Is Google’s Strategy With the Nexus Flawed?

The biggest gripe that I have with the Android platform being an Android user is the Nexus lineup. While Google shows that it has done a lot right with the Nexus lineup, its approach to updating Android and maintaining a consistent user experience across different products needs re-examination in an era where Android has matured and the technologies powering the hardware has grown over the last several years.

The Problem

The problem with the way that Google approaches Android is that it allows for the latest version of its operating system to be released on the Nexus line first. After the latest Nexus products are released, other manufacturers even get the code to evaluate if they want to provide their own customers with an upgrade path.

Take for instance the latest release of the Android OS in the form of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Jelly Bean is delivered first on the Galaxy Nexus, which is a fine piece of hardware. But today, when the hottest Android smartphones are released, they are being shipped out of the gate with an already dated platform, which means that Android looks less competitive than iOS and Windows Phone where all devices running those OSes are shipped out with the latest OS. Today, the HTC One X and the Samsung Galaxy S III, arguably two of the most coveted phones on the market today, are being shipped with Ice Cream Sandwich, and not Jelly Bean. These flagship phones are already a generation behind in terms of software. However, in terms of hardware, they are more advanced than the Galaxy Nexus for which Jelly Bean is shipping for first.

It’s Not Entirely Google’s Fault, But It Is

One may argue that this situation is not entirely the fault of Google. After the source code is available, manufacturers will often work with carriers to evaluate an upgrade plan and strategy. This could take a while, along with software testing, network tests to ensure that everything works great on the latest 4G networks, and customer testing to ensure that the upgraded OS on the current hardware will deliver a good user experience. So while it may take Samsung months to deliver a Jelly Bean upgrade to Galaxy S III owners because of rigid testing done on the part of the carrier, this situation really actually is Google’s fault.

First, Google could adopt a strategy like Microsoft. Through standardization in hardware components, Microsoft works with its OEMs to ensure that once a new release of the Windows Phone platform is out, it will be delivered in a timely manner to existing devices if applicable. This ensures that devices from HTC, LG, Samsung, and Nokia get updated at roughly the same time so that we won’t see new halo devices appear while other devices get released with older OSes.

Why a Nexus Strategy Doesn’t Make Sense Today

When Google released its first Nexus with HTC in the form of the Nexus One, the company promised that the Nexus series would allow it to create a halo product in the Android ecosystem to show other manufacturers how it envisions the hardware and software together while at the same time deliver early and timely software updates to developers. A few years a later and several generations of Nexus phones later, we are in a different world of Android. The Nexus strategy was born in the infancy of Android where there was a lot of different variations between hardware and the platform wasn’t quite mature or polished. Instead, OEMs had to rely on their own cunning to deliver a better experience to customers, including Exchange ActiveSync integration, Facebook sync, and other apps.

Gone are the over-dominating skins and UIs. Motorola’s MOTO BLUR, HTC’s Sense, and Samsung’s TouchWiz UX are all designed to complement Android rather than overlay an entirely disparate and different experience on the platform. This shows how much Android has matured as Google has integrated the best features of various different Android products across a range of manufacturers in releases such as Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich, and Jelly Bean. No longer is the hardware vastly different between manufacturers, but even vastly different CPUs are powerful enough to handle most common Android tasks, even gaming.

What Google Should Do

If the company intends to keep the Nexus hardware dream alive, it should at least work concurrently with other OEMs and release the Android source code before the Nexus launch so that other manufacturers could also launch new flagships with the latest version of Android. In the Jelly Bean example, had Google made the source code available to other OEMs as it was developing Jelly Bean, perhaps this would give Samsung time to release the flagship Galaxy S III with a current OS.

As it stands, the Galaxy S III is the hottest Android phone today with an outdated version of the mobile OS, which is a sad reality of how Google handles the platform through its Nexus program as well as when the company makes the Android source code available to OEMs.