[Opinion] Does the Nexus program matter anymore?

Google has tasked HTC with developing and producing the next Nexus devices, those smartphones that are designed to showcase the latest and greatest versions of the Android operating system.  For years, while the operating system grew and improved and added new features, the hardware showing it off was not necessarily considered with the same shock and awe.

For most Android enthusiasts, Nexus is a word synonymous with purity and the best that Android has to offer.  Google’s latest operating system release is one that is usually highly anticipated and the Nexus devices are usually the first to receive it or outright run it.  Since the first Nexus One released in 2010, the developer community has rallied around the Nexus devices and have embraced them as no other consumer segment has.  There are multiple websites devoted to taking the open source code of Android and making it do even more new and exciting things:  XDA-Developers is the most high profile one.  An Android guy (like both me and Sean P) can, and occasionally have, lost hours spent researching anything and everything there.  I owned the Galaxy Nexus and Sean P. owned the Nexus 6 – we have tweaked so many different settings and features that its really not even worth mentioning here.

We did all these things because Android as it evolved wasn’t quite there yet – wasn’t quite the finished product that we hoped or wanted it to be.  I’ve written before here about why I love Android – and customization is first and foremost amongst those reasons.  But the changes from “stock Android” were always because stock itself wasn’t capable of some of the things we wanted it to do.  But that was also kind of the point – Google releases Android, the developers get a hold of it and bend it, tweak it, shake it, and bake it – and once those features are coded and widely adopted, Google can sit back and see what has been done and then take some of those features and incorporate them into the next release of Android – lather, rinse, repeat.

With each and every release though, Android has become less of a joke and more of a polished, fluid operating system.  From Ice Cream Sandwich, to Jelly Bean, to KitKat, to Lollipop (and now Marshmallow and recently released Nougat on the horizon too) things stopped being ultra laggy, features got better and plentiful, and with the advent of the Material Design language (introduced in Lollipop) things look and feel like they might if you were actually interacting with a physical element in the real world.  The development community and Google themselves have pushed Android forward until it is now the most popular mobile operating system in the world.  A lot of that has to do with folks in the development community buying Nexus phones so that they could test, compile code, and test some more.  In that respect, Nexus phones can bear the lion’s share of credit for being easy to unlock and develop for, and difficult (but not impossible) to break beyond repair.  Initially, this meant that the phone wasn’t really pretty or even a well thought out design: it was there to serve a functional purpose – help you make Android and apps developed for Android better in a meaningful way.  Let’s be honest here – the Nexus One wasn’t a phone you bought because it was “good looking.”

Yes – this actually a phone with a trackball at the bottom (Nexus One from HTC)

It did, however, do its job.  The Galaxy Nexus is a phone that’s near and dear to my heart – its not really winning any style awards either.  From its bulbous bottom and large front chin, it was fine in its time, but was something that I liked more for what it did than what it simply was.  We have moved to a point in time where subsequent Nexus phones, like the Nexus 4 and 5, and even the Nexus 6P, are just down right nice phones themselves; attractive devices that also serve a purpose.  Google has moved to a place where their OEM partners can help them spread the gospel of Android to millions, and hey – a lot of those people will never, ever unlock and root their phones.  So if you want to sell a bunch of devices, at least give the folks their moneys worth when it comes to design.

The lovely Nexus 6P

Nexus phones are now a device that can be (and in some cases, should be) considered by regular every day Joe Consumers.  The upcoming devices from HTC bearing the codenames Sailfish and Marlin are rumored to have things anyone would want, like the latest hardware specs, premium metal unibody chassis, very good displays, and high quality camera modules.  These are clearly phones designed to be phones first and could also at some point by some people be used to develop and test software for the latest version of Android.  I loved my Galaxy Nexus, but grew tired of the mediocre battery life and downright horrible camera.  So I left it for a G2 from LG that wasn’t quite as fun but served my personal needs better in a lot of other ways.  And while I was using my G2, Android got better.  When I upgraded to the G3, Android got upgraded too.  When when it was time to get a new phone last year, I gave strong consideration to the G4 – and ultimately chose the Nexus 6P.  Not only does the 6P have the ability to showcase what stock Android can do from a software standpoint, it also is just a great stand alone phone.

Nexus users used to be a relatively small group of folks that were in a very real way responsible for helping to making Android better for everyone.  And over the years, Android has come a long way baby.  Its more polished, its got a ton of features, and its great for a wide range of mobile devices.  And the Nexus phones have come a long way too.  They mirror the development of Android itself; once unrefined and utilitarian, the Nexus 5X and 6P are amongst the best values for their price point of ANY phone, not just unlockable or developer phones.  And that’s why I feel the Nexus program actually does matter, and might continue to matter to folks for the foreseeable future – I no longer have to make the choice between a “good phone” and having the latest version of Android.  The Nexus devices can now give me the best of both worlds.  

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