"The idea a year and a half ago was to do the Nexus One to try to move the phone platform hardware business forward. It clearly did. It was so successful, we didn't have to do a second one." So spoke Google CEO Eric Schmidt back in July 2010, confirming the search giant's hardware motivations with the HTC-made smartphone and downplaying any intention of a second-generation phone. Now, with the Samsung-made Google Nexus S (aka the Nexus Two or Samsung GT-i9020) confirmed as imminent in all but press release, the question is what Google hopes to achieve with their next self-branded device.
Back when the Nexus One was announced, the Android smartphone market was lagging. Manufacturers needed a push to take the next step in hardware, and the 1GHz Nexus One, with its high-res AMOLED display and handsome chassis gave them that motivation. It's a model that has continued to shape the segment in the almost twelve months since; Qualcomm's 1GHz Snapdragon is still pretty much a standard, and the 3.7-inch WVGA screen has become the mainstream.
As Schmidt said, the Nexus One was "so successful" there was no real need to motivate the hardware race again. Already the Verizon DROID 2 Global has picked up the next 1.2GHz processor, neatly maintaining the silicon race, and dualcore mobile CPUs are likely to show up in force in Android handsets come 2011. Instead, the bugbear in Android today is fragmentation.
Contrary to the well-structured iOS ecosystem, Android has been plagued with issues caused by different versions of the OS rolling out from different manufacturers. The accelerated pace of the platform is partly to blame in itself, as Google pushes out each improved iteration in response to developer-submitted code, its own market share aspirations and in the name of keeping Android competitive with iPhone, webOS and other platforms. For consumers, though, it can be a frustrating mixture of hardware and software, where updates are handled not by Google but by an uneasy combination of OEMs and carriers. The fall-out over the rumors of the Nexus S itself are a good example: many would-be buyers dismissed the handset out of hand, when it was revealed that Samsung was the most likely manufacturer. The company has earned a patchy reputation for poorly supporting its Android devices with subsequent updates, though to be fair it's by no means alone in that. The delays in Sony Ericsson's XPERIA range getting even Android 2.1 are evidence of that.
In contrast, Apple rules iOS updates with an iron grip - not difficult, you might say, when there's only one person manufacturing the phones - but Microsoft too has taken sole responsibility for their new smartphone platform. Windows Phone 7 updates will be pushed out by Microsoft themselves, despite various OEMs having stakes in putting out devices, as part of the company's drive to better control the overall ownership experience.
How does a centralized software management system sit with Android? At face value, not well; part of the company's ethos with Android has been its flexibility, with manufacturers free to either buy into the full Android experience - and get the coveted "with Google" branding and exclusive apps and Android Market access - or pick and choose their own custom installation instead. "The word 'control' is not such a strong word at Google" Schmidt said, going on to suggest that within three to five years we'll consume most of our information online "on devices that are live not static."
Google's frustration, then, may be that while manufacturers have caught on to the hardware race - realising that a fast CPU and gobfuls of storage make for useful selling points - they're not moving fast enough to keep pace with Google's long-term data strategy. The sluggish release of ROM updates has made those "live" devices "static", and when you're fighting for as much access to user data as possible, that's simply not good enough.
Will the "with Google" branding evolve alongside the Samsung Nexus S and become more stringent in its criteria? A commitment, perhaps, to leaving iterative updates in Google's hands, or buying into a more holistic ecosystem that progressively reduces the slice of the pie that's still languishing on earlier versions. With Froyo in the wild for some time now, the search giant can't be pleased that OEMs are still using Android 2.1 for devices only now hitting the market; that was never the idea for their fast-moving mobile strategy.
So what comes after the Nexus Two - should we expect the Nexus Three on the cards in another twelve months time? Or, as the persistently simmering rumors suggest, might a Google Nexus Tab be more realistic? As the Nexus S has shown us, Google isn't afraid to wade back into the hardware market when they've a point to prove or an example to set, even if - as with their failed plans to bypass carriers and solely sell devices direct - they've had their knuckles wrapped before.