Don’t Google Play Edition devices complicate Android even more?

June 28, 2013
The Google Play Edition HTC One and Galaxy S4 handsets have just landed, but do they help or further fragment the Android operating system?

HTC One Google Edition

At first, I was very optimistic and pleased at the announcement of the Google Play Editions of the HTC One and Galaxy S4. More hardware choice and a Nexus-esque experience, yes please, I thought. But the more I’ve thought about this, the more I’m not so sure that the idea has been properly thought through. Ultimately, it could well end-up causing more headaches than anything else.

Firstly, there’s already a bit of confusion between the Nexus handsets and Google Editions. These handsets aren’t subsidized like the Nexus 4 is, they don’t carry the name, so should consumers really expect a pure Google experience from them? Surely these handsets are just going to fragment the Android market even more – various versions of TouchWiz, Sense, and others, then there’s Nexus handsets, Google, and Developer editions. It’s enough to make your head explode.

Weirdly though, the line has already started to blur. The Google Play Edition handsets ship with the new Android camera user interface, which hasn’t yet officially appeared on the Nexus 4. So who’s receiving the real Nexus experience here? Are these handsets being treated as a testing ground for future Android updates?

stock android camera

Above: the slightly upgraded Android camera app, which you can now download as an APK.

And then what about the Developer Editions of these handsets which already exist? Considering the huge expense in acquiring one of these GPE handsets, it’s clearly going to be quite a niche product, with developers and hardcore Android enthusiasts as the only real clientele. Do we really need a Google supported Samsung or HTC handset for the masses?

Not a true Nexus experience

I suppose there’s one other very important thing to note about these devices, they are not maintained like Nexus handsets.

The stock versions of Android running on them are built and maintained by Samsung and HTC, meaning that updates aren’t controlled by Google in the same way as a Nexus device. So, does this mean that Google will provide the code before releasing the update to Nexus devices for Samsung and HTC to work on, or release it to the OEMs afterward like they have traditionally done? It’s quite likely that this means that Google Play Edition handsets won’t receive updates quite as quickly as many had hoped.

Google Edition Kernels

Galaxy S4 GPE (Left) and the HTC One GPE (Right), note the manufacturer generated kernels. Source: Anandtech

Now, Google has stated that the updates will be timely, but that’s far from a guarantee that the stock Galaxy S4 and One will receive same-day updates as other Nexus handsets do. But let’s not jump the gun, there are also some benefits to having manufacturers add the finishing touches, after all they know the hardware inside out. Here’s what Google told DroidLife regarding the updating issue.

we will be working very closely with Samsung and HTC on future software updates for these devices and they will receive software updates shortly after a new version is released.

But this does then beg the question, what’s the point in owning one over a Nexus?

So many handsets to update

The situation also does leave me rather concerned about what this means for updates for other handsets. Problems could well arise from a conflict of interest when manufactures have to chose between which handsets to update. Clearly the GPE smartphones are not going to be as popular as the mainstream versions of their handsets, so how willing are manufactures likely to be to divert resources to polishing the updates for these phones, compared with updating the original versions of the handsets?

various versions of TouchWiz, Sense, and others, then there’s Nexus handsets, Google, and Developer editions. It's enough to make your head explode.

It’s a little bit messy to figure out exactly what handset manufactures are likely to do, and what they can do. But let’s take a look at a couple of possible scenarios.

Firstly, there’s the possibility for manufacturers to use these handsets as a scapegoat for not updating the non Google Edition smartphones. I can entertain that the “if you want regular Android updates buy a Google Edition device” line could become an excuse, however that obviously wouldn’t sit too well with consumers.

So that’s probably too much of an extreme scenario, hopefully smartphone manufacturers won’t risk alienating consumers who stuck with normal devices. Android updates are already notoriously slow, so I’d hate to see this become an even bigger problem. But because company resources are only finite, there has to be a priority between Google Edition handsets and the rest.

Samsung Galaxy S4 versions

So many handset versions, so little time.

