The end of the Nexus era: What does it mean?
In case you’ve been living “off the grid,” Google’s new hardware division took the wraps off of
this year’s Nexus lineup its brand new Pixel lineup among other things in an October 4, 2016 press event. One thing we didn’t hear anything about is any new generation of Nexus hardware, and there’s a reason for that. As Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer explained when Bloomberg directly asked if Google was killing the Nexus program,
I don’t want to close a door completely, but there is no plan right now to do more Nexus devices.
While numerous media outlets tout the Pixel lineup as the unofficial successor to the Nexus program, here are some reasons why this is not the case:
- With a new Nexus comes a new Android release pushed to AOSP (the Android Open Source Project, an online repository of Android’s underlying source code). While the Pixel lineup launches with Android 7.1 Nougat, Nexus owners will at best get a developer preview “before the end of 2016” and a full release likely sometime after the 2017 Super Bowl.
- The Nexus lineup features stock Android with no manufacturer-exclusive features while the Pixel phones already come with features that won’t be available anytime soon and aren’t part of stock Android. These includes things such as live-chat support with screen sharing right from within the OS, Google Assistant being baked into the system itself (rather than being limited to Allo) and the new Pixel Launcher.
- With a few notable exceptions (such as Verizon’s Galaxy Nexus and all variants of the Nexus 6), Nexus devices tend to feature relatively top-shelf specs (current-generation processor and display technology for example) at an affordable price. By contrast, the Pixel phones are priced on par with the iPhone – the entry-level 32GB Pixel costs $649, and the 32GB XL will set you back $769 for an extra half-inch of display size and a bigger battery.
- Nexus devices have unlockable bootloaders, even the carrier variants. Pixel phones sold by Verizon, on the other hand, won’t allow their bootloaders to be unlocked. It remains to be seen whether the carrier-agnostic ones sold directly by Google or its retail partners will feature unlockable bootloaders.
- Nexus devices feature branding from whichever manufacturer Google used to make them, while HTC didn’t get the same privilege with the Pixel phones.
- Nexus devices are usually a variant of the manufacturer’s current-year flagship (for example the Nexus 5 was basically an LG G2 without any LG-exclusive features). As Android engineer David Burke explained to Bloomberg, Google’s contribution only comes in when the device is “90% finished”. Pixel phones, on the other hand, are completely designed by Google, even to the point of some Google-engineered tweaks to the Snapdragon 821 powering them.
- Perhaps most importantly, the Pixel-exclusive OS-level enhancements are proprietary while those on Nexus devices are open-source with the code available in AOSP.
What this means for Android/Nexus enthusiasts is that there is no current flagship phone running stock Android as we know it – much of what they experience in the Pixel phones are exclusive to those devices, just as TouchWiz features are exclusive to Samsung and Sense features exclusive to HTC (and so on…). Many won’t really notice or care because most of the interface looks just like stock Android (with a few minor exceptions). Even if one gets a Pixel phone and can unlock the bootloader, custom ROMs won’t be available until after Android 7.1 is pushed to AOSP, and they’ll lack the features that really set the Pixel apart to begin with.
Unfortunately, enthusiasts are a tiny sliver of the Android pie, and they’re not the audience Google is targeting with its Pixel phones. Google is trying to challenge Apple’s iPhone while giving its users something closer to stock Android than TouchWiz, Sense, LG’s Optimus UX, MIUI or other manufacturer skins. Nevertheless, the Pixel and Pixel XL have their own skin, a Google skin sitting atop Android 7.1.
Everyday users will barely even notice that Google’s Pixel skin isn’t part of the stock Android experience. They won’t care that it’s proprietary and not open-sourced. It won’t matter whether the bootloader can be unlocked or that HTC made it or that it doesn’t have Nexus branding.
While the price might be a sore point, it won’t be more of one than it is for Samsung’s Galaxy S7 or Note 7, LG’s G5 or Lenovo’s Moto Z. It’ll just be a “Google phone” with a cool launcher, a good camera, Daydream VR capability and live support with screen sharing. If anything, many everyday users will probably trade in their Samsung, LG, HTC, Sony and Moto flagships because none of them offer anything like the Pixel phone’s top features.