AFTER weeks of relentless hype, it’s now time for the market to decide which of the technology industry’s giants has the best vision of the future of mobile computing. Google this week piled into the fray as never before with a trio of new devices to take on recent gadget launches from Amazon, Apple and Microsoft.
Google’s arsenal comprises the Nexus 4 smartphone, and two tablets, the brand new, full-sized Nexus 10, and an updated version of the Nexus 7. The Nexus brand is Google’s own, which it uses to test its mobile software and cater to those keen to try out its latest innovations.
All the new devices thus run the latest version of Android, 4.2, which carries the self-consciously daft codename Jellybean. They were due to be unveiled to the world at a showcase event in New York at the end of last month, which had to be cancelled at the behest of Superstorm Sandy, which was flattening or flooding much of the east coast of the United States.
A few days later at Google HQ in Mountain View, California, a few days later, there were some tired and disappointed faces who had made a pointless round trip, but Hiroshi Lockheimer, vice president of Android engineering, appeared undeterred. The Nexus range is designed to show Android manufacturers – Samsung, HTC, even Google-owned Motorola - what is possible, or rather, expected.
Google is pushing especially hard to undercut Apple and Microsoft. The Nexus 4, a smartphone built by the Korean manufacturer LG, costs from just £239, without a contract. The cheapest iPhone 5, which has more storage, is £529.
“That price with no contract is a big deal for a high spec device,” said Mr Lockheimer.
“It has a quad-core CPU, high definition display and such, so I think the Nexus brand is becoming synonymous with no compromises specs.”
Likewise the Nexus 10 tablet, Google’s first own-brand tablet that will compete directly with the full-sized iPad, is £80 cheaper, despite its competitive specifications.
The Nexus brand has attracted criticism from some quarters and claims that as well as competing with manufacturing partners, Google risks confusing consumers as to what are the “flagship” Android devices.
“We made a decision to develop Android with hardware that way, as opposed to developing software in the abstract and just throwing it over the fence,” said Mr Lockheimer, defending the strategy.
“That’s always been the strategy and at some point we started calling those devices Nexus devices, but the concept is the same.”
“We don’t want to build a platform in the abstract. We want to build it in the context of a product. Once the product is fully commercialised and ready to be sold, that’s when we know the software is also good enough. It’s very much a conscious thing.”
Another criticism frequently levelled at Android is that it is too “fragmented”, in several aspects. For instance, the operating system update process is relatively chaotic, involving Google, manufacturers and networks to varying degrees depending on the device. The upshot is that most Android users are using Gingerbread, a less capable version released over a year ago.
Apple, which has much more control over upgrades, was reckoned to have more than 60 per cent of iPhone users on iOS6 just a month after its release, despite its dodgy Maps app. Mr Lockheimer denied Google has a problem, however.
“We recently announced there’s something like 500 million Android devices. When you think about half a billion devices and updating them all at the same time you can’t even contemplate that, it’s a big, big task,” he said.
“One of the benefits of Android from a manufacturer’s perspective is that they get to take a fully commercialised and proven stack and customise it to meet the needs their business has. Maybe they want to go after a certain demographic or certain geography, or maybe they just want to differentiate their product.”
“We have Nexus devices and for Nexus devices we’ve decided that upgrades are important. That’s what Nexus is and if someone is interested in that kind of experience it’s a good line to pick from.”
The latest Nexus devices are among the first to benefit from an initiative known as “Project Butter”, an effort to get rid of the judder-prone scrolling and other user interface glitches that have affected many Android devices. Mr Lockheimer, who, outlandishly claims to pay no attention to rivals’ products despite the febrile competition in the industry, nevertheless admitted Google’s developers had not focused on such details the way Apple’s had.
“One of the criticisms of Android throughout the years has been that sometimes it stutters and we really wanted to address that head on,” he said. “It wasn’t that it wasn’t a focus but a difference in approach that we have.”
“So we took a comprehensive study of how the software was working and made some sweeping changes to the architecture to make the system a lot more responsive and it’s been a smashing success.”
Of course, the growing legions of smartphone and tablet owners will be the real judges of that.
Christopher Williams Telegraph.co.uk