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

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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.