Google has undoubtedly dominated the smartphone ecosystem with the Android operating system. But all this while, it has had to rely on a number of phone makers for the hardware to run the Android software. In the meantime, Apple retained complete control over both the software as well as the hardware bits. But that may change, with Google expected to release its own line-up of phones later this year. And do not confuse this with the Nexus line-up, which may or may not exist in the future. This time, Google intends to be in full control of the hardware aspect as well.
According to a report in The Telegraph, Google is trying hard to compete with the Apple iPhone, and is foraying into the hardware side of things—and the new phone will be released before the end of the year. To understand Google’s move, it is important to delve a bit into the past.
Android struggles with fragmentation
Google at crossroads with Android security
It is without doubt that the Apple iPhone became a success because the Cupertino company always had tight and uncompromising control over both the device’s hardware and software. This made it easier to optimize the user experience further. According to the numbers shared by Apple in February 2016, as many as 77% of active iOS devices (iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch) were running the latest iOS 9 operating system—in an ecosystem which still has devices as old as the iPhone 4, which has been around since 2010.
Contrast this with Google’s struggles—inability to push the latest version of Android to most users’ existing phones, security vulnerabilities remaining unpatched and specific software customizations that OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) make on Android phones they sell. As per the latest numbers by the company, only 10% of Android phones globally are running the latest Android Marshmallow operating system, while 31.6% are still stuck on Android KitKat, which was released in 2013 (as of September 2015, there were 1.4 billion Android phones and tablets globally). It is this sort of fragmentation that spoils user experience. Then there is the issue of customization that phone makers tend to wrap around Android on their phones—HTC has the Sense UI, Samsung has the Touchwiz, and so on. What this means is any laxity in optimizing the additional software layer would result in less than perfect performance, which so often is the case even with powerful flagship Android phones. The third big problem for Google is security. Every time a security vulnerability is detected in the software, Google releases a patch to fix it. But the chain of command means once Google releases a new piece of software, it needs to go to the phone makers first, who then spend time in ensuring it works with their own software and apps. More often than not, this takes far too long and everyone in the chain loses interest.
By making its own phone, Google will be able to bypass all these challenges, the biggest being security. At the World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC), 2016, Apple security engineer Ivan Krstić talked about the “Stagefright" vulnerability discovered in Android devices last year, “Google patched this bug very quickly, but it doesn’t matter, because most of their users don’t have the fix. And a fix that is not installed doesn’t do anyone any good." This is where owning the hardware components also comes in handy, as Apple does, by sometimes deploying certain security measures in the chips themselves.
This isn’t the first time Google is considering a foray into the hardware side of things. The recent Chromebooks laptops and the OnHub Internet of Things router are high-profile examples. Some recent hiring at Google also indicates that making a phone is one of their top priorities. In April this year, Google appointed former Motorola president Rick Osterloh to run its own hardware division, with the idea of bringing products such as Nexus phones, Chromecast, OnHub, among others, under one umbrella.
But what happens to the Nexus line-up of phones? One thing is pretty certain—two new Nexus phones are coming this year, just like 2015. Apparently HTC is making one, which is codenamed ‘Sailfish’, and it is expected that Huawei will make the other, following up on the Nexus 6P from 2015. Till now, Nexus was Google’s release as far as a “pure" Android experience was concerned. But only just that.
Also Read: Android N: The ‘N’ext big change
It seems as though Google wants to compete head-on with Apple and its premium iPhone. Google might just let the rest of the Android phone OEMs carry on with whatever they are doing to cater to the more price sensitive demographics of the market. But it will take on the iPhone with its own premium Android phone.