Google Nexus 5X | Photo Credit: Techstage, via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Nexus Flexes

Google’s Beautiful New Phones Deliver a Challenge to Android Ecosystem: Time to Clean Up This Act

The Android ecosystem is in a crisis that Google helped create — and two new Google phones are poised to be part of the solution..

By making the operating system open and free, the OS spawned a vital counterweight to Apple’s iOS, which threatened to be a Microsoft-like monopoly in mobile computing. Mobile device companies and their mobile telecom partners created countless customized flavors of Android, to differentiate their offerings and to cash in on the users. The ecosystem leapfrogged Apple in the sheer number of phones sold, but it also became a giant mess, and a grossly insecure one. While device makers and carriers claimed to care about their customers’ security, their actions, or rather inactions when it came to updating their devices, proved otherwise.

Although Android is freely customizable, and tinkered with constantly, Google has long offered its own flavor, marketed under the Nexus brand with devices developed closely with third party manufacturers. It’s had to play a delicate balancing act here, modeling best practices without becoming too much of an overlord to its OEM partners, or building a competing product that too far outstripped them.

Now the newest Nexus phones are on coming on the market, as promised in a September launch event. I’ve had a chance to play with the Nexus 6P “phablet” and Nexus 5X over the past two days. These are beautiful phones: lighter, slimmer, and better in every way. They run Google’s latest Android operating system, which is smooth, intuitive, and more secure. I’m planning to buy one.

The Nexus launch also strikes me as the capstone of recent Google initiatives that send the company’s plain but urgent message to the sprawling Android industry: “Come on, folks, let’s clean up our act.”

Are these phones the harbinger of a more coherent, consistent and secure end-user experience for Android? Don’t bet your house on it. But Google is delivering the message louder and clearer than ever. If it takes hold, the ramifications for competitors and consumers alike will be substantial.

Now, I’m not nearly smart enough to predict Google’s long-range strategy, given its increasingly far-flung empire and interests. Still, it’s reasonable to assume that the phones and other Google-branded hardware serve purposes beyond de-fragmenting Android.

This much is entirely clear: No matter what other purposes they serve, all devices running Google’s version of Android — whether under the Nexus brand or not — will keep feeding data into the global brain that knows more and more about everything, including you and me, and is the company’s beating heart. You will find this enthralling and creepy, in proportions that vary depending on how much you trust Google’s managers today and in the future.

It’s worth a closer look at the new phones to understand what they are, not just what they may represent. (At the late-September event where Google announced the new Nexus phones, it also launched a new version of its Chromecast TV streaming add-on; Chromecast Audio, which lets you play music from mobile devices on home speakers; and an upcoming Android-based tablet/laptop called the Pixel C.) Please note that what follows isn’t a comprehensive review of the phones, but rather some initial impressions in the context of broader ecosystems, and how some of these features exert renewed pressure on OEMs to play nice with the platform, and consumers.

Nexus phones and tablets (and its high-end Chromebook Pixel laptops) are more than flagships. They’ve been, for practical purposes, what tech folks call “reference platforms”: hardware that sets a standard by showing other manufacturers what the creator of the software platform, Google in this case, considers best practices. We’ve bought several along the way.

The first Google phone, before the company started calling its phones Nexus, was the best of the early Android devices, though its manual keyboard turned out not to be what most phone buyers wanted once on-screen keyboards became good enough. Over the years, Nexus has stood for excellent devices that showed off the best of the Android experience while giving a variety of manufacturing partners including Motorola, LG, and now Huawei an opportunity to show off their hardware prowess. (Note: This paragraph has been updated to reflect that the first Google phone, the G1, was not branded as a Nexus.)

Google Nexus 6P| Photo Credit: Techstage, via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

As the latest Google flagship devices, the Nexus 5X and 6P are terrific — not perfect, but as good as anything I’ve seen. If I wanted a phone, not a phablet, I’d be looking hard at the sleek 5X, which has 5.2-inch screen and almost all of the internal hardware features of its bigger sibling.

I’ve spent more time with the 6P, which was built by Huawei (LG builds the 5X), so I’ll focus on it here. The 6P improves, as it should, on the previous Nexus 6 phablet — lighter, less bulky, with better hardware in almost every respect — and the 32-gigabyte model is $250 cheaper. The aluminum body is elegant and smooth. A slightly protruding bar on the back holds the antennas and camera sensor. The vibrant 5.7-inch screen is smaller than the nearly 6-inch screen on the Nexus 6, but plenty big for just about any phablet fan. (You either like phablet-sized phones, or you don’t. I do.)

Both of the new phones come with the latest version of data/charging connectors: USB-C. It’s a great new standard, designed to be faster and more flexible than previous USB hardware, but until USB-C is ubiquitous you’ll have to remember to carry around the correct cables and/or adapters for older ones.

By all accounts, the latest camera in both phones, which has a 12.3-megapixel sensor, is vastly superior to earlier Nexus models. An independent tester rated it close to best-of-class in the entire mobile industry, where Apple’s iPhone cameras have pretty much ruled.

Software, as usual these days, is the key to any device, and this one is no exception. Many manufacturers can make elegant hardware, but without elegant software there’s not much point. Android 6 (“Marshmallow), the latest version, is pre-loaded on the new Nexus phones. In vital ways, it’s more than just an incremental update.

