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Google is Regaining Control of Android, Not Losing Control [Opinion]

There has been a lot of speculation surrounding Google’s purchase of Motorola and the rumor that Google will partner with five manufacturers for the Nexus project. There seem to be signs that things are changing around the way Google controls Android. Google needs the phone manufacturers and the carriers to ensure that handsets get into consumers’ hands, but the tug of war between OS vendor, OEM, and carrier hasn’t been pretty. 

In the past I have argued that Google should block services from carrier branded Nexus devices to assert their control and that Google should use Motorola to control its own Android devices instead of relying on manufacturers to assert control over Android. Some have argued that Google’s purchase of Motorola probably got other OEMs worried that Motorola would be favored, hence the new rumored Nexus deal to appease manufacturers. Dan Frommer argued that Google might offer three versions of Android: Nexus (stock, Google controlled), Motorola (Google hardware and software with special Motorola-only features from Google and Motorola), and OEM (Android as most humans know it with carrier branding and skins). This sort of move, however, might push manufacturers and carriers to team up and use a forked version of Android (especially now that Google has agreed to keep Android open and free for five years), which would mean that Google had lost complete control of Android. In fact, because of the tensions between Google, OEMs, and carriers, Charlie Kindel (former Microsoft employee of 21 years and general manager of the Windows Phone Developer Program) believes that Google has lost control of Android and will instead begin pursuing the Play brand instead of Android.

Kindel offers four options for Google to pursue to regain control of Android: investing in the Nexus brand, pushing OEMs to upgrade their devices, block Google services from devices that don’t meet Google’s requirements, or switching to a closed source model of Android. Kindel believes that investing in the Nexus brand would be good for consumers, but probably wouldn’t result in more sales than branded and skinned devices. Google can try to demand that OEMs upgrade their devices to the latest version of Android, but that’s easier said than done. Google can’t simply block Google services because there are too many alternatives. Google had the opportunity to switch to a closed source model of Android before the Motorola deal closed, but even if they had, ICS is already out in the world for anyone to take for free and fork.

In short, Kindel doesn’t see how Google can control Android without upsetting manufacturers. What Kindel couldn’t forsee was Google offering the Nexus program to multiple manufacturers. Google’s main concern isn’t that manufacturers are skinning Android and making all sorts of random devices. Google’s concern is that Android needs to be updated everywhere quickly to ensure that apps are using the latest APIs and to minimize security concerns. Manufacturers are beginning to scale back this year, having realized that a clear product brand and fewer devices will sell better. Samsung’s Galaxy brand has served it well, so HTC is trying again with the One series. Even more importantly, manufacturers like Samsung are pushing back against the carriers this time by making every US carrier call the Galaxy S III by its maiden name, not some carrier specific name.

Google realizes that it needs to choose its battles wisely. While Google may have a very specific vision for what Android should look like, it can’t get that vision out there without the OEMs and the carriers. OEMs don’t want to make stock devices because they want to differentiate themselves and because carriers want special devices. But what happens if Google gives the OEMs something the carriers can’t offer? If Google gives more manufacturers access to the newest version of Android sooner, manufacturers can update their devices faster as market pressure pushes them to make fewer devices. Google wants to shift power away from the carriers towards Google and the OEMs.

In this three way tug-of-war, Google needed an ally. Google thought they were making friends with the carriers, but got burned with more carrier specific devices (which slows updates) and delays from the carriers on Google’s own device. Because of carrier’s push for power, Google is shifting control back to themselves and OEMs. If OEMs have the latest version of Android faster then they can update their devices faster. They’ll still have to wait for carrier approval, but that will be the biggest delay. Google also gets the opportunity to expand its version of Android with more stock devices that they can sell directly to consumers in the Play store.

Google and the manufacturers need power to shift in their direction. The delays in the Galaxy Nexus getting updating prove that. Kindel believes that Google has lost control of Android, but I really think they’re regaining it by shifting power towards themselves and OEMs. As I said before, the carriers need Google and the manufacturers, not the other way around. The launch of the Galaxy S III under one name on all major carriers signals that need. The carriers know that people want those devices, so they want to ensure they keep subscribers. As the cost of unlocked phones continues to drop, leaving a contract is becoming much easier. Google wants to use that to their advantage with their own fleet of Nexus devices sold directly to consumers. By partnering with manufacturers to ensure that they get what they need, Google is taking back control of Android.

  • Very well written, thank you.

  • I dont think were going to see five cell phones but mb1 cell phone, that home box, laptop, tablet, who knows but its not going to be 5 phomnes imo

  • This article is hard to understand, poorly written.

  • lightlong

    Verizon will always have the final word when it comes to updates for CDMA phones. I will never buy another device that includes CDMA tech.

