We keep saying that a year is a long time in technology and well, it seems to have taken exactly that long for Android’s flagship Nexus device to slip from uber desirable to also-ran. In case you think we are being too harsh, grab that time machine (the one in your mind or just search Google) and head back to the latter part of 2012, and you will be sure to see a lot of the tech punditry sighing ecstatically over the incredibly snazzy and yet affordable Nexus 4. Move it forward by a year and you will see similar sentiments about its successor – the “how did they make a full HD display look so compact” and still relatively affordable Nexus 5.
Now just fast forward to the present, with perhaps a small stap-over in late 2014, and check the mobile tech scene. Yes, there is a fair bit of chatter about the next Nexus and whether Google will be going the Apple way in having two models (a large and a small one), and whether both will be made by one company or two (LG and Huawei are the prime candidates), but the interest levels in the next Nexus are hardly comparable with those that surrounded the Nexus 4 and 5.
Nexus 4 and 5: the era of the affordable Android flagship
For most people, the Nexus 4 and 5 (and the first Nexus 7 tablet, which was also released around the same time) represented the high noon of the Nexus brand. Yes, there had been Nexus devices before (the Nexus One, the Galaxy Nexus, the Nexus S), but they had been ‘showcase’ devices that were supposed to highlight the latest and best of Android. They were powerfully specced, superb performers, often had distinct design…oh, and cost a packet. But then they were targeted at a niche – the geeks that wanted the latest version of Android on their devices as soon as possible, something that was a bit of a Nexus exclusive (Nexus devices received Android updates before other Android devices did – if the others ever did.)
Yes, there is this delightful myth that the Nexus range was always super affordable. Well, truth be told, for the initial part of its existence, it was definitely high-end. However, that changed when LG got involved in its manufacture. Yes, there were significant design changes. The Nexus 4 remains the best designed Nexus in the minds of many with its glitter back and rounded corners, and while the Nexus 5 was unabashedly plasticky, it was amazingly compact for a device that sported an almost 5.0-inch display. And both came with hardware that was top notch and comparable with the best in the Android business, although cameras, sound and battery remained issues.
But good though the design was, superb though the hardware was, what really made these two Nexus devices hugely popular as compared to their predecessors were their price tags. At a time when Android flagships were priced close to Rs 40,000, both the Nexus 4 and 5 were priced below Rs 30,000. In a manner of speaking, they became the standard bearers of the Android dream – great performance, hardware and design at relatively low prices. No, they did not set sales records but the Nexus 4 and 5 are perhaps the only devices in the Nexus range that appealed as much to the mainstream user (mainly because of their price and design, it must be confessed) as to the geek squad, which had been the primary target of the earlier Nexus range.
The Moto effect – good or bad?
So where on earth did it go pear-shaped? Well, we would say that it really began with the Motorola Mobility acquisition by Google in 2011. Although many pundits pointed out that the move was more for patents than for hardware production, a number of people expected that the move would pave the way for Google to come out with better devices running Android – expectations that were echoed when Microsoft would acquire Nokia a few years later, in context of Windows Phone (but that is another story). And although nothing seemed to be happening on that front initially – some were even surprised that LG was making the Nexus when Google had Motorola Mobility at its disposal (oh, the dreams of a Nexus RAZR!) – things changed when the Moto X, Moto G, and Moto E. The Moto X was not quite the commercial success that many had assumed it would be, but the Moto G and Moto E were runaway bestsellers, as they offered decent hardware at surprisingly low prices. No, in terms of hardware and design, they were no match for the Nexus range, but they did have something that was previously the preserve of the Nexus range.
Pure Android. With the assurance of updates.
And that, to a certain extent, took away perhaps the greatest strength of the Nexus – the fact that the Moto X got an Android update before the Nexus 5 did not help the latter’s cause at all. And when Motorola DID make a Nexus, it was the Nexus 6, which not only seemed a tad unwieldy (a 6.0-inch display can do that to the best of devices) but was also definitely on the expensive side, with a price vicinity of the Samsung Galaxy S5 when it was launched. So suddenly, the Nexus was back to being a niche device with one of its core strengths gone – that of exclusive Android updates.
What’s more, a number of brands were coming up with Google Play editions of their flagships, which ran pure Android, with no UI bloatware. Pure Android was no longer a Nexus preserve.
Android goes backstage
Meanwhile, Android itself did not have the best of times in the period that passed between the arrival of KitKat (4.4) and Lollipop (5.0). It was a period that saw other variations of the OS, most notably Xiaomi’s MIUI and Cyanogen grab centrestage, thanks to their appearance on very high profile and popular devices like the Mi 3 and the OnePlus One. As one of the MIUI team told us, “We want people to be asking about the next version of MIUI, rather than Android.” And well, it did seem to succeed, not least because of Android’s fragmentation which saw updates to many devices come at a speed that made ants seem like Ferraris at Imola. Google’s attempts to deliver regular Android updates to a new range of affordable devices – the Android One initiative – also took some sheen off the Nexus’ mantle of being the device that got the latest Android first (the Android One initiative did not quite work out as expected but this is not really the place to discuss it).
Suddenly, one of the most popular questions at media launches of Android devices: “So when will this device be updated to the latest version of Android” was not being asked as frequently as it once was. And no, even ‘pure Android’ suddenly did not seem as big a deal as it once was – the YU Yunique got released with it and not too many noticed. If anything, a query at the event summed up the concern about Android: “When will YU Yunique get Cyanogen 12.1 update OTA?”
All of which brings us to the current day, where we are waiting for the next Nexus device with it must be confessed, less than bated breath. And it is relative lack of interest that makes us wonder if the Nexus is perhaps losing its relevance. Having the latest version of Android on a device is no longer the big deal it was two years ago and well, the “super hardware at an affordable price” position has been usurped by the likes of the Mi 3, the Zenfone 2, the OnePlus 2 and the Meizu MX5. In short, it is no longer difficult to get a phone with great hardware and good design at a surprisingly low price and the software on the phone has got independent of Android (even though it is based on it) to the extent that users are more concerned about updates to it rather than core Android.
In short, the core strengths of the Nexus – great hardware, latest Android, innovative design – are no longer as important as they once were, simply because other players have them. And at much more affordable prices. Let’s face it, OnePlus and Xiaomi update and improve software more often than Google tweaks Android. Even otherwise, Motorola has you covered with decently specced yet stock android on Moto X (Play/Pure/Style).
In this world, what can a Nexus bring to the table that is unique? We will find out shortly, but if all we get is another spec sheet and a new Android version that seems a marginal update, that rustling sound you hear might be that of the curtain dropping gently on the Nexus era.