Last year I had to make a choice. Like everyone at some point in their life, I was at the end of a two-year run with a phone and was gearing up for my next big mobile purchase. I imagine for the average consumer, the choice of a new phone falls into two categories: A) horrifyingly complicated or B) surprisingly simple.
If you’re the least bit aware of what’s happening in the tech world, and not tied to Apple’s ecosystem, you know there are myriad choices all with their own individual pros and cons. If you haven’t a clue about the vast world of smartphones the choice, for many buyers, narrows to an iPhone or something with Galaxy in the name.
As a tech writer, I knew the variety of smartphones at my fingertips but my choice wasn’t even slightly complicated. Above all, I value quick software updates, because I am always itching to see what new ideas are coming to improve the OS. As an Android user, the idea of getting timely updates was near mythical and after spending four years with horrid updates from Verizon and HTC, I knew what I needed to do. Buy a Nexus.
I was lucky to come into the program when I did. The 6P was arguably the best Nexus ever, combining fantastic, premium hardware with the most refined version of Android, plus the line’s best ever camera. But I bought the 6P less on the promise of the device, and more on what being a member of the Nexus family meant.
No longer would I have to worry about being behind the times when it came to software innovation. I was a part of Google’s inner circle, I would be the first to see what the brilliant minds in Mountain View were doing with Android, where they planned to push the industry. That was my thought, at least, until October 4.
I understand the need to separate a new product from existing ones, and Google has every right to do whatever it can to entice users to buy the first-ever Pixel phone, including those with a Nexus. There is no denying, however, that Nexus owners have been relegated to second-class citizens with the release of Pixel.
It would be one thing if the new phones introduced a hardware improvement that could not, for obvious reasons, be ported over to existing devices. No one is going to give Google flak for not including Pixel’s “superior” camera in last year’s 6P, that would be lunacy. But so much of what makes the first phone #MadeByGoogle fascinating is on the software side.
The Pixel Launcher. Unlimited storage for photos at full resolution. Smart storage that moves old photos and video to the cloud when space is needed. Phone/Chat support. All new features coming to Pixel, but not to Nexus.
Some of the features, like the Pixel Launcher, are not a huge deal. Launchers can be mimicked, and have been for years by apps like Nova Launcher, which hordes of users prefer over stock Android. Others, like the unlimited storage and smart storage, could be implemented into the standard version of the OS and would be immensely helpful. The biggest sticking point of all, though, is the Google Assistant.
If it wanted to make everyone’s lives easier, wanted to show them artificial intelligence in your phone is the future, the company would push the technology to every corner of the smartphone industry. The argument against pushing the Assistant that far, or at least to every Android phone via the operating system, is the thing that has plagued the platform for years: fragmentation.
If the company did decide to package the Assistant with Android 7.1, most users wouldn’t see it for the better part of a year. That would mean a ton of work from Mountain View for only a small number of users reaping the benefits. So Google decided to avoid the fragmentation disaster and instead use the Assistant as a selling feature in its first smartphone.
That’s well and good, but fragmentation has never affected Nexuses. It’s one of the main points of the line. So why would it keep such an important feature from its core users?
You could wave it off as greed, forcing Nexus owners to invest in the new hardware if they want to continue to have the best of the best. Part of me, the Nexus owner part, knows that idea factored into the company’s thinking. Why wouldn’t it? As a monolith venturing into a new product sector for the first time, Google would want to give Pixel as much of an edge as possible.
That part of me feels slighted. Feels duped by the program, which no longer even exists. While I understand the thought process, I also know Google wouldn’t lose much by offering every software feature Pixel comes with to the small number of Nexus users not ready to upgrade. That makes me angry.
There’s a second part of me that understands the company’s differentiation between the two products. It saw the Nexus line as Android purified, unadulterated, untouched by custom skins. The Pixel line represents Google’s “opinion” on Android. Hence the custom launcher, the new name.
That’s a fair enough point, but it would deny the truth that the Nexus program was always Google’s version of Android. The line between “Stock Android” and “Google’s Android” never existed for me, and the version of the OS that shipped on Nexus devices each year was always deemed as Mountain View’s take on the platform. Now, suddenly, it isn’t. I signed up for the 6P because I wanted the company’s newest ideas. It has long been the mind behind Android, one with interesting concepts and an assured sense of design that led to the most sophisticated versions of the platform on the market.
The most recent Nexus phones, meaning those released within the last two years, will still get Android 7.1 by the end of 2016. It will start with a beta at the end of the month, after the Pixel phones have launched. That’s already a tough pill to swallow for users accustomed to receiving the latest version, not a beta, within weeks of its release.
On top of that, the Nexus version of 7.1 won’t come with a host of features exclusive to Pixel, including those mentioned above. The full list can be found here. Nexus users have been, for lack of a better term, dumped. I would have loved to see Google extend an offer to current owners, perhaps allowing them to upgrade to the new phones at a discount to make the transition easier. Or a promise that Nexus phones would get those Pixel features, just down the road. There is a possibility the features will make their way to the standard version of Android, but not for the foreseeable future and, I would guess, not at all if the hardware moves at a decent clip.
It’s clear this is a result of Google moving in a different direction, a move that was going to bring casualties no matter what. It’s a shame those casualties are some of the most loyal users in the market.
Some will point out that current Nexus owners could achieve many of the Pixel exclusive features by either running a custom launcher or rooting their device and installing a custom ROM. But they shouldn’t have to do that. They bought into Google’s ideas, they should get them without having to put in labor.
In 2014, Google launched its brilliant “Be Together. Not the Same.” ad campaign for Android. The campaign incorporated everything that is great about top-notch marketing from Mountain View. Individual ads could be cute, or smart, or heartfelt or all of the above. It was a subtle, or not-so-subtle, dig at Apple while also uniting the fragmented Android community. Launching at the same time as Android 5.0 Lollipop, it read like a bridge to those stranded on KitKat, reminding them it’s okay to be different, because we’re meant to be.
The “Be Together. Not the Same” motto for no longer feels like a statement of unification. It feels like a thin argument attempting to convince Nexus owners it’s fine they’re going to miss out on Pixel’s sharp new ideas.
“It’s okay,” the whispers come from Mountain View, “remember we’re not supposed to be the same, anyway.”