A couple weeks back, at the Google I/O keynote, Google confirmed rumors that there would be a very special Nexus-like edition of Samsung’s Galaxy S 4, getting all the AOSP software and speedy-update-goodness we’ve come to expect from the smartphones that are nearest and dearest to Google’s heart. Even with the (maybe too) expensive $650 price tag, users were understandably excited about news of this handset: with a full HD display and Snapdragon 600 processor, we were looking at the most powerful model to date to join the Nexus family (even if only as a cousin).
But then a new rumor arrived, with some momentum of its own. Word was that HTC might be interested in making the same kind of arrangement for its One, becoming another de facto Nexus model.
The One is arguably more desirable than the GS4, so this notion had a lot of support. While HTC tried to publicly refute the idea, the rumors continue, and there’s almost this sense that the smartphone community feels like it can will a Nexus HTC One into existence; like if it makes enough noise, maybe HTC and Google will shrug and relent.
I get why these sort of rumors are so exciting. I love the whole Nexus thing, and I always want to see the best and brightest hardware available with the very latest Android software. But at the same time, all this excitement over Google Edition phones worries me; shouldn’t we be seeing this less as a great new branch of the Nexus family, and more as the latest evidence to remind us just how broken and convoluted so much of the Android system-software landscape really is?
The problem, at its heart, is that in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need a Google Edition smartphone in the first place. Everything that makes this new Galaxy S 4 attractive is because it fixes a problem that really shouldn’t even be there.
Probably the most interesting bit about Nexus devices in general is the promptness with which they get access to the newest Android builds. Considering how regular old Androids can wait months, if not more than a year, to get key updates, that’s a seriously big deal.
I could point my finger at OEMs putting too many resources towards releasing new phones and not enough towards keeping older models up to date, or at the unnecessarily close relationships between manufacturers and carriers, but it’s a moot point – this is a story that has been playing itself out since Android began, and despite claims every so often that someone’s going to try and improve the situation, little changes. To one degree or another, if you aren’t rocking a Nexus phone, that means waiting for updates.
This one’s tricky, as while it’s important to some users, ROM flashers are still a fringe contingent of Android users as a whole. There’s also the question of just how relevant this concern may be, as while it’s nice to have a phone all officially unlocked like the Google Edition GS4, hackers tend to find their own ways around locked bootloaders in a whole lot of cases – so long as you can flash in the end, who cares how you get there?
Once again, a big reason we have the problem of locked bootloaders in the first place is the carriers. Either they want to force bloat on us, are paranoid about what effect unapproved code could have on their networks (which really speaks to a fundamental network design problem more than anything), or don’t want to deal with the headache of users ruining their phones and come crying to their service providers for help.
Google Edition handsets don’t fix anything about this. They only take carriers out of the loop, giving them no voice in the bootloader discussion. We’ve still got carriers overstepping their authority, and manufacturers all too willing to submit to their demands.
Lack of Software Choices
We’re still in bootloader country here, but I think it’s important to separately discuss just why the idea of an unlocked (or unlockable) bootloader is so compelling: short of which phone they buy, consumers don’t really have software choices when it comes to smartphones.
If you want a Galaxy S 4, that means Android and TouchWiz. With the One, you had better be a Sense 5.0 fan. Perhaps it’s a symptom of a desire to present smartphones less as tiny general-purpose computers and more as polished, easily accessible commercial products, but there’s a very take-it-or-leave-it attitude to smartphone sales: you get this hardware, with this software, and if you’re very lucky you can choose between a carrier or two.
While a Google Edition phone still gives you some software to start out with, it’s not particularly insistent that you stick with it, and so far as the radio hardware allows, you can use the phone wherever you please.
When the first Ubuntu ROMs arrived, for users looking to expand their horizons beyond Android, which devices were supported? The Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Nexus 10.
Why does a Nexus-style Google Edition of a commercial Android handset matter so much? Most of the differences I’ve mentioned are nothing new – just the things that have been making Nexus phones great for years.
The problem with phones like this new GE GS4 is that just by having them, it feels like we’re admitting that the Nexus ideal will never be anything close to the norm for the Android community at large – that the only way to get a first row ticket to the full-on Google-blessed Android show will continue to be through one of these handful of models.
The Double-Edged Sword
The most infuriating part about the Google Edition Galaxy S 4 – and any other future Google Edition Androids that may follow in its path – is that there’s nothing fundamentally spectacular about the handset (at least compared to the non-GE version of the same model). Instead, it’s not so great for what it does, but for all the missteps it avoids. As such, it holds a mirror up to the rest of the Android landscape and reminds us yet again of just how much crap we put up with – and have been putting up with for so long.
To one extent, I’m happy to just see an alternative arrive. At the same time, though, it’s a solution that I wish we didn’t even need to begin with.