Google has been making phones for years, but you probably didn’t know that.
You’re forgiven if you didn’t, of course, given that Google doesn’t take the same traditional approach in selling its phones. They’re not sold in stores, they typically receive little-to-no promotion in advertising, and Google announces them with relatively low-key events — a stark contrast to how Apple handles its phones, for instance.
And that’s especially strange, because Google’s phones are excellent. Better than your new iPhone (in my opinion), better than your new Galaxy S-whatever, and less expensive too.
There are two new Google phones this year, and they’re arguably the best phones on the market. I’m using the smaller one, dubbed the Nexus 5X, and it’s genuinely amazing. It’s fast. It’s innovative. It’s clean and simple and intuitive. It takes great photos and has a battery life on par with or better than most phones on the market.
So, why haven’t you heard of it? Rather, why isn’t Google selling this great phone (and its bigger sister, the Nexus 6P) in stores?
Sadly, there’s no clear answer to that, but it seems like Google’s goal isn’t to recreate the success of the iPhone. Instead, it wants to set an example for all the other companies out there making Android phones.
The Google Answer: These are “reference” devices
The first step in my journey to understand why Google seemingly hides its amazing phones from the consumer public was to ask Google. Here’s what a Google rep told Tech Insider:
The Nexus program is our effort to push what’s possible in hardware design while unlocking the ideal software experience. It’s Google’s take on the total user experience including hardware and software, the retail experience, frequency of security updates (monthly) and ongoing software updates (for two years). Over the years, we’ve launched the Nexus One, 4, 5, 6, 5X and 6P smartphones as well as the Nexus 7 and 10 tablets, and Nexus Player Android TV. Since Nexus is built by the same people who build the OS working closely with partners, we think these devices serve as a beacon to show the industry what’s possible.
That’s a long way of saying, “We make these devices to set an example of what an Android phone is capable of.” Google demonstrates “the total user experience” by working with manufacturers to create a phone (hardware), puts the absolute latest version of a totally stock Android operating system on it (software), and only sells the device through its online store (retail).
Huh, that sounds familiar.
And that’s because it’s the same way Apple builds the iPhone: Apple makes the hardware, Apple makes the software, Apple has stores to sell you the iPhone, Apple issues software updates. It’s a complete, end-to-end solution for consumers, and it’s often a better experience than buying literally any Android phone. It’s no surprise that Apple sells so many iPhones — Apple makes its largest portion of profits from selling the iPhone, actually. Apple’s basically in the phone business.
But if the Nexus phones are reference devices meant to demonstrate just how good Android phones can be, why aren’t any phone companies taking note?
The closest you can get to Google-made phones is the OnePlus Two or the Moto X line — phones with nearly pure, unadulterated Android that are sold directly to consumers by their respective makers. Meanwhile, the most popular Android phone makers like Samsung, LG, and Xiaomi, load up their versions of Android with “bloatware”: apps that you can’t erase that often duplicate other, better apps. Samsung makes its own email app, its own calendar app, its own text messaging app, etc., despite the fact that Google makes better versions of all of those that are built into Android, for example.
And why do Samsung, LG, and the rest do this?
Because, so the logic goes, this is how companies offer “customised” versions of Android. In so many words: if they all used stock Android, what would differentiate their phones from the competition? You might’ve answered, “Well, one of them could try to make a better phone than the others and win that way.” And you’d be right!
But these companies apparently don’t agree with your very logical argument.
Google doesn’t want to compete with — and beat — the Samsungs and LGs of the world in the phone market
There’s another popular argument that people often cite when discussing Google’s excellent phones and their lack of market visibility: Google doesn’t want to eat the lunch of the companies that take Android and make it their own.
The logic here is that, if Google competes directly with Android phone makers, it risks pushing those phone makers to stop using Android. And if those companies stop using Android, that could mean less money for Google when people uses baked-in Google services like search or buy apps and other content from the Google Play store.
This is a bad argument for a few reasons:
- There are no other operating systems with anywhere near the reach of Google’s Android. People who like Android are pretty unlikely to learn a whole new operating system so they can keep using their Samsung phone, and phone makers are unlikely to build their own. Likewise, app developers are unlikely to re-release their apps on yet another mobile phone platform.
- No phone makers have another operating system to use at scale, even if they were to abandon Android. Samsung has Tizen, and Mozilla makes a Firefox OS — have you ever heard of either? Didn’t think so.
- Google simply doesn’t make that much money from Android.
- Google can afford to be competitive — arguably, making the best Android phone and competing directly with the likes of LG and Samsung would push those companies to make better products. And those products are Android phones!
So, why does Google make phones?
Maybe it’s just to make tech writers look like nutcases. I used iPhones for years: first the 3G, then the 4, then the 5, then the 6. Somewhere in there, I used a Nexus 5 for six months and fell in love. It was a phone with flaws, but one of the best phones I’ve ever used.
The Nexus 5X is a continuation of my brief love affair with the Nexus 5, only this time the camera is fantastic and the battery is much more reliable. Yet, outside of it being a reference device for other Android phones, the Nexus 5X (and the 6P) are frustratingly hard to purchase. After all this bloviating, you basically have to take my word on how good this phone is — there’s no way to walk into a store and just try the thing. You have to buy it on blind faith. That’s not what I’d call an ideal experience.
Google sees its online purchase process as a testing ground for its vision of the future of retail. Here’s the answer Google gave Tech Insider when we asked why the phones aren’t available in stores:
…the phones are available on the Google Store in 24 countries and in many more countries with the major carriers and retailers internationally. We’re focusing on building the recently introduced Google Store to be our go-to destination to help people find and buy our products as well as the accessories that work best with them.
That’s a similar strategy other manufacturers use too. Chinese smartphone makers OnePlus and Xiaomi almost exclusively sell their phones online, and they’re very popular. Google seems to believe selling phone exclusively online could work out in the end too. Last week, it started running a ad campaign promoting the new Nexus phones during big events like the MLB playoffs and NFL games.
But I still prefer to try before I buy, and the online Google Store is the only way to buy the new Google phones. And that, to me, is tremendously frustrating. So I’m at an impasse. Why does Google make phones? Maybe it’s just to break my heart. You tell me.
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