The other alternative is that manufactures try to close the gap between updates in order to avoid the appearance of favoritism between different handset editions, whilst trying to keep the majority of their consumers happy. Again, it’s not likley that this will be taken to the extreme, but Google Play Edition updates will be certain to suffer some delay compared with Nexus releases, which will then no-doubt annoy consumers who bought these products hoping for prompt updates.

Of course, the best solution would be that manufacturers update all of their handsets as soon as they possibly can, sorting out the Google Play Editions first and then updating their own proprietary software for the rest of us. But it’s impossible to know exactly how promptly these updates will be rolling out, and whether more devices requiring regular support will affect updates for other handsets.

Erring on the side of caution, the best solution if you’re looking for a default Android experience is probably to stick with a Nexus device. Leave update politics to the other manufacturers, at least until we see how this will all play out. Do any of you share similar concerns about these handsets, or did we get exactly what we asked for?

Comments

  • Piyush

    you are forgetting one thing , google earns from there services thats why they subsidize hardware whereas for oem its different situation they earn from hardware not software thats why they sell at high price.

  • No name

    I’m very disappointed it should be like nexus I’m glad I did not buy it yet. Nexus 5 I’m keeping my money for u but please google we want more storage option 32,64 and LTE.

  • PopeJamal

    Choice is a bad thing now? I seriously don’t understand how having another option is a bad thing. They’re are now officially a total of two extra phones on the market and now EVERYTHING is apparently ruined. I just don’t see this as a big issue.

    Anyone expecting a Nexus experience on an OEM phone was fooling themselves. Anyone who knows anything about the Linux kernel knew that the manufacturers were probably going to have to keep them updated, not Google. This should not have been a shock to people. I just don’t get it…

    • Iulian Popa

      Agreed, so many people are getting scared over nothing, really.

  • Bas

    You might be overlooking the fact that Motorola – a Google company – is about to release a (set of) new Android smartphone(s). Presumably running stock Android.

    When Motorola will release this new smartphone you can count on it that they will go full steam ahead with their new marketing efforts. A new Motorola stock Android smartphone with “a solid release schedule of updates that will keep customers safe against malware and up to speed with new software innovations”, might be a great unique selling point over Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG etcetera… companies well known for their weak update schedules. If Motorola is going to emphasize the positives of stock Android over skinned/bloated versions of Android, they might be able to change the Android game completely. Google has always said that they believe Android has become too fragmented. With Motorola putting the spotlight on Google Now, Maps, Play Music… and so on, Google has in Motorola an ally in promoting Google software. Something Samsung, HTC, Sony and LG for example do not promote specifically, because they want to promote their own developed software. For example all Samsung commercials and ads are all Samsung software related (running on Android).

    Google has also stated before that they will treat Motorola nothing different than other manufacturers. With releasing Google Play Edition firmwares they can treat these other manufacturers also equal to Motorola! If the issue was to keep Samsung satisfied as the largest Android smartphone manufacturer, they might have succeeded with this move. HTC just hopped on the GPE wagon as a strategic move against Samsung to join the buzz.

    This might explain the GPE strategy from Google…

  • taz89

    Bloody hell for years you geeks been asking for this and now that it’s here you look for things to complain still… It’s like regardless what’s done you will find something to complain about…

  • AndroidShiz

    No it doesn’t complicate things at all. It’s a lot easier to tweak little things like Beats Audio with each Google update, rather than an entire skin. The carrier versions of the S4/ONE will probably receive one, “maybe” two official updates, while the GPe versions will surely get several more. Carrier versions get next version updates by mostly just introducing new phones.

    • stucrmnx120fshwf

      Yup, the main things getting in the way, are company skins and carriers, skins can mean half the flash is eaten up, so once the work is done porting to stock, updating is fairly easy, I have a GNex and the carrier has me stuck on 4.1.2. My Nex 7 is on 4.2.2, no skin, no carrier in the way, no problem, the HTC evo 3D I owned, devoured the RAM with company skin.