  • dunkler

    This reminds me of battles between recording artists and record labels; they interfere with the process, but they have the funds and capacity to get the product to more people. the same goes for television and probably other mediums I haven’t thought of.

  • fastboot oem unlock

  • uclaaereng

    I have not been under contract since 2002 (far easier with GSM than CDMA) and have found that at least for me it is the best way to go.

    When Google released the Nexus ONE, it was the first time that I was able to purchased an unlocked handset with a warranty still in tact. Most handsets prior to the Nexus ONE were imported from elsewhere and came with “grey” status, thus the warranty was voided.

    I am beyond happy that Google started selling the Galaxy Nexus unlocked on the PLAY storefront and I pray that they continues to sell unlocked handsets directly from the PLAY store front and not end the test like they did with the Nexus ONE.

    I agree with the author, Google has to have control and the carrier route has not exactly worked as planned (but honestly did they believe it could?) and expecting the manufacturers to update their handsets multiple times (is asking a lot as development almost stops once the phone hits the shelves) so what else is left? That as the author points out is selling phones directly under their control where they can update it as they like without the added bureaucracy of the carrier’s oversight and the added burden of ensuring their the latest iteration of Android plays nicely with a manufacturer’s skin.

    To me, owning a NEXUS device is more that just the geek factor, I know that my phone will be up to date and supported long after the carrier sold device has hit EOL and that makes the slightly higher price point and the lack of a subsidy all the more worth it.

  • beez1717

    I personally think that Google has lost control of android and so they are forced to have a nexus phone. You shouldn’t need a nexus phone. You should get a phone which when on android works and will give a good user experience, and upgrades.

  • LionStone

    Miss that audio file…where’d it go?

    • I didn’t have time to record anything this week. Maybe next week.

  • ddevito

    Five “Nexus” Manufacturers. No. This is simpler than that. It’s Google giving PURE Android to OEMs. Moving forward Google controls 100% of these “pure” devices.

    The others will be skinned imitations as they are now and won’t be “official” for stats to be counted. Fragmentation fixed (sort of). I called this a year ago and it’s happening, it’s Google’s only way to “fix” the problem (although to many of us it never was to begin with).

    Good times. Good article. Cheers!!

  • NorCalGuy

    As great as this all sounds Google keeps making android better but a large majority of the phones currently in use are phones that will never be upgraded for any number of reasons, if its a vz phone then they wont be receiving an update because they are not a lte phone which is how vz wants to be by the end of 2013. Also the continual need for more and more ram in phones is a major killer to the update process, its like every 6 months they require more ram for the upcoming updates but the problem is people are locked down for 2 years and as long as vz att and the other guys hold the 2 year key there is nothing Google can do.

    • technology developed nothing new….and what ones wont nbe upgraded !!@

  • Jeff “BIG RED”

    Because they are getting rid of the unlimited data package all together and I only pay $9.99 for each phone. Why wouldn’t I pay full price for devices? I save $720 a year…. I hope Ron is rights and that BIG cry baby carriers will lose control or have less control over Android OS

    • I’m in the same boat as you. However, I had a corporate discount as well so I’d lose my 5-lines of unlimited data for $45/month. I sure as hell have no problem buying a new phone off contract to keep this discount.

  • dsass600

    Google should make it that updates to phones do not have to go through the carrier. I hate to say it, but i wish google/ manufacturers would update their phones like apple does. Non dependent on carrier.

    • Jake

      For that to happen you need more power over the carrier or be selling a device off contract unbranded by carrier. Samsung seems to be getting there on the power part. Google is working the off contract unbranded stuffs with the play store.

      • Larizard

        Exactly. Just like Apple.

        • Noyfb

          When apple releases it first 4g phone this year, they too will have too wait for verizon to sign off on its updates as well, because of verizon’s control of its “private” lte network, which they aren’t wanting to give up its security over.

        • noyfb

          Apple will have to wait for verizon to aprove its updates to their 4g phones when they come out later this year too. Verizon controls its lte network and will not give software makers the key to their lte network because it’s their own proprietary network.

  • FortitudineVincimus

    Nexus.. Pure Google.. ha what an over hyped laugh – just ask current Nexus owners who just now – 6 months later – got ICS while others that are not “the pure Google experience” were already using it.

    • That was only because Verizon goofed up the GNex. {{-_-}}

    • once Google sells the Nexus themselves, it will be pure Google.

    • Jeff Tycz

      oh so the G-Nex didn’t launch with ICS?? thats news to me

    • Boblank84

      what nexus are you referring to? The gnex was shipped w/ ics, and i believe the s got it before the gnex was shipped….

    • guest

      lol, thats the least accurate comment i have read in a while. Good job.

  • First, I think the title of this article should be “Google is TRYING to regain control of Android …” because there’s no sign that Google has already regained control.

