Google’s New Approach to Hardware Design Could Mean a New Relationship with Nexus Partners
Last week Sundar Pichai sent our little niche of the internet into a frenzy, prompting the churning out of article after article discussing his thoughts on what the software experience on the Nexus phones would be going forward.
While the software is a key aspect of the Nexus experience, users and enthusiasts also look to the platform, especially recently, as an icon in hardware. Aside a minor misstep with the Nexus 6, which may not have really been destined to be a Nexus, the Nexus 4, 5, 5X and 6P have all been strikingly good-looking phones that have had an increasing amount Google’s design instead of the manufacturers. Google may be destined to take this to the next level and soon. It is logical for us to speculate this because Sundar said so himself. During his interview last week he said “We could be more opinionated about the design of the phones”… What could this mean for the Nexus program in the years to come?
Setting the Groundwork
Currently Google works with OEM partners to create its Nexus phones and while Google has a direct impact to the outcome of the program itself, they do not have a total control over the device. Sundar stated that currently they have no plans to create their own manufactured and branded phone, but instead will still “work with OEMs to make phones”. While that does mean our sweet Pixel phone dreams are dead; it doesn’t mean Google wants to remain sitting on the sideline and not having almost total control over the devices that carry their brand. Just prior to the above comment Sundar stated that they would be “investing more effort into them (Nexus devices)” and “putting a lot more thought into our nexus devices going forward” meaning we will see Google directing Nexus devices further than they do today.
An interesting note is that he followed that statement by saying they have “categories beyond phones which we are doing like Google Home and Chromecast”. Currently, Google has total control over the Chromecast hardware and the upcoming Google Home. It also works with OEM partners to build out its OnHub devices, but it does so in a slightly different manner than they are handling Nexus. However, in almost every case outside of the Nexus program, Google’s hardware is Google’s hardware in look and feel regardless of the manufacturer. The conversation connection between Google-built and branded devices – like the upcoming Google Home and the Chromecast lineup – and Google taking further control of the Nexus program cannot be overlooked and may be the key to piecing together its future, 2016 and beyond.
The 3-Year Deal
Google has worked with various partners since 2010 for its Nexus phones. HTC started it off, followed by 2 Samsungs, 3 LG’s, and 1 Motorola and 1 Huawei. The Nexus program has been reported from various sources to be sporadic with Google coming to partners a few mere months before the planned release. Evidence of this constrained timetable can be seen in that a Nexus launch is typically accompanied by short supply, broken ordering systems and plagued by defective devices. These sorts of issues are most commonly due to a lack of quality control prior to launch due to a constrained timeline for release. This year though Google appears to be handling things a bit different, at least that is what the rumors would suggest. Compiling with leaked device strings and possible model numbers is the strong rumor that Google has signed onto a 3-year deal with HTC to manufacture Nexus devices. This is surprising is two manners as it is a shift in the Google philosophy of doing things at the last minute and typically not to its fullest potential, but also because of the issues HTC has been having in the market.
It’s no secret that HTC has failed in almost all its efforts recently in marketing and garnering interest in their phones to raise their market share and profitability. But not everything about HTC is so bleak: going all the way back to the HTC One M7 and on through the newest HTC 10, there is a special feeling that handling an HTC built device can exude. From the solid feel of the aluminum bodied and beautifully crafted phone to the amazing audio quality, HTC has its hardware on point. This is one undeniable fact and Google may be using that to its advantage. But how can they use this advantage, and how will this be different than any other Nexus product in the past?
It’s All Been Done Before
In early 2015 HTC first showed off what was the beginning of its manufacturing partnerships with various companies from markets outside the mobile phone space. The products revealed that HTC was not building unbranded hardware for other companies similar to Foxconn, and they weren’t producing their own products with a simple paid sponsorship, like Beats Audio on the One M7. No, instead they unveiled a partnership with health market leader Under Armour and gaming giant Valve. The Under Armour “Grip” and HTC Vive were the first offspring of these new partnerships, and by doing so they showed that they were willing to sell products under another company but still keeping its own HTC branding on the hardware. While the Grip morphed into the UA Band and Healthbox to varying success, the Vive went on to have a strong launch as a worthy competitor to the Oculus Rift even launching with a more-complete and immersive VR experience. To what extent HTC had control of the hardware for these devices is unknown, but what is known though, is in the case of the Vive it has been highly successful in its market. It’s long been thought that HTC needed to pivot to even stay alive amid declining revenue and profits and they may have found their niche in these rather complicated hardware partnerships.
So how does this all relate back to the Nexus program? As mentioned in the onset, Google has been building some of its own hardware with Google Home and the Chromecast. The latter has been widely praised for its design, simplicity, and ease of use. Unfortunately, based on what Sundar stated they will not be bringing that mindset to the Nexus program and step into manufacturing their own phones. However, all hope is not lost as we have seen Google’s willingness to work closely with hardware manufacturers through its pair of OnHub routers. These routers are built by TP-Link and Asus but designed and heavily influenced by Google. In fact to the typical user they would be hard pressed to not think it was a Google router, and that is exactly what Google wants. Similar to Under Armour and Valve, Google is leveraging the design chops and knowledge of reputable router manufacturers to further its own products and services. Unlike with the Nexus program, Google also seems to be taking a more hands-on approach from start to finish to ensure the device not only meets their needs but also fits in with the rest of the ecosystem Google is attempting to build with both its look and feel. The question is, will we see Google taking this approach with its 2016 HTC Nexus devices? And what about these Huawei rumors we have been hearing about?
At this point all we know for sure is that Google will take more control of the Nexus program, especially from the hardware aspect. We also have seen that Google is more than willing to work with manufacturing partners to make not just a joint product, like Nexus, but one that mirrors Google’s look and feel instead of the manufacturer’s. Likewise we also know from the Vive and UA Band that HTC is also open and is actively participating in this same sort of manufacturing relationship. So what about those Huawei rumors, how could they fit into the puzzle?
Device benchmarks and comments from executives at the company do point towards the possibility that we could see another Huawei-made Nexus, perhaps in the form of a more-powerful but largely-the-same 6P for 2016. Regardless as to if those rumors are true or not, it is actually a good thing if Google is indeed taking more creative control over the Nexus program. How so? We may be seeing an entirely new look and feel for the Nexus program going forward, one that may not have universal appeal, but that is where a device like the 6P can come into play. The 6P is one of the best-designed Nexus products to date, so bringing it back would make sense for those potential owners who aren’t excited by the new look and feel of Nexus phones but still want a new Nexus.
In the past, Nexus phones were Google but were also the OEM’s creation with features and design language reflecting them and not necessarily Google. But if Google’s current hardware lineup is any indication, those days might be coming to a fast close. It’s purely speculation at this point since we are still at least 3 months from a Nexus release (if history is retreaded, at least), but all signs are pointing to Google taking almost end to end control over the Nexus program. Evidence of this strong possibility can be seen by looking at its other branded hardware endeavors like the OnHub routers, the partner they are potentially choosing this year, and in combining this with Sundar’s comments quoted earlier.
This speculation would lead us to conclude that while these phones would be built by HTC, an OEM partner, there is no doubt Google will “invest more effort into them” and they would be Google’s Nexus phones by both look and feel and not HTC’s.