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Why it matters that Google might be producing its own phones

·Contributing Editor

Over six and a half years ago, Google’s attempt at selling its own idealized Android phone launched about as disastrously as possible. Its Nexus One failed to live up to pre-release hype, then Sprint and Verizon dropped plans to support it — and Google discontinued it six months later.

Things have undeniably improved for Google’s Nexus phones since then. The phones have gotten better and cheaper — I’ve been happy to spend my own money on a Nexus 4 and then a Nexus 5X.

And the last few Nexus phones have worked on all of the big four carriers. That means Google has finally fulfilled the hope that, as PCMag’s Sascha Segan originally put it, the Nexus would be “a phone directly, magically compatible with all U.S. carriers, but somehow without the restrictions and bindings that U.S. carriers place on devices.”

But the Nexus program — now set to have its next chapter opened at an event Tuesday morning in San Francisco — has yet to make much of a difference in most people’s experience of Google’s mobile operating system.

Nexus’ imprint

“The Nexus program hasn’t accomplished much for Google other than providing developers and a few enthusiasts with clean versions of Android,” said analyst Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research. “The sales numbers have always been low, and there’s no real evidence that they’ve put much pressure on [manufacturers] to up their game either, in part because they’ve had so little influence on the market.”

Another industry watcher argued that Google didn’t want to throw its weight around in the first place.

“Google kept on wanting to balance delivering the best Android experience with not upsetting its ecosystem partners,” said Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi. “This led to limiting the channel through which the phones were sold.”

That’s made Nexus phones a sort of techno-hipster’s choice: When somebody asks you if you’re using an iPhone, you can say “No, it’s a Nexus phone” and then struggle not to follow up by remarking “it’s pretty obscure, actually.”

Milanesi gives Google some credit for giving LG, the manufacturer of the Nexus 4, 5 and 5X, a chance to stand out and for making good Android phones more affordable — aside from the $649 Nexus 6, the past few models have all started at under $500, most well under that.

The Nexus line has fared worst at getting smartphone vendors to stop tarting up Android with their own user-interface tweaks and unnecessary bloatware. Milanesi noted that while Motorola and HTC “started to embrace a purer Android experience,” that probably had more to do with HTC wanting to cut development costs and Motorola being owned by Google at the time.

Meanwhile, the single biggest Android vendor, Samsung, continues to chrome up Google’s interface with its own tweaks. They may not be as pronounced as in the past, but they still confuse me when I have to switch between stock Android and Samsung Android.

Carrier financing versus cash upfront

The two new phones Google will supposedly announce at Tuesday’s event, a smaller “Pixel” model and a larger “Pixel XL” device, may come advertised with a #madebygoogle hashtag, but they’ll once again come from an established phone vendor — HTC, or so the rumors have it.

It’s unclear just how far these phones will or can depart from the current state of smartphone design. This is a maturing product category; incremental upgrades in camera quality and battery life may disappoint people hoping for an iPhone-esque leap into the future, but they also address real problems.

What would set the Pixel phones apart from their Nexus predecessors would be a more ambitious distribution effort that would make them more visible and appealing to customers.

One way to do that would be to enlist a carrier’s help. But if the cost of doing that is making Pixel phones exclusive to that firm — and, worse yet, loading them up with carrier-installed bloatware — that would go against a prime objective of the Nexus venture.

Another way would be to attack the perceived cost gap between direct-from-Google phones and carrier-sold hardware. That’s held back Nexus phones even as the end of carrier-subsidized pricing has erased the price penalty you once paid to bring your own phone.

“As long as it’s an online-only, full-price upfront purchase, that’s going to make it marginal,” Dawson commented.

Google already knows how to run a no-interest, installment-plan program: It offers one to subscribers of its Project Fi wireless service, which combines and resells Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. If we see something like that — making the phones not just made by Google, but also financed by it — then we’ll know Google has grown tired of seeing its vision of Android stuck at techno-hipster status.

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.