    Secondly, while I love the idea of having multiple Nexus from different manufacturers (I was among the first group of Android fans to ask for something like that back in last year), I am beginning to see the shortcoming of the Nexus brand — its impact in the consumer space is next to nothing, and Google has no one else to blame besides themselves. There’s almost NO real effort in marketing the Nexus brand. Just look at the Galaxy Nexus. Besides some random short commercials aired here and there, Google nor Verizon/Sprint did anything meaningful to educate non-hardcore fans that it exists. The fact that Verizon sold more RAZR than the Galaxy Nexus proved that you don’t need a superior product to sell more. So, unless Google changes its mind and starts promoting the Nexus brand, I don’t see how selling Nexus phones/tablets in its online store will make a large impact.

    Thirdly, as noticed in the latest development of the HTC and Samsung flagships, it’s pretty clear that at some points, there will be huge conflicts b/w the OEMs and Google. Neither HTC nor Samsung had hidden their desires to enter the content distribution business. They want their customers to use their own services to listen to music, to watch video, NOT Google’s. Hell, if they can successfully launch an app store, they probably wouldn’t want to include the Google Play Store neither. Android is free, without making profits from the content sales, Google will lose a large chunk of money making channel from Android. IMO, Google should start convincing the OEMs not to waste their effort and money. Instead, Google should just share profits made from selling content/app with the OEMs when their products are being used to make a purchase. It’s still early, and it will take a lot of money for the OEMs to develop their own offerings, there is a chance Google can convince the OEMs not to go down this path.

    • Regaining is in the present participle, meaning it’s in process right now. If I had said Google regained, then you’d have an argument.

      As for the failure of the Galaxy Nexus in the market, you can pin that blame squarely on Verizon. The reason Verizon sold more RAZRs than Galaxy Nexus devices is because of the massive marketing campaign and push from salesmen behind the RAZR. Like it or not, carriers have a ton of power in what devices sell from their own advertising and what devices they choose to push in stores, phones, and online. The RAZR received it and the Gnex didn’t. Google put up their own commercials (a rarity), but they needed Verizon’s backing.

      Google doesn’t make much money from content, they make it in ads. Google doesn’t care if Samsung or HTC make their own media hubs because most people don’t use them and that’s not how any of the companies in question make money primarily. That said, OEMs want to stick with Google services, including the Play store, because it offers the best solution for their customers. The Amazon Marketplace is still a distant competitor.

  • Jake

    To all those wondering how Google does multi-network carrier free open devices, the answer is coming by year end.


    This should make for a device that can get on LTE on every carrier that will have it. They can already make CDMA/GSM capable devices fine and the only real difficulty has been CDMA carrier support of nonmarketed devices on their network. As we move to the LTE world though both Sprint and Verizon are going to loose this control of what device you put on their network as they will not be authenticating your device with the SIM rather than the device serial.

    Technically VZW already allows open nonVZW marketed devices on their CDMA network as you can see here http://opennetwork.verizonwireless.com/. The problem has been that consumer variety devices haven’t ever gone through that cert as VZW probably essentially strong arms/blackmails the OEM who want VZW to market their devices into not offering open versions through that program.

  • warispeace84

    We love stock devices and latest updates, but we also immediately root it and upload a custom rom. A majority of the people who buy android devices couldn’t give a crap about updates or latest version, all they want is a stable device that works as advertised. I’ve never heard a friend or family member question me on will their device get ice cream sandwich.

    • Right, but the issue is that Google wants developers on the latest APIs, which are only available on the latest version of the OS. More importantly, Google needs to be able to push security updates out to users quickly (remember the text message bug that sent a text to the wrong recipient?).

  • New_Guy

    In total agreement. Well put together.

  • Jason Huff

    Nice opinion piece. One thing that wasn’t mentioned that will be affecting my next smartphone purchase is Verizon’s decision to require all new contracts to move to tiered data. Now that I have to purchase a phone at full retail to keep my unlimited data anyway, I’m planning on purchasing one of the next Nexus’s from the Play store. Plus it will be nice to sidestep the carrier as much as possible.

    • MikeCiggy

      The play store devices don’t have LTE radio’s. Yet. We can hope though.

      • Jason Huff

        True. I was assuming that LTE radios would be in the next Nexus no matter the carrier. And CDMA. I hope.

  • romma

    Nice opinion Ron. I like the idea that Google purchased Motorola Mobility. It gives us something to fall back on if the OEM’s ever drop Android. Now they just need to open them thar Bootloaders!

    • RedPandaAlex

      I like the idea that other OEMs can do whatever they want but that Google can tell at least ONE OEM what to do.

  • Completely agree with you, Ron!

  • Tony Allen

    I really wish it was plausible to have Google with it’s own cellular network piggy-backing off of it’s fiber network for calls/sms/data.

    Get your phone through them, service through them, and support through them. Say FUCK all to the carriers.