There are all kinds of nifty improvements, but for my money the ones that matter most are in the security category. First, the phone comes fully encrypted, matching an essential requirement these days that Apple has made part of its newer phones. (Android phones have had full encryption capability for some time, but always as an after-the-fact user option, not baked in as with the new Nexus phones running Marshmallow.)

Second, Google has at long last made it easier for users to restrict the gross invasions of privacy that have emerged with mobile apps. With Android 6, users can restrict the “permissions” that apps demand. This move starts to catch up to third-party, Android-based operating systems like Cyanogenmod, which I use on my current OnePlus One phone.

And as noted, Google’s recent moves to provide much more timely security updates are game-changers. After a particularly nasty security fiasco earlier this year, Google said it would make monthly security updates of the operating system, and several device makers promised to do likewise. Google can’t force other companies to update the devices they sell. Doing so is obviously in their long term best interests; and yet the best Google can do is guarantee to push updates to its own Nexus line in a timely way. It’s critical to Android’s health that OEMs follow suit. Samsung, among other phone makers, has vowed to send updates regularly, but I still remember buying a Samsung tablet a few years ago that never got an operating system upgrade at all. So anyone who wants to get automatic, timely security updates should be looking hard at the Nexus line. (For what it’s worth, I believe all sellers of mobile devices should be required by law to provide timely security updates for a minimum of two years after the device goes on the market.)

Let’s hope manufacturers and carriers will widely take this opportunity to stop being so negligent in updating their devices with the latest security fixes and operating system upgrades. Their maybe-we’ll-fix-this approach may have been designed to push customers to buy new devices. Whatever the motive, that game should be over, the sooner the better.

(For all that, remember one key part of Google’s business model. When it beefs up security, that means security from everyone but Google itself. You have to trust Google. I remain wary.)

Getting the cleanest version of Android itself is yet another reason to favor the Nexus. Early versions of Google’s Android weren’t as polished as the customized versions that some third parties provided. Today, the pure-Android version strikes me as the best of the “official” bunch. (Update: It’s also evolved in a key way. Google has pulled a lot of functionality out of the base OS and put it into apps that it regularly updates. This helps align the ecosystem, but also gives Google much tighter control than it had.)

There are signs that the other Android manufacturers are getting the message. Tech reviewers have noted what looks like a trend to de-junkify the customized operating systems. Whether this is due to customer demand or a realization that security patches can be much more difficult when you have to test them against non-standard Android software, it’s a welcome development.

I still prefer community-based operating systems like Cyanogenmod, at least for now, because they find ways to improve on Android while rejecting the bloatware/crapware that most major Android phone makers add to their systems. The community-developed operating systems also tend to be ultra-protective of users’ privacy — and they include Google among the threats (so do I, though I still use some of Google’s products). For people like me, the Nexus is still a good choice, because these are always among the first devices to be supported by the outside developers.

For all that, Google is in a tricky position. Like Microsoft in its heyday, selling hardware risks angering the companies that make and sell devices based on its operating system. The lower prices for the new Nexus phones aren’t the lowest you can find for high-end hardware, but they’re dramatically more competitive than the earlier Google phones. They also raise the question of how much profit, if any, Google can make on the hardware alone — or if that’s even a goal. If manufacturers decided to sell devices with clean Android installations, thereby avoiding the customization costs, surely they could undercut Nexus prices. But could they compete on quality — the combination of hardware and software that Apple has made so compelling?

Microsoft is now competing in a serious way with Windows computer makers. The Surface line of laptop/tablet hybrids is superb, if expensive. But clones of the Surface are already proliferating. (I’m delighted to see Microsoft innovating and genuinely competing again after years of monopoly and then semi-stagnation.)

So how serious can Google be about the Nexus line as a business, not just a reference platform? That continues to be an open question. Given the security-related turmoil in the Android market, this may the company’s best chance to make the brand a best-seller.

Even if the Nexus phones sell modestly, Android 6 is a compelling upgrade for manufacturers and their customers — and especially for Google. As a comprehensive Ars Technica review of the OS observes, Google has been making search — Google Search — more and more central to the Android experience in recent releases.

In Marshmallow, Google Search plugs itself into even more of the OS. A new feature called “Google Now on Tap” lets a user instantly send the entire contents of a screen to Google from anywhere in the OS just by long pressing the home button. The Voice Interaction API makes Google Search the primary voice interface for every app, so third-party developers can plug into the Google Search app’s voice recognition and offer their services through Google’s text-to-speech and speech recognition engines.

And that brings us back to one of Android’s core missions: feeding the giant global Google brain. Again depending on how you view Google’s power, this is a varying combination of astonishing, creepy and downright dangerous. Like many people who think about what Google does, I lean toward astonishing today, and dangerous tomorrow. If nothing else, the Nexus phones are part of the brain-feed.

Perhaps I’m over-thinking all of this. Google-watching is a combination of paying attention and mind-reading. I’m a lousy mind-reader, but the Nexus phones strike me as useful if not key moves in a long-term chess game.

Then again, to paraphrase something attributed to a smart guy from long ago: Sometimes a smartphone is just a smartphone.

Google Nexus 6P| Photo Credit: Techstage, via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0