2015 was a groundbreaking year for Google’s Nexus program, in several different ways. For one, there were in fact two smartphones released, yet at the same time, there was no tablet or specifically branded accessory to be found despite the actual Nexus event last September bringing forth 5 products in total. The aim of this piece is to take a quick look at what last year did – and didn’t – offer, and consider what 2016 may have to offer, especially given that rumors have already begun to surface that HTC will be tasked with making two different Nexus smartphones.
The original “strange” strategy
The announcement of two separate Nexus smartphones from Google last year came as a profound shift in its established Nexus program. In a way, it represents the largest change of strategy since 2013’s temporary decision to allow for “Google Experience Edition” products, know as “GPe” for short. The GPe program basically allowed for products unaffiliated with the Nexus program to be sold directly from Google with Vanilla Android.
Several devices were offered, from a number of manufacturers including the Samsung Galaxy S4 GPe, the HTC One M8 GPe, the Sony Xperia Z Ultra GPe, and the LG G Pad 8.3 GPe. Many of these products received OS updates far quicker than their “skinned” counterparts, and in some cases when their default variant received nothing at all.
The new strategy
Whereas 2013 officially brought the LG Nexus 5 and 2014 the Motorola Nexus 6, 2015 saw the release of a Huawei Nexus 6P, and an LG Nexus 5X, with the former representing the high end of the spectrum, and the latter offering offering more mid-range specs and pricing.
Given that Google has now established that a phablet Nexus has relevance as well as a more standard sized version, there is good reason to assume 2016 will see a similar strategy. This is all the more relevant when one considers that the Nexus smartphones, in many ways, represent the Google antithesis to Apple’s iPhones. And just as Apple now has two sizes of its own products – perhaps three this year – so too does Google.
Of course with the Nexus program, the choice has seemingly less to do with iOS competition and more to do with “internal” options. There has never been more Android phones offered than there are today, with the New York Times, last year, stating that over 1000 different companies are making phones. Given some of the strange ones that released – a Pepsi phone anyone – it’s easy to see just why the number has grown.
By giving the Nexus smartphone program a two-pronged approach, it thereby allows Google to cater to two markedly different markets, and offer compelling products that can stand their own with respect to the aforementioned “internal” competition, especially given that many of the products originating from Asia have heavily skinned user interfaces.
What dreams may come
In assuming there will be two Nexus smartphones released in 2016, the question is who is going to be making them. Would Google pick a pair of producers as it did last year, or will it stick with a single supplier? Given that the first month of 2016 has already passed the half-way point, it is only fitting rumors of this year’s new Nexus devices have begun to start up. Indeed this year, perhaps more so than in those now gone, many in the Android community have increasingly higher expectations of what Google will deliver for the platform itself given the negative reaction ushered in by the Pixel C and its perceived shortcomings, namely the lack of split-screen multitasking and a plethora of tablet-optimized software.
Last week a rumor appeared originating from China’s Weibo social network that claims HTC will be making both a higher-end and lower-end Nexus smartphone this year, and that the former will land at 5.5 inches and the latter at 5.0 inches. The rumor was then expanded when two alleged product model numbers leaked. While some might argue it is too early for plausible rumors to begin for a Nexus product, last year the talk of Huawei making a device began quite early as well, and indeed such talk became a reality as last fall eventually played out.
Hints by Huawei
While any given situation may be fluid until the details and specifics are settled via contract, there is already a bit of evidence to suggest Huawei will be involved in this year’s Nexus project. It is important to consider the not-so-subtle “hint” that Huawei dropped in a recent interview with us, suggesting that it might have another close-working relationship with Google for 2016. (For reference, fast forward to the 3:10 minute mark to find the specific section referenced).
Of course this could ultimately be anything, assuming it to be true at all: a new tablet, a new Chromebook, a new Chromecast. The list could seemingly go on forever given that Huawei manufacturers far more than just devices. To play it safe however, let it be assumed the device in question would be a Nexus smartphone. This would mean either a repeat of the 6P – i.e. a top tier product – or it could be a replacement for the 5X.
While some might argue that it making a mid-tier product after crafting last year’s high end device might be seen as an insult to Huawei, do consider that the Chinese OEM is (1) quite adept at making high quality, affordable devices, and is (2) quite interested in expanding its market share and brand recognition around the world. Unlike Samsung, which allegedly named the Nexus S such because it refused to be considered “number two”, Huawei might have no qualms with the idea of producing a lower-end device, all the more so given that the 6P already proved it could do top-tier, and all the more so given that the 6P will inevitably still be sold for some time after this year’s models are announced and released.
Assuming the rumor does pan out though, and HTC will make both smartphones, the partnership which Huawei hinted could mean the OEM is working on whatever tablet Google plans to bring out this year. Given that Huawei makes numerous tablets, and just announced a newly designed product around CES, such a product would not be out of bounds to consider.
