Google’s Big Nexus Event: What’s at Stake

If Google announces a Nexus phone and several tablets next week as expected, it'll be both a major turning point and a test for the company's Android platform.

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Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Google's Japanese website is displayed on the company's Nexus 7 tablet computer at a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, Sept. 25, 2012.

If Google announces a Nexus phone and several tablets next week as expected, it’ll be both a major turning point and a test for the company’s Android platform.

The launch of new Nexus hardware will represent Google’s biggest effort yet to regain control over Android and to find some footing in tablets, where the operating system has faltered. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Google also has to compete with a major phone and tablet push by Microsoft, new Kindle Fire tablets, new Nook tablets and a smaller, less expensive iPad.

It won’t be easy, but at this point, Google can’t sit on the sidelines anymore.

In the smartphone realm, Android has flourished, but in a manner beyond Google’s control. Wireless carriers and phone makers tend to run amok with the core Android software, creating devices that aren’t necessarily worse, but are difficult to upgrade and loaded with bloatware. The results are an Android ecosystem that doesn’t always seem unified, and experiences that vary wildly from one Android phone to the next.

(MORE: New Google Nexus Hardware: Here Comes the Wave?)

Tablets are even more troublesome. Android hasn’t kept up with the iPad in market share unless you count Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook tablets, which have their own app stores and unique interfaces. They barely qualify as Android devices, yet they’ve been more successful than any true Android tablet yet.

Mainstream Moment for Nexus

For Google, the term “Nexus” equates to a pure Android experience, consistent across all devices. But in the past, it was a geek thing, aimed at discerning enthusiasts and app developers. Even if sales weren’t good–and really, they never have been–Google could brush it off because the devices weren’t aimed at mainstream consumers anyway.

Over the last year or so, Google’s goals for Nexus have transformed. The Android Market’s re-branding as Google Play, the sales of $350 unlocked Galaxy Nexus phones and this summer’s launch of the $200-and-up Nexus 7 tablet all show that Google wants to use the Nexus brand to take back the Android spotlight. Even the slogan for the event, “The playground is open,” suggests a more consumer-minded vibe than ever before.

The rumors for next week’s event include a high-end Nexus phone from LG, a 10-inch Nexus tablet from Samsung (with a display that’s even sharper than that of Apple’s iPad), new Nexus 7 tablets with 32 GB of storage and/or mobile broadband connectivity and possibly a $99 mystery tablet. Even if only a few of those devices materialize, they’ll represent Google’s biggest push for the Nexus brand yet.

Lingering Questions

More Nexus devices don’t necessarily mean more sales and more control over Android for Google.

It’s not clear how a larger Nexus tablet would succeed where other Android tablets have failed, unless you believe mainstream consumers pay close attention to pixel density or other minute tech specs. Google Play has a smaller movie and music selection than Amazon Instant Video (as Laptop Mag noted in a recent comparison) and doesn’t have as many proper tablet apps as Apple’s iPad. In lieu of sheer quantity, Google will need to show some amazing content of its own or knock it out the park on pricing with its tablets.

As for smartphones, the big question is whether Google will cater to wireless carriers, whose subsidies are what allow phones to sell for under $200 in the United States. (They’re also the reason you agree to a two-year contract when you buy a new phone.) Verizon and Sprint did subsidize the Galaxy Nexus, but the arrangement wasn’t ideal as customers still had to wait months for software upgrades. If Google goes it alone and sells unlocked phones without subsidies, it’ll still need a retail partner to provide hands-on time, along with some serious marketing to explain why an unlocked Nexus phone is worth getting.

All of which is to say that next week’s press event will be a lot of fun to watch. And even if you’re not obsessed with the tech industry’s twists and turns, at least there’ll be some cool hardware.

MORE: Needed for Google’s Next Nexus 7 Tablet: More Storage