Those of you who watched along with the Google I/O keynote last week got to witness the debut of what’s essentially a Nexus Galaxy S 4. Everything was going great at the time: “it’s Google’s take on Android – on the Galaxy S 4” *cheers* “it’s bootloader unlocked” *cheers* “it will get prompt updates with every Android platform update” *big cheers* “it will go up for sale on June 26 in Google Play for $649” … … *silence*. We’re talking pin-drop, cricket-chirping stuff here.

Yup, there are no two ways about it: that’s a very un-Google, un-Nexus price tag. At the time, I wasn’t too surprised – it’s not like I expected to see Samsung pull an LG and let Google sell this puppy at cost – and as more and more users start getting comfortable at the sight of unsubsidized smartphone prices, I really didn’t think it was that much of a big deal.

The thing is, that feeling didn’t last, and the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I found myself becoming towards this price point. I love the idea of a Nexus Galaxy S 4, but there is just no way this hardware should be sold for quite so much.

gs4 in handSo, what’s my beef? Well, think back to the Galaxy S 4 launch. We came away from the event not so concerned with the GS4’s hardware, but with the seemingly endless parade of software features Samsung saw fit to demonstrate. As we later complained, many of these don’t function reliably, and serve better as technological demos than anything we’d find ourselves using on a daily basis, but they’re there. Maybe more importantly, Samsung made a big deal about them, and along with the latest improvements to TouchWiz in general, the sense I got from that event was that the GS4 was as much a product of its software as its hardware – if not more.

But with the Google AOSP Galaxy S 4, you’re losing all that. Now, the presumption may be that for the user who buys the phone through the Play Store, that stock experience is preferable to to Samsung’s software, and that’s fine. My problem is that when you’re throwing all that out, it’s no longer appropriate to compare the price of this Galaxy S 4 to what you’d pay for one with full Samsung software.

att-gs4-review-2It’s often tempting to look at smartphones running open systems like Android as the end cost of a handset being a matter of hardware + profit, but there’s a real price to software, as well. Development costs money, and when you’re premiering a number of new features on a high-end device like the GS4, a company like Samsung is going to want to recoup some of those development costs through the sales. Is it really fair, however, to similarly ask the AOSP GS4 to chip in here?

And what about “developer editions” of phones? Those demand full retail prices, and I’m not complaining about those. And with unlocked bootloaders, isn’t the assumption that users are just going to ditch any pre-loaded software and flash the phone anyway? I’ll admit, that’s tricky, but I think the key here is that the OEM’s software is still in place when you purchase the handset.

gs4 hardwareThink of it like ordering a hamburger at a restaurant. If I go and order a burger that comes with all the fixings and either ask to hold the tomato, onion, and pickles, or just take them off myself, I don’t expect the sandwich to cost me any less. On the other hand, if there’s another similar burger on the menu that doesn’t come with any of those toppings in the first place, it had sure better have a lower price than the decked-out option.

Honestly, I’m guessing that Google had no say in the situation. I’d bet good money that Samsung dictated the price point for Google’s Galaxy S 4 out of a specific desire not to have the phone seen as a cheaper alternative to the full-fledged GS4, like what we saw happen with LG and the Nexus 4/Optimus G.

Still, the software disparity gets to me. This is a phone with hardware valued somewhere in the mid-$200s, and even with the cost of software, patent licensing, and all, we’re still looking at some seriously healthy profits. Couldn’t Samsung and Google have let this one go for $600, $625 or something, just as a cursory nod to acknowledge that you’re giving up the full Samsung experience for something a little less extravagant? That’s all it would take to shut me up right quick.

UPDATE: Make sure you check out Joe Levi’s thoughts on why the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Edition is important.

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