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For the Nexus 6, Google needs the carriers

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Selling a $649 smartphone is a lot different than selling a $349 one

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Yesterday, Google officially announced the Nexus 6, the latest in its line of "pure" Android smartphones. The Nexus 6 carries the familiar Nexus badge and acts as the flagship device for the new Android 5.0 Lollipop platform. That's not a big change from the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 before it, but the Nexus 6 is different in other ways: the Nexus 6 starts at $649 for the unlocked model, a significant jump from the $349 that the older models cost. On paper, the Nexus 6 appears to justify that higher price tag: it's a 6-inch behemoth of a phone with an exceptionally high resolution screen and a cutting edge processor. It will also likely have better materials and a better build quality than the all-plastic Nexus 5. But that puts the Nexus 6 in a different category, right up there with Apple and Samsung's premium devices — both in specifications and also in price.

While the earlier Nexus devices had limited carrier availability, the Nexus 6 will be sold by five carriers in the US, including all four majors. Partnering with the carriers is a different move for Google: following the less-than-pleasant experience of the Galaxy Nexus on Verizon (and Sprint), Google has mostly taken upon itself to sell its Nexus phones in recent years. But that's much easier to do when the full price of the phone starts at $349, compared to the $649 that an average iPhone costs. The Nexus 6's higher price requires a different approach — Google is smart enough to realize that many people just aren't going to shell out $649 out of pocket for a new smartphone, no matter how cutting edge it might be.

Google knows most people won't pay $649 up front for a smartphone

That's where the carriers come in: every major carrier in the US now offers a payment plan for new smartphones, letting customers split the cost up of their new phones over a span of 12 to 24 months. This eliminates the "sticker shock" of seeing the high price of an unlocked phone and gives most people the same experience as they were used to with traditional subsidized cell phone plans. By partnering with the carriers, Google has given potential customers many more options on how to purchase their phone, in addition to buying it direct at full price from Google itself. After all, a $649 smartphone is a lot easier to sell when you pitch it as "$0 down and $32.50 per month."

There are other factors that make this a better time for Google to work with carriers than in prior years. Like the iPhone 6, the Nexus 6 sold in North America supports all of the major carrier's networks, so Google doesn't have build different models for AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and so forth. That helps cut down on inventory management, eases the delivery of software updates, and generally just makes it easier to produce and sell a smartphone.

Google will still have to shoulder much of the burden of getting people to buy the Nexus 6

None of this is to say that Google will have a lot of marketing support for the Nexus 6 from the carriers. AT&TSprint, and T-Mobile made announcements welcoming the new device, but Verizon didn't even bother to issue a press release confirming that it would carry the new phone. The Nexus line has always been filled with niche devices that appeal to enthusiasts, and the enormous Nexus 6 is no exception. For now, it seems that Google will have to do much of the work in moving the Nexus 6, just like it had to for the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. Google will also have to make sure that the carriers don't get in the way of it delivering software updates for the Nexus 6, as has happened in the past. Many enthusiasts purchase Nexus smartphones specifically for quick access to the latest updates to Android, and Verizon and Sprint made that very difficult for Google with the Galaxy Nexus.

The Nexus 6 represents a number of shifts for Google and its Nexus line. It's a return to premium specs and a premium price, and it ushers in a new era of partnerships with American wireless carriers. Google is taking the high-end of the smartphone world — the iPhone 6s and Galaxy Note 4s — head-on in a way that it didn't do with the last two Nexus devices. And to play in that field, you need to play ball with carriers, whether you like it or not.