Discontinued: A Look At Google Play Edition Phones
This week marked the official removal of yet another entry in the Google Play Edition (GPE) handset list. Starting around the middle of 2013, Google began offering a variety of Android devices running their pure Android experience. The devices were sold in the United States through the Playstore at the same price of their OEM skinned counterparts. This hasn’t been the first program Google envisioned to put out stock android devices into consumers and developers’ hands, and it also wouldn’t be the last.
The key difference with other programs is that the GPE hardware was not specifically designed for the task, but rather used the same design as OEM flagship phones or tablets, with manufacturers like Samsung and HTC providing a pure “Google Experience” without sticking their own alterations into the code. The devices would also get updates straight from Google, although the firmware would have to be provided by the manufacturers. Nevertheless, GPE phones saw some of the speediest updates seen in the Android world, as it was promised much like with the Nexus line-up. A big pro to the GPE phones is that the updates bypassed carriers, which are known to add their own bloat and tweaks which also delay the new software experience of each early Android upgrade.
The Nexus line-up and the GPE phones shared the Google-approved marketspace without much conflict, and the variety that the GPE phones offered was something that many consumers loved. Many people, for example, wanted the top-notch hardware found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 with the stock feel of pure Android rather than Samsung’s own Touchwiz. And some users do not enjoy or want to flash new custom ROMs on their phones for various reasons, a common one being that some optimizations made by OEMs for the particular hardware, like those for camera quality and battery endurance, can be lost. And while the S4 GPE did feature some camera differences, it performed quite better than any custom AOSP-based ROM could – because Samsung was in charge of software optimizations. It didn’t have the same amount of options for photoshooting, though, as it didn’t feature Samsung’s stock camera app. The HTC GPE phones also saw the addition of some of their regular counterparts features, too, which ensured a lesser loss in functionality than with other phones getting the stock Android treatment (be it from Google or from custom ROMs). In short, you had access to flagship hardware without the nuances or consequences of said flagship’s software, while also gaining some of the more useful optimizations and features that could be savaged. Sounds like a great deal, doesn’t it? It was.
Google has been removing GPE devices from their store in a couple of iterative batches this past year, starting in July of 2014. The first devices to stop being featured were the HTC One M7, the LG G Pad 8.3 (which was the first tablet to join the program), and the Sony Z Ultra. This left us with just the option of buying the HTC One M8, the Motorola Moto G, and the Samsung Galaxy S4. It is said that the devices never saw good sales, and at the time it was speculated that they were doing this to “make room” for more devices in the store. Many expected newer flagships (at the time) like the S5 to get a Google Play Edition version, but alas, we didn’t see that either – and now we are approaching the S6’s time turf.
So far there haven’t been cohesive explanations as to why the devices have been removed. We’ll talk a little more about that but let’s first have a quick recap of what we saw in the Google Play Edition store.
At Google I/O 2013, the GPE Galaxy S4 was announced as a special edition that would see release on June 26, through the Playstore, exclusively on the United States. The phone shipped with Stock Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean, and became the first Play Edition phone to see the light of day. It started the trend of devices featuring the same hardware as their flagship counterparts. This phone was a great way to set off the program, because the comprehensive de-bloating of Samsung’s phone and the simple elegance of Jelly Bean made for a very attractive user experience.
HTC One M7
This phone was announced on May 30, 2013, just two weeks after Google I/O, the GPE version of HTC’s One (M7) flagship was announced, and then subsequently released in June alongside the S4 GPE. It featured the same beautiful hardware, minus the Sense UI of the M7, and most importantly: the same top-notch sound from HTC’s BoomSound speakers. It did lose some features over the regular One, like BlinkFeed which was not too missed, and HTC Zoe or the glanceable info Sense UI brought with it. But it was met with strong approval from Android enthusiasts as it was an exciting new road for yet another OEM, one that would be walked further along than most others.
LG G Pad 8.3
LG’s G Pad GPE treatment was announced alongside the Z Ultra’s, and the tablet was made available on December 10 of 2013. It was priced at a modest $350, which was not a bad deal considering you were getting a screen over FHD (with 273 PPI, much higher than its Nexus competitor’s 213 PPI), a powerful quad-core Snapdragon 600 like the one found in the M7 (which had just been surpassed by the 800 at the time), 2 GB of RAM and a 4600 mAh Li-Po battery. The design lacked a premium feel to go with the neat internals, though, so it settled as plausible alternative for a tablet, but certainly not the best.
Sony Z Ultra
The behemoth of phablets was announced with the clarification that it was not an Xperia branded phone. It was priced at a steep $649, before seeing a price drop in April 29 of 2014, which lowered it to a more than reasonable $449. The phone was massive, with the same 6.4 inch screen as its Xperia cousin, with a FHD screen, 2 GB of RAM and the fabled Snapdragon 800, the best of 2014’s processors. The device had stellar performance, and the display (featuring Sony’s Triluminos and X-Reality engines) was said to be better than the shoddy ones found in the first iterations of the Z line-up. The battery life was surprisingly average given its 3050 mAh Li-Ion trooper, which is on the average side of smaller sized phablets, and that disappointed those used to the crazy endurance of other big size phones.
