Technophobe: Nexus devices and the divergent future of Android

Megan Youngren/Sun Star Columnist
October 23, 2012

Screen size has increased on Android phones to the point of silliness. There’s a reason for a 5.5 inch screen on a phone and that is to use it with a pen, but Google doesn’t seem to be going along for that ride. It is sticking to a vision of a touch-only interface to which they’ve made significant improvements recently.

Many recent normal-sized Androids have suffered from manufacturers and cell carriers adding supposed improvements to phones. These  changes are not as functional as standard Android but do make them look unique from other phones. After manufacturers release the phone, those changes would require effort to add to new Android versions. The lack of Android updates means these phones miss out on new features and bug fixes.

Having users stuck on old versions leads to a problem for developers called fragmentation. Fragmentation refers to having to develop apps that support several distinct versions of the same operating system.

Before versions 2.1 through 4.1 there were missing features such as lock screen camera access, a task manager, re-sizable widgets, offline maps, Twitter and Facebook contact integration from Android, but they’ve been added now. Android’s standard interface is stylish and accommodating compared to its earliest implementations. Reasons for not using Google’s standard interface are slipping away.

To reduce fragmentation, Google will likely start certifying devices as Nexus phones. Until now, Nexus phones were just a limited-availability example that were released once a year. In order to present a coherent front against Windows Phone and the iPhone, Google might set guidelines that manufacturers can follow to label their devices Nexus.

Incentive for users could be free Nexus-only apps, movies, music and books on the Google Play store. Definite reasons to choose Nexus are guaranteed updates that arrive when released, not months after. If Google follows this plan, phones with gaudy interfaces like the Samsung Galaxy S III and the upcoming LG Optimus G will have to compete against similar devices with better software.

The Nexus version of the Optimus G will be the first device to come out under this program in a few weeks. If marketed well, Google has a good chance to get manufacturers to use stock Android more often and follow their major design choices. One of those choices seems to be huge screens, but used in certain ways.

One reason for using a 4.65 inch screen on last fall’s Galaxy Nexus is it allows for the back, menu and home buttons to be on screen instead of below. An example of why the Nexus certification is important is that even a year after the Galaxy Nexus, stubborn manufacturers still use hardware buttons, limiting the phone’s potential. On screen navigation buttons allow for change down the line; the menu button has already been switched out for an app-switch button.

Both Google and manufacturers feel that the virtual keyboard is easier to use on the bigger screen and that 720P HD or higher resolution can be fit easily into the larger size. Unfortunately, if you want a quality phone with a screen not over 4 inches your best option is an iPhone. That’s a missed market for Google and manufacturers. A market that is missed by the iPhone is a screen bigger than 4″ on a phone. Google doesn’t want to go above 5 inches. Above that point it offers the Nexus 7, which is not a phone. It is a tablet. It would be silly to hold a small tablet up to your face to make calls, right?

Brisk sales of the Samsung Galaxy Note say otherwise, and similar phones from LG are incoming. Offering a pen to draw or write on the screen is the justification for their size, but many purchasers might just need a bigger screen due to poor vision. Others just want to have one device instead of a tablet and phone. Regardless, Google seems uninterested in Note-style devices. If Nexus device certification succeeds and Google doesn’t add pen input to stock Android, there will be a divide. Nexus phones versus the excluded phone-tablet devices.

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