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

Although the Google Play Edition HTCOne and Galaxy S4 handsets have already landed, I can't help but wonder if we really need an even more fragmented Android platform.
June 28, 2013
HTC One Google Edition

At first, I was very optimistic and pleased at the announcement of the Google Play Editions of the HTCOne 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 HTChandset 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 HTCto 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 HTCOne 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.

[quote qtext=”we will be working very closely with Samsung and HTCon future software updates for these devices and they will receive software updates shortly after a new version is released.” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

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?