commentary If Google really wants the Android ecosystem to thrive, it must do a better job of passing the Nexus mantle around among handset makers.
Samsung has been the primary beneficiary of Google's Nexus flagship device program for the past few years, having built the first phone with Android 2.3, or Gingerbread, in the Nexus S -- and the first phone with Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich, with the Galaxy Nexus. It's reportedly working on a successor Nexus phone with improved specifications.
But Google doesn't need another high-end Samsung-built Nexus phone.
Rather, the company would benefit, as would the entire Android community, from giving another handset manufacturer a shot at building one of its high-profile flagship phones. Having another strong player supporting Android can only be a good thing.
"I would think that it is in Google's best interest to strengthen the Android ecosystem overall and spread the Nexus contracts around," said Avi Greengart, who covers consumer tech products for Current Analysis.
Building a Nexus device brings several intangible benefits. The company gets the prestige and buzz of building Google's latest flagship smartphone, and gets it on the radar of any hard-core Android fan, as well as the media. It also gets first dibs on the latest version of the operating system, helpful for the development of other products.
Most importantly, the selection of a Nexus vendor is a direct acknowledgement of support by Google, giving notice that its chosen handset manufacturer is a major player in Android.
Google has told CNET senior writer Maggie Reardon that the company looks to partner with companies doing innovative things with their own products.
"We challenge all our partners that want to work with us on a Nexus product to push the envelope," said Patrick Brady, director of Android Partner Engineering for Google, in a Q&A with CNET.
Samsung has built an impressive portfolio of Android products and doesn't really need that kind of support anymore. It, alongside Apple, has managed to take more than its fair share of the handset industry's profits.
But isn't everyone tired of talking about Apple and Samsung? It's bad for consumers if only two companies dominate any business, with the only decision essentially a choice between an iPhone or Galaxy S. With many of the handset vendors struggling, you face the risk of seeing your options dwindle. It would be better for everyone if we had a couple of different options from companies with a little buzz behind them.
There are a number of companies that could stand to benefit from a Nexus device. While struggling to regain its momentum, HTC continues to make quality phones, as illustrated by the critically lauded One series. LG had been in talks to make a Nexus device and could use a shot in the arm. Likewise, Sony could use its own catalyst after introducing a number of lackluster devices.
While not struggling, Chinese upstarts Huawei and ZTE, which have both heavily invested in Android, could see their profiles rise with a Nexus phone.
There's also Motorola Mobility, which last had its shot with the first Android 3.0 -- or Honeycomb -- tablet, although it wasn't technically a Nexus device. Of course, given that Motorola is a unit of Google, there would likely be complaints if it got first crack at the latest Android update.
There are rumblings that Sony and LG will join Samsung in building the next wave of Nexus phones. While unconfirmed, I hope it turns out to be true, as it will give consumers a reason to be excited about Sony and LG again. Google and Sony declined to comment on the speculation. I've also contacted LGfor comment and will update the story once the company responds.
Despite the buzz that accompanies making a Nexus phone, it doesn't necessarily equate to financial success. While the hard-core community pleads for phones running a "stock" version of Android, they have never been huge blockbusters like the iPhone or Galaxy S III.
In fact, the Nexus One, the first Nexus device, which was made by HTC, was Google's attempt to sell phones directly to consumers and was a complete commercial failure. The follow-up Nexus S did marginally well and picked up carrier support from Sprint Nextel.
Samsung's attorneys have admitted that the Galaxy Nexus, which is offered by Verizon Wireless and Sprint, hasn't been a huge success.
"Without details on Nexus volume sales, it's hard to know how impactful the program actually is to each vendor," Greengart said.
Google did branch out when it decided to build its first official tablet in the Nexus 7. Rather than go with one of the major handset players, Google opted to go with Taiwanese vendor Asus, which made a name for itself in the tablet business with its unique and affordable line of Transformer tablets. Google likely won't talk about its sales until its next quarterly report -- if at all. But Tech-Thoughts.net believes Google will sell 3 million units this quarter and another 3 million to 5 million in the fourth quarter.
Asus has more experience with affordable tablets than many of the other traditional handset manufacturers, and Google was looking for something that was competitively priced. That immediately barred Samsung, which hasn't shown a desire to compete at the lower end in the tablet arena.
Perhaps Google's experience with Asus will, in turn, open its eyes to some of the other Android vendors when it considers another Nexus phone down the line.
Considering the issues that many of them are facing right now, they need all the help they can get.
Updated at 8:43 a.m. and 9:16 a.m. PT: to include speculation over possible Nexus phones from LG and Sony and to add responses from Google and Sony.