HTC One and Galaxy S4 Get ‘Google Play’ Editions, but Why?

By releasing Google Edition phones, HTC and Samsung could be getting an advantage when updating their non-Google-branded Android devices

  • Share
  • Read Later
Google

As promised, “Google Play” editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 are now available for purchase.

In terms of hardware, both phones are exactly like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 that are already available from wireless carriers. The difference is that these phones run an unmodified version of Android–essentially the same software as Google’s Nexus phones–as opposed to the gussied-up (some might say bloated) software that comes with the standard-issue One and GS4.

Though I personally no longer prefer pure Android phones, I understand the appeal for a small subset of users, especially app developers. What I don’t get, however, is why Samsung and HTC are even bothering with these Google Edition phones given their limited sales potential.

The market for unsubsidized, pure Google phones is tiny, and always has been. The first-ever Nexus phone, HTC’s Nexus One, was outsold nearly 10 to 1 by Motorola’s Droid. Samsung has said that its Galaxy Nexus only captured 0.5% of the market after two quarters of availability, despite a subsidized model being available through Verizon Wireless. Estimates for Google’s Nexus 4 place sales somewhere between 400,000 units and 1 million units–not a lot by today’s standards.

It’s safe to assume that the Google Edition HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 won’t even sell as well as the Nexus 4. Both phones are at least twice as expensive as the Nexus 4, at $599 for the HTC One and $649 for the Galaxy S4. They’re also only available in the United States, where they must compete against $200 subsidized versions of the One and GS4 (non-Google Edition) from wireless carriers.

To date, Samsung has shipped well over 10 million Galaxy S4 phones, and HTC has reportedly shipped more than 5 million units of the One. Google Edition phones won’t even register as a blip in these companies’ overall sales. Only the most hardcore Android fans with money to burn will be buying these phones, and history shows there aren’t a lot of those people around. Besides, plenty of those users could pick up a subsidized phone and hack a pure version of Android onto it.

That brings me back to the original question of why Samsung and HTC are even putting in the effort. I have a couple theories, one more interesting than the other:

Boring theory: These are just extensions of the “Developer Edition” phones that both companies already offer. Developer Edition phones remove restrictions on accessing certain parts of the system, so developers can tweak the experience as they please. Installing a stock version of Android is something developers might like to do, so this just removes the extra work and guarantees timely updates. For HTC and Samsung, getting in developers’ good graces helps ensure that they are optimizing their apps for the companies’ respective handsets. And maybe it helps them earn some geek cred that leads to word of mouth advertising for the One and the GS4.

More interesting theory: By releasing Google Edition phones, HTC and Samsung could be getting an advantage when it comes to updating their non-Google-branded devices.

Android phone makers are notoriously slow with their upgrades. That’s partly because of the software modifications that phone makers add to Android, which must then be included in the upgrade, and partly because of the time it takes wireless carriers to test and distribute new software to users. But there’s another factor that slows the upgrade process that’s often overlooked: the differences in hardware between Nexus phones and other devices.

As Christy Watt, formerly an executive with Motorola, told PCMag last year: “When Google does a release of the software … they do a version of the software for whatever phone they just shipped. The rest of the ecosystem doesn’t see it until you see it. Hardware is by far the long pole in the tent, with multiple chipsets and multiple radio bands for multiple countries. It’s a big machine to churn.”

With the Google Edition HTC One and Galaxy S4, Google will handle the entire upgrade process itself. In theory, that means HTC and Samsung can borrow from Google’s work on the hardware aspect, saving time and effort when upgrading their non-Google-Edition phones. They’ll still have to blend in their own software tweaks, and go through the carrier approval process, but at least they’ll avoid one major hurdle.

We’ll know if my theory holds water when Google releases its next major version of Android. The Google Edition HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 will almost certainly get their upgrades first, as they should. But perhaps these Google Edition phones are more about getting Google to help bring faster upgrades to a much larger base of users. That kind of close collaboration would benefit everyone, not just the tiny niche that knows and cares about Nexus devices.

7 comments
AlexCotman
AlexCotman

Instead of buying the "Nexus" GS4, I'll simply root my Verizon GS4 and install a pure/stock android "Nexus" rom onto my phone and voila - Nexus GS4. 

DaveLeFevre
DaveLeFevre

I *hate* the manufacturer's crapware.  I waited to buy my new phone (one a really needed badly) until Nexus editions came out.  This is the "why" you are looking for. 

MasonMakita
MasonMakita

NO denying the exorbitant pricing... stinks.  but w/ regards to tech, a Google Edition device (sold/purchased on Google Play) ensures the timely updates the author mentions.  in other words, when Key Lime Pie debuts, both devices should receive the OTA fairly quickly.

i remember w/ carrier supported 4.0 ICS devices.  most had to wait X amount of months for 4.1 JB. what that meant was NO powerful Google Now features.  imagine what KLP might bring... then being denied (delayed) the update.

plus purchasing an UNLOCKED phone AND pairing it with a prepaid plan, one will spend much less than the contract customer after the typical 2 year timeframe.  do the math (even w/ a $600+ phone) and you'll usually see an approx. $500 savings in the same 24 month span.

billybob911
billybob911

Another one is that those of us that have an unlimited data plan with Verizon need to buy a full priced phone or be forces to give that unlimited data up if we were to sign a new contract.

frankyboy5
frankyboy5

Another theory, Google is trying to lure more customers be happy with the latest great devices (rumours Xperia Z coming next), only to make them feel outdated with their next great phone - the Motorola X.

graemefaulkner1
graemefaulkner1

Despite the quality hardware I had no interest in the Samsung Galaxy S4 or HTC One, that is until the Google edition versions were announced. Regardless of how small the sales numbers are this helps everybody. The phone manufacturers are not competing with Google selling at a subsidized price (nexus 4), developers get access to the drivers they need to get the latest version of android working properly on non Google edition handsets long before the manufacturers get round to it. Finally, the greater availability of pure android handsets running the latest and greatest should create healthy competition that should keep the manufacturers on there toes to update there software without delay and continue to come up with new features to add on top of stock android.