    • lil bit

      You think like an American. In the rest of the world when we buy from carriers we don’t get carrier versions usually, and it’s getting more common that they dont even have a SIM lock. Many carriers has SIM lock only on iPhones, due to the contracts they sign with Apple, where the carriers must promise to hate and disrespect the users in the traditional Apple way, just the way Americans like it. (there’s a loop hole anyway, the carrier can give you the unlock code the same day you sign the contract, my carrier do that, sell only locked iPhones to not violate Apple’s terms and then unlock them at once the iPhone is no longer the carriers property but the customer’s.)

      Back to the point, carrier updates is mainly an American thing, the test of us get them from the manufacturer, just like the gpe.

      • AndroidShiz

        Yup.

  • Kapil

    I thought that first oems tailor the android to run on their devices, then they put their skins. So, basically they will custom tailor the software and release it for google edition phones and then put their skins and push updates to normal devices.

  • End in sight

    The big issue we are all overlooking is: where is android in its overall development life cycle? Meaning, in the early days, updates REALLY mattered since the os was in infancy. Note that android had matured, the updates are not nearly as significant as they once were. For example, I got my first android 3 years ago and it was running 2.3. Do you know that I lasted for two whole years on 2.3?! It was killing me to see all that I was missing and of course I eventually capitulated. But now I run 4.2.2 and I’m asking myself if I even bother to put 4.3 on. I mean if it’s just improved camera app, that’s cool, but not earth shattering.

    The point I am making is that over time, the issue of updates may become less of a factor. And if that is the case, then many people might be fine using an android device for 2 years and never getting an update. And if that is the case, then who cares how many OS variations are out there? I don’t. In fact, I prefer the choice.

    • D’Ander McSullivan

      You sound like a gold age guy: “we’ve reached the top of innovation, there’s nothing else left”. Don’t get me wrong, I get your point since I had gingerbread for many years as well, but Google can came out with some kind of new feature (like lockscreen widget or two-finger slidedown on jellybean); and, of course, enthusiastic developers create some fancy apps that will be compatible only with 4.3/5.0+. It could be something simple or something revolutionary, but you and I know that frustration when one can’t have those features.
      Sorry for my bad English, btw.

  • John

    If you knew anything about marketing you would know how important choice is to the consumer.

  • RaptorOO7

    I don’t recall Google or either HTC or Samsung saying the Google Edition Phones would be a “Nexus” phone and for good reason, they are still putting a few tweaks in the phone to make them theirs. They won’t have skins but they still need to get the devices to work properly.

    What I think Google should do is allow multiple OEM’s to offer a Nexus Edition or change Nexus to Google Edition where by the OS is auto updated by Google.

    It will never happen but one can dream.

  • number29

    Android fans never seem to be happy. This is the problem when you have too much choice; you’re never happy with what you eventually get because there are so many other options that may have been better if you’d just bought them instead.

  • William Worlde

    Aren’t manufacturer’s giving you the people what your are willing to pay $600+ for every 6 months or so?

    Because you are all valued stakeholders in these companies (Don’t deny it. Even if you don’t get annual dividend cheques you defend your chosen manufacturer with religious zeal!) don’t you want to ensure their insane multi-billion dollar growth?!

    What? You now want the Android ecosystem to become more like Apple and release a new (usually high-quality; OK, let’s blot out iP5 from our minds) product only once a year?! Are you insane?! You mean you don’t appreciate Samsung’s 26 products in a year (WTF!), or a new product every two weeks?! What’s wrong with choice?

    Ah, you can please some of the people… LMAO!

  • scb1898

    This complicates nothing! We don’t know what the update process will be like until the first update to comes out.

  • Rockwell mellow

    One word… Cyanogenmod

  • lil bit

    I don’t get the problem here, is the author saying that Nexus 4 is comparable to Galaxy S4? I wouldn’t waste money on a mediocre midrange phone with a high end chipset, the display, poor storage, weak battery, mediocre camera and the terrible video recording of N4 places it firmly in the mid range, and even there it faces competition from LTE phones, meaning N4 is -being pushed towards the lower midrange in too many ways, how long can this crappy phone stay afloat on a great chipset and fast updates alone? Why buy a device that it’s already outdated when you can get vanilla on Samsung’s latest and greatest at a reasonable price.

  • Aaron

    I am confused with the authors confusion. Why is this even an issue worth writing about? Is your poor head going to explode?