Google’s Nexus Strategy In A Nutshell: Cheap Mobile Internet Everywhere

Google unveiled an entirely new line of Nexus devices in a range of shapes and sizes, from the Nexus 4 smartphone to the Nexus 10 tablet, and some aspects of the product launch proved confusing. Why build a smartphone with modern specifications across the board, and then leave out LTE connectivity? Or why push more and improved Nexus tablet hardware, when there’s a surprising paucity of apps designed for those screens? A new interview by the NYT’s Brian X. Chen with John Lagerling, Google’s Director of Business Development for Android, provides some answers to those questions, and illuminates how Google approaches its signature Nexus line of devices.

The bottom line is that what Google wants to do with Nexus is a completely different thing from Apple’s strategy with its own iOS hardware, or, for that matter, from the goals of other OEMs creating Android devices. Lagerling goes through the standard checklist of specs and features on the Nexus 4 and talks up pushing the envelope in terms of delivering improved storage options at existing price points on Nexus 7 tablets, but the real meat of the story comes when he’s faced with a question about the paltry selection in terms of dedicated tablet apps on Google Play, and instead of answering directly, launches into a discussion of the overall point of the Nexus program:

I don’t have a number for how many apps are properly adding those APIs that you need to put fully to use the extra screen real estate. What I can say is that the Nexus 7 has been a superstrong catalyst to kick off developers’ attention to making those expansions, so we’ve seen tremendous growth in apps for the larger screen size. The trending is very positive because of the Nexus 7.

But before, I’ll be honest and say, yes, there was a lack of tablet apps that supported bigger screen real estate. But I’ll add that, I know we talked about the Cupertino guys, but obviously people who have smartphones are a huge target for us. If you look globally that’s something we worry more about, not so much about competing with other smartphones, but more about, how can we get more people onto the Internet on mobile phones? And that’s a big deal. That’s why low cost is so important.

Lagerling also said in reference to recent statements by Asus regarding Nexus 7 sales that Google doesn’t release numbers, and doesn’t usually allow its hardware partners to either. He said simply that the Nexus 7 has “sold way above expectations,” with the caveat that either means it’s selling very well or that Google had extremely low expectations to begin with, without hinting at which scenario was more likely.

The obvious goal of the Nexus program is then not to sell the most of any single kind of device, but to drive prices for quality hardware down to the point where it becomes universally accessible. And while Lagerling didn’t directly address the Nexus 4’s lack of LTE in the interview, seen in the context of a company trying to strike a balance between power and affordability, that omission makes a lot more sense. Google’s Nexus program is an experimental path towards mobile internet ubiquity; the end goal is to increase its core product profitability by getting as many eyes on Google software products as possible, but in the interim, that doesn’t require that any of its Nexus devices necessarily become breakout hits. The point is to drive costs down, do more with less, find out what users consider essential in a mobile device and evolve the Nexus line until it becomes both affordable and attractive to everyone.

Whereas Apple’s products need to be a hit to justify the company’s expenditures on their development, Google’s hardware need only produce experimentally meaningful feedback. The search and software company has the resources and strong OEM partnerships to make Nexus a global-scale field test in affordable mobile computing, and that’s a frightening proposition for competitors whose product development strategies are based on more traditional revenue and profitability needs.