For years, Android enthusiasts have been pointing out the flaws of manufacturer-made changes to the Android user interface and calling for more stock-like approaches to smartphone software. With the upcoming launch of Samsung's "Google Edition" Galaxy S4 -- not to mention the rumored release of a similarly vanilla Android version of the HTC One -- it looks like that wish could finally come true.
Before you get too excited, though, hang on: While these new "Google Edition" phones sound great on paper, they may not be the holy saviors they appear to be. In fact, the more closely you consider the concept, the stranger it seems.
First and foremost, let's tackle the Nexus question: Contrary to what some news stories are proclaiming, these "Google Edition" devices are not Nexus phones. Nexus phones are Google's flagship Android devices, designed from the start with the company's close involvement in order to showcase an optimal Android experience with harmonious hardware and software integration.
The Galaxy S4 "Google Edition," on the other hand, is basically just Samsung's Galaxy S4 phone with stock Android software thrown onto it. We aren't talking about a custom-designed Nexus device built to run pure Google software; we're talking about an OEM phone crafted with custom software-controlled features in mind and then resold with a different setup in place.
Think about it: The Galaxy S4 and the HTC One cameras are as good as they are not only because of excellent hardware but also because of device-specific software optimization. In the case of the One, the superb sound setup is supposedly made possible in part by HTC's software-based audio enhancements. And both phones include hardware add-ons like IR blasters that wouldn't work without specialized software controls in the cockpit.
It all comes down to this: The main criticism of manufacturer-modified versions of Android isn't with the software as a whole; it's with the interface, specifically, and the arbitrary and often user-experience-damaging changes manufacturers like Samsung make to the Android UI. Simply stripping out all of a phone's custom software and slapping a stock build in its place isn't the best way to go about addressing that issue.
If Samsung and HTC want to offer stock-like experiences of their phones, they need to take the time to meld a pure Android UI with the custom software that makes their phones tick. Otherwise, you're getting a device that's trying to be the best of both worlds but failing to excel in either of them. It's a Galaxy S4 without all the benefits of a Galaxy S4 -- and a pseudo-Nexus phone without all the benefits of a true Nexus phone.
(There's also the button factor to consider: Samsung's Galaxy S4 button configuration and HTC's One button setup both present user experiences that clash with current Android design parameters (see my Galaxy S4 review and HTC One review for the full respective breakdowns). If the companies really want to offer "Nexus-like" user experiences, how about taking the time to make versions of their devices that reflect that ambition?)
Finally, there's the matter of software upgrades: One of the key benefits of a pure Google Nexus device is the guarantee of ongoing instant OS upgrades, direct from Google, anytime new software is released. When introducing the stock Android Galaxy S4, Google vaguely said the phone would "receive system updates promptly" -- but we don't yet know exactly what that means.
If the phones will get their updates from Google, as part of the immediate Nexus rollouts, that's great news. But if software support will be provided by the manufacturers with a promise of a "prompt" rollout -- something that's a distinct possibility -- the precise meaning of "prompt" is open to interpretation.
The idea of manufacturers offering stock Android versions of their popular phones is certainly an interesting notion, but this current implementation feels more like a lazy compromise -- an afterthought, even -- than a full commitment to the concept. And with the new phones costing more than twice the price of a Nexus 4 (an announcement that led to awkward silence and then laughter when it was made at Google I/O earlier this month), I'm not sure it's a proposition that'll make sense for many people.
It's a step in the right direction, for sure -- but at this point, I worry it may be more of a symbolic step for the companies than a meaningful step for consumers.