    • sgtguthrie

      It is plausible! They could buy or start an MVNO! I wish they would 😉

  • bakdroid

    Do you have any clue who Google is? Google has stated more than once that they developed android to be used and modified by ALL! Not locked down by them and no closed code. If OEMs or carriers want to do things to it, they have the power to do so (this includes locking parts of it off or down). Just continue to use android and keep reinvesting into it, that is all Google cares about so they can continue their ad targeting. Which is exactly why it is FREE!

    The problem with the GNex delay is because of CDMA. It has nothing to do with anything but that (besides Verizon being douches). CDMA has proprietary code that the carrier must provide to allow the device to work on said network. GSM is open and free, which is exactly why the international GNex had no problems getting updates. Verizon is playing dangerous games with software updates right now and it is truly pissing people off. Why else does every other carrier in the world have devices getting updates to ICS while every phone on Verizon, except for the GNex, does not.

    Google wants to regain control of its “Google experience devices” and that is all. Which is exactly why they are going to only sell them through the play store from now on (assuming they get enough sales to make it prudent in the future).

    You really need to do some actual research and not just write whatever the hell you hear on BGR.

  • Travillion

    Ah, if only Verizon phones weren’t so different…. Methinks all of Google’s best-laid plans will only directly affect GSM carriers.

    • Verizon always wants to put their bloatware, i like the idea of Google selling Nexus directly themselves so we can get the most up-to-date software.

      • Travillion

        Agreed, but so far all of Google’s direct selling has only been for GSM units (Nexus 1, G-Nex, accessories, etc.). For whatever reason, CDMA seems to be a complication that Google hasn’t wanted to take on directly.

        • RedPandaAlex

          And this will probably continue. You probably won’t see a Verizon-compatible unlocked Nexus until voice over LTE is pervasive.

  • Havoc70

    Lets hope this is correct, i would much rather Google and the OEM’s have control than the Lecherous carriers

    • Larizard

      “Lecherous carriers”.. I like that.

    • I’d rather the OEMs have no control over the OS either. I have Android devices devoid of any need for a carrier (wifi only) and the update issues persist just as badly. Google simply have to adopt Apple’s model, there is no middle ground. Just make the devices with Motorola and leave the bootloader unlocked for those who want to tinker. There’s absolutely no reason Google has to appease any manufacturer. Microsoft, unlike Google, doesn’t even own any manufacturing facilities and they told HTC that screwing with their OS simply ain’t happening. HTC is now out in the cold for Win8 debut

      • Gary Cims

        Doesn’t MS own, or at least control, Nokia?

  • Greg Morgan

    Very interesting write up. It’s crazy to see how far Android and Google have come to be having these issues. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re the most popular OS…

  • zmberven

    Very well put.

  • MotoRulz

    I hope your right on this one Ron.. I want pure Google. No contract. No commitment.

    • Me too…

      • Especially now that unlimited data is soon to be gone. When I did the math if I were to upgrade to the $50 plan and never go over that (Which I doubt) I would save $680 over two years, more than enough to buy the current nexus. I just want this to happen that is all I ask, please Google.

        • If you want to really save money, look at switching to a pre-paid T-Mobile plan. I can’t yet, but I’m seriously thinking about it.

          • The money isn’t as much the issue as just I do not want to deal with data overages and it just may save me money

          • Unlimited data has to go away for the networks to survive.

          • I personally believe it does not have to go away but I think that they need to be a bit more reasonable about price per GB if they are getting rid of it. 2GB for 30 bucks and that 2GB can be used in less than a day on 4G. I think as part of net neutrality a fair price on data needs to be set because that is just ridiculous.

            One last thing is that what the carriers are doing right now are what internet providers tried doing years ago and they got in big trouble over it.

          • Luxferro

            There really isn’t unlimited data, They are selling services based on research or a guestimate that most users won’t use much data, so it balances out with the ones that do use a lot. They need to do away with the word “unlimted” because it’s misleading and an outright lie.

          • sgtguthrie

            Bull SHIT! Record profits over the last 2 quarters!!!

    • Myles Crouther

      Luckily that option is already available. And if you are currently on a CDMA based network in the US, you can port for phone number to Google Voice for free, if you are on Sprint or $20 if you are on Verizon. Google has nearly all the pieces, now all they need to do is put them together but continue innovating.

      • JaySee08

        : I have Verizon & want to port my 212 number to Google.. but I was waiting until my contract was up not to incur any cancellation fees. So you’re saying it’s free? That’s awesome if it is..

        • hijackerjack

          Not for verizon :/ hah. its free for sprint is what he is saying. but its $20 for verizon

    • I like Pure Google!

      • Counsel Dew

        If pure Google doesn’t let me have a phone call on my gnex, pure doesn’t do me any good…