Hypothetical: Google To Become Sole Manufacturer of Android Phones
I’m going to paint a picture for you here. You don’t have to agree, you may think I’m insane, but last time I laid out an idea like this, I was absolutely right (and I was still called insane). And I’ll tell you right up front that much of this is very, very hypothetical…
The original idea that I was called insane about was a couple of years ago on my science and tech podcast, Sovryn Tech, I had theorized that the various tech giants in Silicon Valley were all planning on creating their own internets. As in with their own infrastructure, backends, and everything. I said Facebook was becoming the new AOL (and now most tech journalists are admitting to this), that Project Loon and SkyBender from Google was an attempt to supplement and create an alternative infrastructure for their (at the time unannounced) MVNO service and Google Fiber, and that Apple was going to create an entire mesh networking solution with their Multipeer Connectivity Framework built into their iOS devices, allowing them to have their own internet.
So I meant, years ago, that they were creating literal, multiple internets.
And inherently, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I’m a huge fan of mesh networking, and I love the idea of their not being one big bad World Wide Web. I’m just not the biggest fan of these alternative internets being controlled by privacy-infringing and security-numbing multinationals like Apple, Facebook, and Alphabet/Google.
So what does all of this have to do with Android phones? Glad you asked.
Taking On iPhone’s Premium Reputation
It has recently been reported by The Information‘s Amir Efrati that Google is looking to tighten its grip on the manufacturing of its Nexus line of devices (which historically has been contracted out to manufacturers like LG, ASUS, and HTC). To quote from Efrati’s story:
Google CEO Sundar Pichai and his lieutenants have signaled to colleagues and outsiders that the company wants to take greater control over its program for making “Nexus” smartphones, which are powered by Google’s Android software. The change would effectively reduce the level of involvement of hardware partners that make the phones with Google, a group which has included Samsung, Motorola, LG and Huawei (you could add HTC].
The move would be the latest step by Google to make Nexus phones more like the iPhone, which is controlled by Apple top to bottom, and strengthen Android’s brand overall in order to capture more share at the high end of the market that Apple dominates. Google doesn’t want its revenue-generating services for high-end smartphones to be at the mercy of Apple like they are now.
Initially, this all sounds like Google is just concerned with the Nexus line. But very little reading between the lines makes it clear that this is about the future of Android in general, particularly in its relation to iOS.
Working with hardware partners in the Nexus line has helped Google out with manufacturing up until now, I’m sure, but it really hasn’t done much else. HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, Huawei, and the rest have done practically nothing to advertise their Google-backed Nexus-line creations. Perhaps a little mention on a website here or there, but nothing serious. Google has to do all the heavy lifting to let people know these Nexus devices exist in the first place, so why not go ahead and just take over manufacturing in general? Google already has a “mystery manufacturing facility” that is putting together the Pixel-line of Google devices (if they have a hardware partner doing it, they’ve yet to reveal who that is), so why not have that manufacturing team go all the way with the Nexus devices, as well?
And while historically Google has claimed that Nexus devices are meant to be “reference devices” for other hardware manufacturers–effectively trying to “show them how it’s done”–Google has clearly changed their tune with the recent premium-built and premium-priced (“premium” being a new thing for the Nexus-line, as well) Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, and Nexus 5X. Their rhetoric around these devices now is that these are THE Android devices to own, and if you want to take advantage of next level Google services like their MVNO Project Fi, you have to purchase Nexus devices, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Project Loon and Project SkyBender
This is where Project Loon and Project SkyBender come in. If Google’s services become exclusive to this alternative infrastructure–and Google, according to the above quote, wants to get its services generating away from other platforms like Apple’s–then the Nexus-line becomes the only option you have if you’re in the “Google-verse” (and seemingly, who isn’t?). Bear in mind that to access the data signal from Project Loon, you have to have specific hardware for that…which could be put into Nexus devices, and Nexus devices only.
Interestingly, Cyanogen, Inc. has made claims in the past year that they are planning to, “…take Android away from Google!”, and maybe they won’t have to. Maybe Google will let the rest of the device manufacturers have Google…but then pull the Google Play Store away from all of them. Insider’s have already claimed that Google is working on a “Google OS”, and that they may be abandoning Android is we know it already.
If Google’s plan is to become more Apple like, the cornerstone of Apple’s mobile strategy isn’t necessarily the iPhones, it’s the App Store. And if Google took the Play Store away from every device that isn’t Nexus…well…those manufacturers are screwed.
SIDE NOTE: What about Android’s popularity in the developing world? Isn’t part of Android’s–and thus Google’s–success is that it’s used even in developing countries? That’s partially true, but then that’s what Google’s long-standing Android One phones and phone service is all about. See, they’re already on top of it.
But Where Does That Leave Device Manufacturers?
Of course, manufacturers will likely just turn to Microsoft’s numerous and feature-complete Android app offerings, which are not-so-suprisingly getting preloaded onto many of these manufacturers devices already. Do Android manufacturers know something we don’t? I can only hope their industrial espionage divisions would be more clever than me, but this preloading does seem to have set a precedent for the idea that these companies are worried that Google may one day pull the plug on them.
As for Apple, Apple’s already been not-so-secretly developing their own search engine (and has long been not recommending using Google, even on OS X), and Apple Maps is actually hitting its own stride in many ways. While personally I think much of Apple’s software is substandard (except for Pages), it is becoming feature-complete more and more. You don’t need to install anything other than what Apple offers you, if you chose not to. So while Apple–as stated–is #1 in revenue for Google in the use of Google’s services, Google may realize that they could get unseated by Apple’s search engine and other developments, so this theoretical play of making Google’s services “Nexus-first, Nexus-only” may be a defensive, life-saving move on Google’s part.
I remember Steve Jobs saying at the D5 Conference–onstage with Bill Gates, I might add–that, “A company that makes its own software loves to make its own hardware”, and maybe Google has taken that idea its full conclusion. People are so invested in the Play Store (just as they are in the App Store), that if Google strong-armed people into buying specific hardware to be able to access their Play Store “belongings” and use Google’s services, people would probably go for it. If Google undercut the pricing of everything other telecom and ISP with their Loon and SkyBender-fueled data and communication services, people would probably flock to them. Because if you toss in Google’s routers into the mix that could become the only things that could connect to that infrastructure, suddenly you have a complete alternative internet, cable, and phone service, all owned and operated and manufactured by Alphabet/Google itself (to say nothing of what happens when you toss in autonomous vehicles).
Moments of Transition
We as people and consumers are at a serious moment of transition technologically, and Alphabet/Google may be capitalizing on it, turning into one giant monolith of a company that delivers practically everything you do and need in the modern world (and, obviously, they’re not the only ones…think Amazon). Part of the reason I started the Dark Android Project was to get Android devices away from Google in the first place, because myself and the industry in general was seeing Google encroach more and more on Android’s open nature, and Google’s favoring of itself regardless of platform. Personally, I don’t think this is “siloing” of companies and their hardware, apps, and services is a good thing. “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” is some of the oldest wisdom known to humanity, and I think it still holds true and will always hold true. All of this business–admittedly completely wild and hypothetical–leads to a lack of choices and options for the consumer. And that’s never a good thing.