Tired of bending to the will of wireless carriers, Google reportedly wants to sell more contract-free Android phones directly to consumers.
The phones would be part of Google’s “Nexus” line, built in cooperation with phone makers like Samsung, HTC and Motorola, according to the Wall Street Journal’s unnamed sources. Google would then sell the phones unlocked and contract-free through its website, or through some retailers. To get cell service, users would then have to buy a SIM card from a wireless carrier.
Currently, Google doesn’t have much say in the development of Android phones. Google builds the operating system and licenses the use of its Google Play Store and apps such as Gmail, but phone makers and wireless carriers are free to tweak the software.
Usually, they modify the interface so a Samsung Android phone doesn’t act quite like an LG Android phone, and then they pre-load a bunch of software on the device–much of it uninstallable. When Google updates Android, phone makers and wireless carriers must make the update work with their own modifications. Assuming they decide to update their phones at all, the process can take a very long time.
Google has tried to disrupt this system before. In 2010, the company sold unlocked Nexus One phones through its website for $600, along with a $200 T-Mobile version subsidized by a two-year contract. It received the latest updates from Google, and was untainted by bloatware. But the Nexus One was a commercial failure, in large part because people would rather go to a store, try some phones themselves and agree to a contract in exchange for a lower price. A few months later, Google swore off selling phones directly.
Last month, Google changed course. It began selling its Galaxy Nexus phone directly to U.S. consumers, unlocked and contract-free, for $400. If the Journal’s sources are correct, Google wants to continue this initiative with a whole line of Android phones, running the next version of Android (possibly code named Jelly Bean).
Google likely wants its own services, such as Google Play Music and Google Wallet, to be front-and-center on the next version of Android, but it can’t do that when phone makers and wireless carriers are meddling with the software. Selling phones directly would be a way to regain control.
But it would also be a risky bet. Wireless carriers won’t be happy with Google’s attempts to bypass them, and unless Google gets support from retailers, it’ll have a hard time marketing its phones to the masses. These Nexus phones will also have to be price-competitive with subsidized handsets. The existing Galaxy Nexus is not.
Google does need to regain control over Android, but if direct sales fail, the company would have no choice but to go crawling back to wireless carriers. No wonder some of those carriers have taken a sudden liking to Windows Phone.