Returning to HTC…
At the same time, while HTC certainly had a flagship phone in its One M9 last year, the device was also playing it very safe. HTC has not released a truly large screen product since 2013’s HTC One Max. Moreover, HTC is also facing continued hardships with earnings and criticism for its choices. Google may not feel comfortable trusting the Taiwanese OEM with handling a potentially volatile project like the 2016 flagship Nexus smartphone out of sheer fear of seeing a repeat of the shortages that befell the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5. Huawei, for that matter, is an infinetly larger enterprise and therefore far better able to meet the manufacturing needs and supply demands of what could be a growing demand as the Nexus line becomes more well-known among the average consumer.
The supply issue problem would become seemingly a larger one if HTC makes both smartphones this year, because then it has two separate lines to worry about all the while trying to salavage its own brand and continue to develop products that make use of the A9’s new controversial design. There is also a fair question in asking how much power the HTC brand itself has given that (1) the company has fallen from grace in recent years, and (2) its sole Nexus smartphone was the original Nexus One, released at a time when arguably few people really knew what Android was compared to the absolute dominance the platform now enjoys.
The supply issue is also a problem given that Google clearly went for two different design languages with last year’s Nexus smartphones. The 6P looks quite different than the 5X. If HTC makes both devices, it would mean that the OEM would either make two clones of different sizes, or else make two entirely different products which means double the details and delivery. It would also serve to make the Nexus line into something more akin to ZTE’s Axon products, which come in different sizes yet essentially look the same. This would be good for continuity, however it would be bad in terms of creativity.
The Nexus 9 “problem”
While some might be thrilled with the idea that HTC could be producing a possible pair of new Nexus smartphones for this year, there are unfortunately a number of individuals that are decidedly anything but. This stems largely from the HTC Nexus 9 tablet which was released in the Fall of 2014 along with the Motorola Nexus 6. The tablet had issues with the build quality, to say the least: the volume and especially power buttons were seemingly recessed into the tablet such as to be difficult to operate, something which was apparently addressed over time with newer production runs.
The screen, however, was an issue which plagued people and to this day still commands outrage and disgust. Those who received or purchased units with a large amount of backlight bleed found enjoying their tablet to be a challenging experience. All the more so given the cost of the device when it released. While HTC phones typically do not suffer from this problem – or at least not to the level that the Nexus 9 apparently did – it has definitely left some sour grapes to say the least.
This is in addition to the overall issue that many felt: the build itself of the Nexus 9 was horribly lacking for the price point. Rather than using a unibody metal design as HTC does with its flagship phones, the company instead made a “cheap” plastic rear. Said issue was intensified by the black color model’s rear panel which had a considerably amount of give when pressed, as opposed to the white option.
The size situation
Another point worth discussing is the idea that this year’s Nexus devices will be 5.5 and 5.0 inches as opposed to the 5.7 and 5.2-inch products that 2015 saw release. In dropping the larger device further – consider the Nexus 6 was almost a full 6-inches – it would then be on screen parity with Apple’s inevitable iPhone 7 Plus. This may work out for the better, or it might work out for the worst. Aside from that, there would be a clear segment of consumers who would be displeased that their phablet dreams would be dashed. Considering that the LG G4 – a standard smartphone – came in at 5.5 inches as well, it does indeed seem more clear that phablets need to be at least 5.7 inches or larger.
Given the overall satisfaction that seemed to be present last year with respect to the sizes of the 5X and 6P, it seems highly questionably that Google would further shrink both of its 2016 Nexus devices – assuming there are two – just for the sake of making them smaller. If anything the hardware itself could be reduced in size – the top and bottom bezels come to mind – yet leave the display sizes as they are for now.
The other issue to consider is the next tablet, assuming there is one at all. Whereas 2015 was the first year ever since the original Nexus 7 tablet released in 2012 to not see a new Nexus tablet, there was still the Pixel C released. Running stock Android and receiving updates directly from Google, it is in many ways a “pure” Nexus, developed and manufactured directly by Google rather than through an OEM partner. (Though ironically enough a partner was still obviously used to manufacture the device itself as Google lacks production facilities) .
There is no telling what kind of a Nexus tablet might hit in 2016. It could be a new 7-inch product, especially if the new large Nexus smartphone were to indeed shrink to a 5.5-inch display. It could be a new 10.1 inch device. It could be anything really, but given the decreasing tablet sales as well as neither the Nexus 9 nor the Pixel C taking off by any accounts, it might be more sensible for Google to just fold the Nexus tablet line altogether.
Suffice to say, 2016 is going to be another big year for the Nexus program. Regardless of who makes what device, how many devices release, or even what size they may be, with the presumed inclusion of multitasking and possibly other new additions, it is likely that whatever products are manufactured and sold will be at the forefront of Google’s mobile domination.
Only time will tell what device(s) are ultimately announced and released. Given that Google looks to be making a formal unveiling of “Android N” this summer, it is theoretically possible there could be a new Nexus product announced then. More likely than not however, whatever devices may this way come will probably not see a formal unveiling until the fall.