It's Nexus time again, the time each year when Google ships its hero devices in the Nexus line. That's a brand of phones and tablets commissioned by the company starting in 2010 — not to be huge sellers, but to show the world the best of its Android operating system.
Nexus phones are meant to present the latest versions of Android, in pure form, unadulterated by the software overlays and bloatware apps added by the hundreds of Android phone makers. They also give Google a chance to showcase its own latest apps and services, which are sometimes missing entirely from Android phones, especially in emerging markets. And, unlike most other Android devices, they get updated almost as soon as Google releases patches.
But they aren't made by Google itself. Instead, Google picks one of its Android hardware partners to make each year's Nexus models. There are two models this year, from two different phone makers, LG and Huawei. While the software firm works closely on the resulting product, it doesn't have the kind of full control — even over this hero product — that Apple has over the iPhone or Microsoft has over the Surface.
I think it's time for Google to start making its own hardware
I think it's time for Google to start making its own hardware, at least for smartphones, and at least for the Nexus line and for a class of low-priced phones aimed at developing markets.
Yes, I know that Google briefly owned, and then sold, an entire phone manufacturer, Motorola. Yes, I know that Google has dabbled in hardware with products like the Chromecast and the Chromebook Pixel, and had to kill another internal hardware venture, a home media player called the Q.
But it's perfectly possible for a company with Google's clout and resources to hire more hardware engineers and designers, create unique devices, and outsource its manufacturing.
Here are five reasons why it should do just that.
First, increasingly, software and hardware are closely intertwined. A software platform is much better with purpose-built hardware. This is one of the major things that has led to Apple's success and to Microsoft's decision, after years of resistance, to go into the hardware business.
Because it combines both hardware and software expertise, Apple was able to beat Google and the Nexus by two years with fingerprint recognition. And, for the same reason, it now has a new feature, 3D Touch, which allows a phone's screen to recognize pressure and take action based on it. The latter may turn out to be no big deal, but it may be big, and, in any case, it's the kind of thing you can best try when you control both hardware and software. Sure, third parties can do some things (Huawei has a form of 3D Touch) but Apple's last 15 years shows that the magic really happens when the platform owner mates hardware with software.
A top Google executive I asked about this said the company feels its close coordination with Nexus hardware makers accomplishes the same goal. For instance, he pointed out, both new Nexus phones use the same camera and fingerprint sensors, even though the phones are made by different companies. But I don't think that sort of component specification is the same thing as reaping the gains of simultaneous software and hardware development. For instance, Microsoft's dual-mode Windows, which functions on both laptops and tablets, was debuted on Microsoft Surface hardware that does the same.
If Google made laptops, it would be the first compelling new alternative to Apple's MacBooks in decades
Second, Google is making Android its single platform for the future, merging it with Chrome OS, the company's Chromebook laptop operating system. This implies that Android could run laptops or even desktops. To me, that makes a compelling case for a Google-built Nexus hardware line, even as other companies continue to use the software. If Google did this, making not just phones or tablets but even laptops, it would be the first compelling new alternative to Apple's desktop platform in decades — an industry sea change.
Third, although Android as a platform dominates the world and dwarfs Apple's iOS market share, Google has only a single hardware partner in Samsung which combines global reach, significant market share, and profitability. And Samsung's sales and profitability have been faltering in recent quarters. A Google-made phone could be the solution to assuring that Android remains in the hands of a hardware maker with deep pockets and a stake in its success.
Fourth, device makers in emerging markets are increasingly deploying versions of Android that omit Google apps or services, which means Google makes no money on them. Wealthy Amazon uses such an Android fork. This is possible because Android is both free and open for modification, and Google has so far been unable to counter this trend. An inexpensive, Google-built-and-branded phone for these markets could be the company's best weapon in this battle.
Fifth, the European Union has opened an investigation of whether Google's required bundling of its apps on Android phones made by others is illegal. If that probe should go the wrong way for Google, it could be a disaster. All the more reason for Google to control its own destiny.
Shouldn't Google want to make Android better through its own innovative hardware?
Yes, I know that even owning Motorola is said to have annoyed partners like Samsung, and that Google phones would likely to do the same. Microsoft's Surface hybrid tablets are the source of grumbling among its hardware partners. But such things can be managed, at least for a time, as Microsoft seems to be doing right now. That would be especially true if the Google hardware was limited and targeted to specific areas like hero phones and those for people in low-income countries.
Android reaches consumers ensconced in hardware. And that hardware can enhance it or not. Shouldn't Google want to make Android better through its own innovative hardware?