By Stephen Schenck | June 5, 2013 7:09 AM
Google Edition, Nexus Edition – call them what you will, but we’re just about to see the start of an interesting new experiment come out of Mountain View. With Samsung’s Galaxy S 4 and HTC’s One, Google is creating a market for the sale of high-profile commercial smartphones running the same stock Android software we enjoy on the company’s own Nexus lineup. Now, chances are neither of these models are going to register very highly with your average smartphone buyer – the one who calls all Androids “Galaxy” – but for anyone who actually cares about phones, this is a big deal.
After all, this is an authorized, fully-supported offer to let us choose the software our phones run. Sure, it’s a choice between two flavors of Android, but that’s a huge deal on its own – this industry isn’t known for extending users that kind of choice. Sure, custom ROMs are a different story, but again – in the context of an official, non-hacky choice, it’s a bit astonishing.
One thing at a time, though. This is all still very new to us, and we’ve yet to get a sense of how this Google Edition project will mature: how many other OEMs might get involved? Will it be restricted to flagship models? Will we only see one such phone per manufacturer?
But I’d like to get a little ahead myself. Let’s say that Google likes what it sees and expands the scope of this a little. Obvious contenders for which models to add next might include phones like the Note III or Moto X, but I think we could be doing something even better with the publicity Google Edition phones afford. What if lower-level players in the Android game were able to use this program to FINALLY get their models some of the attention they’ve been hoping for on the global stage? What if the ZTEs and Huaweis of the world got themselves a piece of the Google Edition pie?
OEMs like ZTE and Huawei have had it tough. While both have made some Androids in recent years that look nice enough and have all the specs they need on paper, there’s still huge resistance to them internationally. That’s not entirely unwarranted – each has released its own share of lower-end smartphones and developed a reputation for budget hardware.
The trick is shaking off those labels and reinventing those brands for new audiences. It’s not without precedent – HTC used to be a relative unknown, crafting hardware for other companies to rebrand as their own, and has since risen as a respectable smartphone firm in and of itself. The question is how to undertake that change.
Why Google’s The Answer
The reasons I think Google Edition phones might be just the trick to introduce new audiences to ZTE and Huawei Androids mainly have to do with why I’m not buying them in the first place: I often wish the hardware was slightly more powerful, I have zero interest in their custom UIs, and for US customers like me, buying models from companies with neither strong retail nor carrier presences can be an exercise in frustration.
Google can’t help with all of those – the only thing that’s going to get me comfortable with an off-brand SoC is a reduced pricetag, and these GE prices seem more manufacturer-set (certainly compared to full-blown Nexus models) – but I bet it can do enough to matter.
First, there’s the name. People tend to trust Google. The company’s as high profile as it gets, and public opinion swings positive. As such, it’s a good fit for pairing with brands that have less presence in the US.
We also know that Google’s a decent company to buy a phone from. While devices like the Nexus 4 were plagued by stock shortages at launch time, Google’s sales pitch is clean and straightforward, it ships quickly enough, and if it ever gets some of those rumored retail stores off the ground, it’ll be the whole package.
Obviously, stock Android is a pretty powerful tool to dismiss concerns over the quality of an OEM’s custom software layer. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing in particular I have against Emotion UI or anything – but I’m just not a big fan of such extensions in the first place. As such, if I do use an Android running this kind of software it had sure better be an out-of-the-park home run; if not, it comes off almost as an insult – “hey, we know stock Android did this just fine, but we thought we’d try and mess with how it works anyway. Take it or leave it.” With Google Editions, this quickly becomes a moot point.
But What’s In It For Google?
Ah, there’s the rub. While I have little doubt that a Google Edition ZTE or Huawei (or heck, Oppo – let’s not forget Oppo) Android would be wildly successful for the manufacturers, what’s Google’s end?
I’ll admit, this could be a big risk for Google. No matter what happens with the GE GS4 and One, they’re going to sell just fine – maybe not in record numbers due to the prices, but they’re attractive enough and this GE business is interesting enough to get the attention the project needs. With these other guys… well, Google would need to really step-up promotion. If that’s not enough, and the US public doesn’t respond to these models, that could spell a major blow to Google; the Nexus line and these GE models are firmly built on reputation – a big failure could seriously set things back.
Promotion can be expensive, and Google’s sure not going to be the one footing the bill. Of course, if ZTE or Huawei would be the ones to pony-up the cash that just raises another question: if they had this kind of money for US advertising, why hadn’t they been spending it already?
In the end, I’m not terribly optimistic that we’ll ever see anything like what I’m suggesting. That’s a shame, because it could be fantastic. Google could show the world that it’s just as interested in second-tier OEMs as the big boys. Those OEMs could show that they can make hardware worthy of attention even when it’s not Google-affiliated. And we’d all hopefully broaden our horizons a little and start appreciating some more of the many smartphone choices that are out there just beyond our usual field of view.