A second look at the “Nexus is dead” rumor

January 30, 2014
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Google Nexus 5 drop test aa 5

Tectonic plates are shifting in the world of Android. Forces collide deep below the surface, sometimes causing faint rumbles, and, every now and then, massive earthquakes that affect everyone in one way or another.

This year brought us several such earth shattering events: Google bought Nest, an ambitious startup, planning to turn it into its core hardware unit; Samsung and Google signed a decade-long cross-licensing patent deal; in a “sea change”, Samsung will give up on some of its software ambitions; and Google sold Motorola to Lenovo.

We can’t really tell for sure that these events are related, though it certainly seems so.

A plausible narrative that has been making the rounds is this: Google convinced Samsung to stop trying to derail Android. In exchange, the Koreans demanded – and obtained – that Google drops its handset biz, which Samsung feared could affect its business. The two giants signed a massive patents agreement to seal the deal, and they can both move on with their plans. For Samsung, that means securing the top position in the mobile industry for years to come, while Google can move on to wearables, robots, quantum computers, artificial intelligence, smart contact lenses, and so on.

Assuming this scenario is accurate, Android fans have one big question: what happens with the Nexus line?

Motorola was Google’s phone making arm, but the company successfully turned the Nexus program from a niche reserved to the fiercest fans to a popular lineup with universal appeal. Google achieved this by making its Nexuses very affordable, and Samsung probably didn’t  like it one bit.

Was Nexus part of a Samsung deal?

Did Samsung ask Google to kill the Nexus line? Eldar Murtazin, a Russian blogger with huge experience in the mobile industry, seems to think so. Right after the announcement of the Google-Samsung patent deal, Murtazin announced unequivocally that the Nexus line is dead:

Now, Eldar Murtazin has a hit and miss record when it comes to leaks. He sometimes nails them (Nokia-related leaks are his specialty), but he’s also often wrong. So we decided not to cover this “Nexus is dead” rumor, especially since it’s not the first time someone starts a deathwatch for Google’s pure Android phones. However, Murtazin followed up with a claim that Google will somehow give up Motorola as a concession to Samsung, and just a couple of days later, Motorola is offloaded to Lenovo. This gives Murtazin’s first prediction more credibility, hence this post.

There are some clues in Larry Page’s post on the Motorola sale that suggest Google is indeed going to turn its focus from the mobile industry :

This move will enable Google to devote our energy to driving innovation across the Android ecosystem, for the benefit of smartphone users everywhere. As a side note, this does not signal a larger shift for our other hardware efforts. The dynamics and maturity of the wearable and home markets, for example, are very different from that of the mobile industry. We’re excited by the opportunities to build amazing new products for users within these emerging ecosystems.
Larry Page, Google CEO

Is Larry Page subtly preparing us for some bad news? It’s still hard to say.

Android on cruise control

Looking at the big picture, Google has pretty much figured out Android. The OS has 80 percent global market share and is commanding most of the fast growing developing markets. Apple seems content with making boatloads of money from the high-end segment, while Windows Phone is still struggling. BlackBerry is gone, and none of the new operating systems seems capable of threatening Android. With Samsung closely aligned to its interests, Google can put Android on cruise control and focus more on new stuff, like wearables and smart homes.

Android itself is mature. We have a feature rich, smooth operating system that looks great and works great. Sure, there are kinks that still need to be solved, like improving the tablet experience. But overall Android has probably entered a period of stability.

In these favorable conditions, Google could drop the Nexus program without risking much, besides backlash from fans, which is unavoidable. Google can still offer pure Android smartphones through its Play edition devices, which sell at market prices, and therefore don’t annoy any partner, especially Samsung.

Pros and cons

The supposed motivation for the Nexus program was initially to give developers a pure Android device to work on. Then it was about showcasing pure Android in a high quality hardware shell. Then about putting quality devices in more people’s hands. Now that Android is mature, these reasons of existence are largely gone. Google doesn’t even need to help OEMs with marketing, because they do a pretty good job by themselves.

Then again, Google could easily keep the Nexus wagon rolling. To appease Samsung, it could increase prices to make Nexus devices less competitive, and keep the program going indefinitely. It’s not that Google would need the money and resources it would save by shattering the Nexus.

And even in the current context, Google could still benefit from stimulating other OEMs besides Samsung, to ensure that the Android world remains diverse and dynamic.

The truth is we can only speculate on the validity of Eldar Murtazin’s predictions. It’s even possible that he’s on to something now, but things are going to change in the future.

Only one thing’s for sure right now: like people, no device is irreplaceable, and losing the Nexus is a real possibility, no matter how much we like to pretend it couldn’t happen.

What’s your take? Do you think Google could shut down the Nexus program in the close future?

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