In 2008, the first commercial Android smartphone was made available at T-Mobile. It was the G1 (also known as the HTC Dream) and people considered it the very first “Google Phone.”
How quaint that seems in 2013.
The real Google Phone has just arrived. The Nexus 5 may be running Android, but this is a smartphone that is Google to its core.
The Nexus 5 is the fifth Nexus smartphone that Google has collaborated on with its manufacturing partners. The Nexus One (HTC), Galaxy Nexus and Nexus S (Samsung) and Nexus 4 (LG) were all flagship devices to show off what new versions of Android could do. The Nexus 5 is a bit different. This flagship smartphone from Google and LG features a true “Google Experience” (as we predicted a couple weeks ago) with a custom Google launcher skin that defines every aspect about it.
“For us it is about making a much more cohesive, immersive experience,” said Dave Burke, the head engineer for Android at Google in an interview with ReadWrite. “Think about access to Google services, we want to make it faster and more seamless. For us we want to make it faster and effortless so we added that in-line search capability so you can just start typing on the spot.”
Every Nexus phone comes equipped with what people refer to as “vanilla Android.” The thought is that the user interface that Google provides Android is the “default” version of the operating system. When a manufacturer like Samsung, HTC or LG adds its own “skin” on top of Android.
It is time to put this notion to bed.
What Google has done with Android in the Nexus 5 is no different from what any other Android manufacturer does when they customize the Android experience.
The Context Of The Nexus 5
Every time Google picks a manufacturing partner for a Nexus smartphone, the device that emerges is extremely similar in terms of hardware to a flagship device that manufacturer has already released. The Nexus One was the cousin of the HTC Incredible. The Nexus S and Galaxy Nexus were derivations of Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones. For the Nexus 5, its kindred spirit is the LG G2 that was released over the summer.
The LG G2 is probably the most souped-up hardware of any Android smartphone released this year. It features the latest quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 2.2 GHz processor, a 3000 mAh battery, a 13-megapixel back camera (with sophisticated optical image stabilization hardware) and 2 GB of RAM. It is a beast of a smartphone when it comes to hardware.
The Nexus 5 gets most of that same hardware. Yet Nexus 5 with 16 GB of internal storage cost only $349 without a contract through the Google Play store, about half of what an unsubsidized LG G2 would run. Hence, some of the hardware in the Nexus 5 has been scaled back. The screen is a little smaller, the battery is only 2,300 mAh (same as the HTC One) and the back camera is 8 MP without all of LG’s sophisticated sensors.
There is a major difference between the LG G2 and the Nexus 5 though: LG is awful at making software and user experience decisions. Google is pretty darned good at software and user experience.
LG thought it would be clever to employ the Vienna Boys Choir to make the notification sounds for the G2. Seriously. It is awkward and annoying, especially the first time you wake up to the Vienna Boys Choir alarm clock noise. The use of the Choir is just the most pertinent example of bad user experience decisions that LG makes with the device. The aggregate affect is that the G2 is basically unusable. This is LG’s version of Android and provides the perfect example of how manufacturer’s create their own experiences on top of the nuts and bolts that make up the operating system.
Google may not have employed the Vienna Boys Choir but its fundamental approach to the user experience on its own Android device is no different that that taken by LG. Or Samsung. Or HTC.
The Google Experience
Google’s core apps and functionality take center stage in the Nexus 5. The primary home screen on the Nexus 5 is essentially one big Google search bar. This is Google’s skin—its launcher—for the Nexus 5. It is available as a standalone launcher outside of the Nexus 5 and KitKat and is known as Google Home.
It is hard to escape Google in the Nexus 5. The biggest example is the fact that the standard text messaging application found in Android has been replaced completely with Google Hangouts (formerly Google Talk). Hangouts is now the de facto messaging app in KitKat, much like Apple has done by routing all SMS through iMessage on the iPhone and iPad.
The phone dialer and Caller ID in KitKat on the Nexus 5 also get the Google treatment. The dialer will now prioritize the people you talk to most (a feature that actually showed up first in the Moto X). The dialer itself is attached to Google search and allows you to lookup nearby businesses or contacts in your Google apps (like Google+ or Gmail). The Caller ID is attached to Google search. If you get a call from a number that is not in your contacts, Google will search for a local listing on Google Maps and display it in the incoming all screen.
Google Now—the company’s semantic search engine that delivers pertinent information in the form of cards before you perform a manual search for it—is always to the left of the Home screen in Android. Google has made a huge investment in Now and it is now so tightly baked into KitKat and the Nexus 5 that it is almost impossible to avoid.
“And as you know we are making a big investment in Google Now and as it gets better and better and better for the type of service it is and we wanted to make that more accessible to users so that is why we put it on the minus-one screen [the screen to the left of the home screen],” Burke said. “We think that the experience is a lot better because of that. As for where we go from here, I think that we want to take it more in that direction.”
Ars Technica notes that the Google has taken almost the same approach with the Google Experience that Facebook took when it released its Facebook Home launcher in April this year. Facebook Home created an Android experience that basically sat on top of the operating system and gave the user a very, very Facebook-centric interface. The Google Experience is conceptually no different.
Ars also notes that the Google Home launcher is available as an Android Packet File (APK). It should eventually reach the Google Play Android app store as a standalone launcher so if you want the Google Experience on a non-Nexus device, you can download it.
Google notes that Android as an operating system now understands multiple launchers as of KitKat and users can easily flip between which launchers they want to use in the settings. So, if you don’t want the Google Experience on your smartphone, you can readily change it by finding another launcher from another vendor in Google Play.
“From a launcher perspective I think one feature that may not be obvious is that the system understands multiple launchers now so if you have a second launcher installed on it, it will actually show in the settings to which is your default launcher,” Burke said. “So, we have made it a little bit more open so users can very easily flip back and forth to the launchers they prefer.”
With the Google Experience on the Nexus 5, Google has finally put to bed the notion that there is one true flavor of Android. In doing so, it has created a top-of-the-line phone that may run Android, but is truly the first true Google Phone.