What does the Nexus One update mean for the future of Android?

droidvsnexusThis Tuesday, Google announced that Nexus One users would get an over the air update. The announcement surprised everybody. What was supposed to be an update to fix the Nexus One’s 3G issue turned out to be much more important: it finally brought pinch-to-zoom functionality to an Android phone in the U.S. (I know HTC’s Sense has multi-touch, but it was added by HTC). Pinch-to-zoom has been one of the most requested features by Android users, dating back to the G1’s release. Nobody knows for sure why it took this long for Google to finally add pinch-to-zoom. Theories range from a conspiracy type backroom deal with Apple (if true might have ended with Jobs’ recent comments) to simply Andy Rubin, Android’s head honcho, not liking multi-touch gestures. Whatever the reason, pinch-to-zoom was turning into the equivalent of iPhone’s MMS support: Something so basic and obvious nobody could explain why it was taking so long to be implemented.

After the dust settled from the excitement, the obvious questions followed: Well, what about the rest of Android phones? Why is Google showing favoritism towards the Nexus One? Some people (PCWorld too) were quick to call out Google on its “evilness.”  I share their sentiment that Android is being split up by manufacturers and carriers and that Google must do their best to keep the platform together. However, I disagree with the notion that it’s Google’s fault that the Droid and others phones don’t have multi-touch or are stuck with 1.5 and 1.6. Every single Android phone out there must be updated by their respective manufacturers. They’re the ones that create and test new builds for their phones. In fact, apparently one of Google’s spokesperson contacted one of these journalists and said, “…it is not at Google’s sole discretion to issue software updates. Our partners, such as OEMs and operators, decide in the majority of cases when and what updates to issue to their customers.” So there you have it, straight from Google itself: There’s not much they can do with respect to updating these phones. Underneath this whole “who updates what” issue lies a much bigger issue with Android, and that’s how much control can Google have over the ecosystem without driving partners away – a topic worthy of a whole another article.

How is the Nexus One different?

Google’s plans with the online store and the Nexus One were not very clear January 5th when they announced it. Pundits (and myself) were quick to call it somewhat of a letdown: It was just a regular Android phone, the fastest mind you, but nothing groundbreaking. There was no mention of VoIP, no cheap data-only contract, no subsidy by Google. In fact, it was very similar to the Droid. Fast-forward to Tuesday, close to a month later, and the almost newly released smartphone gets its first significant OS update and the difference between the Nexus One and the rest of the Android pack becomes clear as water. Every Android enthusiast knows the nightmare that is waiting for your carrier and manufacturer to get together and push an OTA update to your phone. There’s no financial incentive for either of them to do so, hence the many months of lag time between Google’s release of the source code and the actual OTA update. It’s now that we see the genius behind Google’s approach; the Nexus One is Google’s answer to this whole ordeal: there’s no OEM to talk to, even though HTC builds it. Google has absolute control over its software. Also, there’s no carrier to coordinate the OTA update with since the phone is unlocked. Google can update the Nexus One as soon as it finishes the latest OS build; there is no six months of waiting for OEMs and carriers to agree whether it’s financially worthy to update each smartphone. Consequently, it’s unfair to point fingers at Google for trying to take control of something that OEMs and carriers have turned into a headache for consumers and developers; hopefully they’ll take the hints from Google and fix the updating process.

Another issue Google’s online store might fix in the future is fragmentation, though not as bad as some would want you to believe, it is starting to create some problems. It’ll be easier to tackle this issue before there are hundreds of different Android phones and ten different OS versions. Right now, Google’s online store is not very diverse; they only sell one phone for one carrier, the Nexus One for T-Mobile – a very high-end phone for the smallest U.S. carrier, hence the very low sales numbers. Now, bear with me for a second and imagine that in a few months Google learns from these “baby steps,” as Rubin called the Nexus One, and they start selling several different “superphones” from LG, Motorola, Samsung, etc., ranging from free (with contract) to high-end, different form factors, with support for most 3G bands; basically, anyone could find a phone that fits their needs and wallet. If OEMs and carriers don’t take notice that consumers want the latest Android version as soon as possible, they’ll eventually lose customers to Google’s online store as users realize that buying directly from Google guarantees up-to-date software. In theory, they could inundate the market with these “Google phones” that are always updated with the latest Android version, thus keeping the OS fragmentation at bay.

I can promise you that in the future you will see many more updates coming to the Nexus One several months before they make it to other Android smartphones, you’ll also see many people blame Google for pushing the Nexus One instead of the whole ecosystem, but after all it’s said and done, consumers will have the final vote, and it’s my belief that they’ll eventually realize that buying directly from Google is the only guarantee that they’ll always have the latest OS and features.

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