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If Google cares about Android’s future, it needs to make its own smartphone

Google Smartphone

Since its inception, Google’s Nexus line has sought to provide users with a pure and unadulterated Android experience. With no third-party skins or bloatware to speak of, Nexus smartphones provide a welcome reprieve from having to sift through an endless selection of Android handsets from varying manufacturers.

Of course, Nexus branded smartphones aren’t made by Google. Rather, they’re manufactured by a revolving door of different handset manufacturers. Over the years, we’ve seen Nexus devices from the likes of HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola Mobility, and most recently, Huawei.

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The Nexus line has served Google well but it may be high-time for the search giant to take an even more active role in product development. About a week ago, we saw a report suggesting that Google is interested in designing their own mobile processors. More recently, The Information published a report claiming that Google is increasingly interested in developing a smartphone in-house.

While such an idea might seem a bit out of left-field at first glance, the rave reviews that have accompanied Microsoft’s first laptop — the Surface Book — demonstrate that if a company wants to truly compete at the highest end of the market, it needs to be as involved in the process as possible.

Not too long ago, Walt Mossberg of The Verge laid out a number of reasons detailing why Google needs to start making its own hardware.

Not surprisingly, the first argument Mossberg presents centers on the benefits of vertical integration.

First, increasingly, software and hardware are closely intertwined. A software platform is much better with purpose-built hardware. This is one of the major things that has led to Apple’s success and to Microsoft’s decision, after years of resistance, to go into the hardware business.

Because it combines both hardware and software expertise, Apple was able to beat Google and the Nexus by two years with fingerprint recognition. And, for the same reason, it now has a new feature, 3D Touch, which allows a phone’s screen to recognize pressure and take action based on it. The latter may turn out to be no big deal, but it may be big, and, in any case, it’s the kind of thing you can best try when you control both hardware and software.

The inability of Android manufacturers to swiftly come out with fingerprint recognition technology that could rival Apple’s implementation of TouchID serves to highlight the inherent advantages of vertical integration. Remember the Samsung Galaxy S5? It was the first major Android device to feature fingerprint recognition and its usability was ripped to shreds in a number of reviews.

Engadget’s 2014 review of the S5 reads in part:

I trained the GS5 to recognize both of my thumbs and my right index finger, since those are the three digits I use the most when waking up the phone. Over the course of several days, I made dozens of attempts with each finger and it only recognized me on the first try about half the time — and that’s a generous estimate. More often than not, I had to swipe my finger two or three times before it let me in; typing in a PIN code would’ve been more efficient. Worse, there were other times when the scanner wouldn’t recognize me at all, even as I adjusted my swipe speed, angle and finger pressure. And even when it works, there’s a small delay after you swipe before the phone accepts your print.

As for one-handed use, don’t even bother. It’s technically possible, but the odds of success are so low I have a better chance of seeing Narnia each time I open my closet.

That type of user experience is no good for anyone. Not only does it look bad for Samsung, it creates frustration for users, and more broadly, it tarnishes the Android brand as a whole. It’s one thing to add new software features, but as mobile devices become even more complex and house even more advanced technologies, there’s something to be said for having complete control over a device’s hardware and software.

Interestingly, Mossberg relays that a top Google executive he spoke to said that the company’s “close coordination with Nexus hardware makers accomplishes the same goal.”

Still, it wasn’t until the Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P hit stores last month that any device in the Nexus line featured a fingerprint sensor. Now the fingerprint sensor on the Nexus 6P is reportedly excellent, but why should Android users have to wait two years to get the same seamless functionality iPhone users have already been enjoying for more than 24 months?

Another interesting point Mossberg brings up is that it’s in Google’s best interest to control its own destiny. Samsung, for example, is finding it increasingly harder to compete with Apple at the high-end of the smartphone market. Consequently, it’s profits are dwindling, prompting one respected analyst to boldly claim that the company might be out of the smartphone business altogether in five years. That being the case, Mossberg writes that Google should invest in itself and not rely on third parties to get its products out and into the hands of consumers.

…Although Android as a platform dominates the world and dwarfs Apple’s iOS market share, Google has only a single hardware partner in Samsung which combines global reach, significant market share, and profitability. And Samsung’s sales and profitability have been faltering in recent quarters. A Google-made phone could be the solution to assuring that Android remains in the hands of a hardware maker with deep pockets and a stake in its success.

While the idea of Samsung dropping out of the smartphone market is a bit out there, Apple had to learn the hard way that when then chips are down, the only company you can truly rely on is your own. With the tech industry moving and evolving as fast as it does, it’s not such a terrible idea for Google to be more open about controlling more aspects of the Android experience, especially at the high-end. Again, a recent report alleges that the search giant is already exploring the idea of using Google-designed mobile processors in future products, similar to what Apple now does with its series of Ax chips.

Undoubtedly, a big downside to Google releasing its own mobile hardware is that it might alienate its current partners.

To this point, Mossberg writes:

Microsoft’s Surface hybrid tablets are the source of grumbling among its hardware partners. But such things can be managed, at least for a time, as Microsoft seems to be doing right now. That would be especially true if the Google hardware was limited and targeted to specific areas like hero phones and those for people in low-income countries.

It all sounds straightforward when phrased like that, but it stands to reason that the business calculus involved in making such a decision is far more complex. In fact, rumor has it that one of the reasons why Google opted to buy Motorola Mobility in the first place was out of a very-real fear (read: threat) that the company would start manufacturing Windows Phone devices. In other words, Google is well aware that a vibrant Android ecosystem is essential and would not take the prospect of upsetting its valued partners lightly.

At the end of the day, it still seems that Google has a lot more to gain than it does to lose by becoming more involved in smartphone development. The Nexus line has certainly done a decent thus far, but Google may very well need to up the ante if it wants to tilt the balance of Android sales towards more premium devices.

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large for over 15 years. A life long Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW. When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.