and tablet array bear many similarities in appearance, functionality, and even pricing — but perhaps the most significant common thread bonding the new siblings is in branding. The Nexus name is a young one, but it already boasts a storied history.
When Google launched the brand’s namesake Nexus One in January 2010, it was sold only via Google’s online store, unlocked, with limited or no carrier support. Limited agreements with carriers like T-Mobile USA eventually resulted in some specialization of the experience, and there were two versions of the device to accommodate the band requirements of different regions, but the soul of the Nexus One -and eventually the entire Nexus line- was always independent. It was a phone meant to be sold unsubsidized, SIM-free, with no carrier meddling in the form of bloatware, branding, or other such nonsense.
Following a lot of indecision on Google’s part, during which it closed and re-opened its Nexus web store, and denied then confirmed plans for a follow-on device, the company finally released the Nexus S in December 2010. This device came in four variants, ranging from the typical GSM versions to an oddball WiMAX-enabled version for Sprint. Though we gave the device a good score in our review, the Sprint version probably would have suffered ridicule in a follow-up After The Buzz segment, because it was perennially late to receive Android updates. Since one of the foundational principles of the Nexus family was a guarantee of a pure Google experience with timely updates, those delays were more offensive than most.
The problems only worsened with the release of the third iteration of the device, the Galaxy Nexus. While the global, HSPA-enabled version delivered on its Nexus promise, the LTE-enabled Verizon Wireless model experienced update delays just as bad as -if not worse than- the Sprint Nexus S. These delays led to my penning a piece called “This Ain’t No Nexus Phone,” then suggesting in the fifth episode of After The Buzz that viewers looking for a Nexus experience should “run as far away as you can” from the LTE version. Combined with similar problems on the Sprint edition of the device, the Nexus brand took its fair share of heat throughout 2012.
The release of the successful Nexus 7 tablet, though, has granted the brand a temporary reprieve, and the omission of LTE from the new Nexus 4 should prevent any repeat of the Galaxy Nexus fiasco. Further, the more-cohesive marketing built around the new family is better, more mature. The new Nexus story seems to be less “developers/tinkerers/enthusiasts” and more “the best of Google.” The new portfolio is offered in every major form factor in mobile, providing coverage of most customer types and allowing for some memorable “small, medium, large” branding.
In short, the Nexus brand seems to finally be coming into its own, and based on some comments made by Google execs regarding the larger tablet in the family, it may well depict the future of Android: a “pure” experience dictated by Google through requirements of its choosing, but on hardware ultimately built by its manufacturer partners.
Could this strategy, or a variation on it, be something Microsoft is considering? In the wake of the Surface announcement, which saw Microsoft’s first leap into manufacturing its own hardware, some speculated that the company would adopt this approach to future Windows Phone devices as well. While that’s still speculation for a far-off future at this point, the Surface’s recent launch has only heightened it.
Microsoft has already taken some steps toward streamlining and unifying the Windows brand. The company’s new desktop operating environment is called Windows 8; it’s tablets run either Windows 8 Pro or the Windows RT variant; its new smartphones run Windows Phone 8 (or 7.8, for all you early-adopters).
There is, so far, no real equivalent to “skinning” mobile versions of Windows, as manufacturers often do to Android, so that concern isn’t what’s driving this effort to streamline the brand. But there’s no question that it’s happening, and in some cases it’s already causing some headaches. Nokia, until recently Microsoft’s best buddy in the Windows Phone space, has recently tossed some barbs toward rival manufacturer HTC on the heels of the latter’s achieving its own kind of preferred-partner status. The resulting politicking between all three -Microsoft, Nokia, and HTC- has been interesting to watch.
It’s not outside the realm of possibility that similar tribulations might be happening over in Google’s seemingly-tranquil Nexus family. It’s easy to entertain the notion that a desire to mollify manufacturers is what pushed unlikely candidate LG into the running to build the Nexus 4, instead of the OEM’s technical accomplishments. But that’s an arbitrary example; whether or not it’s accurate, most would agree that there’s a very delicate dance involved whenever a platform-maker needs to keep its various hardware partners happy.
Google seems to have figured it out, though– at least well enough to keep Android’s public face relatively intact. Manufacturers are certainly not equal in their levels of success with Android; only Samsung is really excelling, while formerly prestigious competitors like HTC are rapidly falling from grace. But those companies are either turning to other platforms like Windows Phone to broaden their offerings, or devoting their energies to combatting other OEMs; they’re not turning their ire on Google, at least not publicly.
Microsoft can’t leap into an analogous program right away, of course; in mobile, its position as the disadvantaged third-place platform maker means it relies on wireless carriers to do some of the promotional and buzz-building leg work. That means the carriers will demand favors in return, things like hardware modifications and exclusivity periods. Again, considering Microsoft’s position, concessions like this are unavoidable.
Nexus devices may not have the best historic sales record -a fact Samsung specifically alluded to during its courtroom battle with Apple- but that’s changing. The Nexus 7 has sold nearly 3 million units to date, and the future looks pretty rosy considering the company’s renewed focus. If Redmond, after achieving some growth in mobile, can eventually figure out how to replicate the Nexus program’s success in branding and mind share, the company will have scored a decisive early victory in its quest to establish Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 as major mobile players.