This addition didn’t make much sense, as the original Moto G already ran stock Android when this was released in January of 2014. It did have a couple of software additions, like Moto Assist or Moto Migrate, but other than that, there really wasn’t much of a point for this GPE version, other than maybe slightly faster software updates… something Motorola was already doing and still does today. Other than that, this phone was as good as its middle-gamut-revolutioner branded cousin. The Moto G was a personal favorite of 2013. The GPE variant was officially discontinued on January 7th.
HTC One M8
HTC’s excellent metal superphone was revealed to get a GPE variant on the very same day of the original’s release, and later that afternoon the listing went live on Google Play. Sense 6 UI was replaced by stock Android, but the phone was still able to utilize HTC’s dual camera features such as the DSLR-like focusing, and some other functionalities of the original M8 were exported as Google Play applications for GPE M8 users to download and enjoy. I would say that this last addition to the GPE family was the culmination of everything that made the division so great, and it’s good to see it standing still.
First we had the Android Dev Phones (ADP), which featured an unlocked bootloader for advanced developers to tinker with as much as they wanted. But the Dev Phone 1 (based on the HTC Dream) and Dev Phone 2 (based on the HTC Magic) didn’t really get too much notoriety and were never interpreted as mass-consumer releases (for they weren’t). They were discontinued and replaced by the Nexus line-up, which also started as a very developer-centric platform and has now became more of a staple for power users. The Nexus line stays strong, while the GPE phones seem to be heading the way of the Dev Phones.
While the Dev Phones didn’t serve much of a purpose with the Nexus line-up taking over, and providing better, more unique and focused hardware, the GPE serves a function neither of the developer-oriented phones did. The demand for OEM phones that don’t have the compromise of OEM software was not big, but I think was it was powerful within the small subsets. Androidanme said it best when they called it “the best idea that won’t sell”.
Google employed a business strategy with these phones that seems to follow the trend of many of their endeavors – it was halfway done:
The devices suffered from being sold off-contract in one of the few countries that has such an established contract model from their provider. Marked at full retail prices, they appealed to the minority that would actually buy a phone at their real market value. Grab that already small subset of consumers that are willing to pay top price for their electronics, and then reduce it further by hiding the line-up on the Google Playstore with virtually no advertising other than the enthusiasts’ word of mouth and the tech sites’ journalism – things that either don’t reach or don’t convince the mainstream phone user. And by putting the devices in the Play Store and not the shops, they are basically nonexistent in said mainstream phone users’ minds, as it is likely that most never even knew the Playstore also sold hardware.
Could it have been Android Silver?
Despite its reported death in September of 2014, Android Silver could have been one of the reasons as to why we saw an increasing decline in GPE phones. Android Silver was a project that was widely rumored about, yet never announced, involving a range of phones from manufacturers that would run Stock Android for yet another “Google Experience” offering. The Silver handsets would have been sold at stores and promoted through partnerships with american carriers like T-Mobile and Sprint. Android Silver could have been the death of Google’s other stock child, the Nexus line up. Many speculated this would be the case, and rumors and reports pointed towards this, but Dave Burke (head of the Nexus program at Google) stated that “the prospect of Silver doesn’t mean that Nexus is going away”. This could also be interpreted as a hint that Google was in fact working on a Silver program.
Such a program would have been very, very similar to the Google Play Edition one we have now – which leads me to think, would Google have kept both afloat? While this is just speculation, it would make sense for them to ditch their old deal with manufacturers in favor a stronger, more focused and further reaching agreement with both OEMs and carriers to expand the Android brand as far as it can get. But then the project was reported dead, all the loose ends left open and little clarification that was substantially founded was given.
If there was such a Silver program, and if it died in between the Google I/O where everyone expected it and the month of September of 2014, it would fit the narrative of devices being discontinued or no longer supported: keep in mind that these deals, the manufacturing, restocking and further distributing of smartphones and tablets all take a substantial amount of time. And if the program was still standing when 2014’s end was approaching, it’d make sense to see the possible decision of OEM’s not restocking their GPE variants, or not adding any new ones, take place nowadays (few months later) that we are seeing devices disappear with no further additions nor significant rumors of more coming.
While we might not hear the truth any time soon, Android enthusiasts tend to get saddened over the loss of even more great options to our line of devices. And Google’s stock offerings have always granted us tremendous user experiences – it is only logical that when they are coupled with the top hardware of manufacturers’ flagships, magic occurs. While we might no longer see GPE devices being added (let’s hope we do), who knows what Google might have in store for us. With the Dev Phone and the Nexus, and Android One gaining so much traction, it is clear that Google is proud of its vanilla OS. At the same time, they have been pushing diversity in the Android landscape with their new “be together, not the same” campaign which many interpret as a call to Android’s strength in the form of consumer choice provided by all the OEM offerings.
Nevertheless, today marks the day where just one Google Play Edition device remains available for purchase. Let’s just hope the M8 GPE has a little more life for users to experience what is probably the best GPE handset one could get.