Don’t cry for the Google Play edition program; it was already dead

Earlier this week, the last of the Google Play edition Android phones in Google’s online storefront were listed as “no longer available for sale.” When contacted for comment, Google had nothing to say, but it’s not hard to read between the lines here. The last new Google Play phone was introduced in the spring of 2014. Plans for a Galaxy S5 GPe phone made it far enough that official press photos leaked out into the wild, but the phone never materialized.

The program hit its peak early last year, when a full half-dozen devices were listed all at once: the Galaxy S4, the HTC Ones M7 and M8, the first-generation Moto G, the Sony Z Ultra, and the LG G Pad 8.3. Like doomed kids making their way through Willy Wonka’s factory, they silently dropped out one by one. Now they’re all gone, and it looks a whole lot like the program has wrapped up.

If so, it’s a quiet, inconspicuous end to a quiet, inconspicuous program. Normally we’d say that fewer choices for Android shoppers would be a bad thing, but the changes Google has made to Android since the GPe program was introduced had already rendered it mostly irrelevant.

It began with awkward silence

It’s May 15 of 2013, and the Ars team is 48 minutes into the 2013 Google I/O keynote that would stretch to well over three hours. Then-head of product management Hugo Barra is holding up a Samsung Galaxy S4 that runs a “stock” version of Android instead of the normal TouchWiz skin. That first reveal is met with applause by the assembled developers. Barra sells the phone as a way to get “the same experience we ship on our Nexus devices” on different hardware. More applause. It has an unlocked bootloader (applause) and will receive prompt Android updates (enthusiastic applause).

And then he mentions the price: $649. Dead silence from the audience, followed by nervous laughter.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise, since that’s the exact same price you would have paid for the unlocked version of the phone, but developers and Android enthusiasts alike had all been trained to expect pretty good hardware at very good prices. Just a year before, Google used I/O to reveal the first Nexus 7 tablet at the then-ridiculously low price of $199. The Nexus 4 was $299, but it shared many features with phones twice as expensive.

And that was the key problem with all the Google Play edition devices, really. They were all sold at regular OEM prices right next to Nexus phones—same software, comparable specs, half the price. That’s the equation that tanked Google Play phones and tablets as consumer and developer devices, and the lone exception to the rule, the Moto G, was barely different from the non-Google Play version. OEM hardware was often superior to Nexus hardware in terms of build quality, camera quality, and battery life, but not superior enough to tip the scales for most buyers.

In a market more accustomed to paying the full unlocked price for smartphones, the GPe phones might still have found a foothold, but they were only ever distributed in the subsidy-happy US market. Next to “$200” versions of what looked like the same phones to casual observers, the GPe phones were hobbled out of the gate.

There are other ways to Googlify your phone

The program didn’t exactly start strong, and it doesn’t help that Google has spent the last two years making unique “stock” Android versions of devices mostly unnecessary.

The work of breaking Android from one monolithic piece of software into a bunch of smaller, easier-to-update chunks had just started when Barra first held up that Google Play phone on stage, but it’s become a defining part of the Android strategy in the years since.

Now you can make virtually any recent Android phone feel a lot like a Nexus just by installing the Google Keyboard (released June 2013) and the Google Now Launcher (introduced with the Nexus 5 but made broadly available in August 2014). Core Google apps like Chrome, Gmail, and Google Play are all updated through the Play store and look and feel the same on all Android handsets—odds are you’ve experienced Material Design without coming anywhere near Lollipop. Some API and security updates are now handled by Google Play Services, which runs on Android 2.3 and up. Google is working to break even lower-level components out into chunks that can be updated easily and silently, as it did for WebView in Android 5.0.

To say that Android’s fragmentation problems are over is premature, since there are still plenty of components (including the Settings page and notification center) that are part of the core OS. Additionally, legacy versions of Android with legacy Android problems will be hanging around for years to come. But it’s clear that Google’s long-term, end-game solution to Android’s update woes is to split the OS up into manageable chunks. And if it’s trivially easy to rip out, say, Samsung’s UI components and replace them with Google’s, what need is there for a purpose-built Google version of a Samsung phone?

The only real things to miss about the Google Play devices are the prompt Android version updates. It’s true that OEMs are slowly getting better at this (at least for flagship phones). And it’s true that people who want relatively quick Android updates without a lot of confusing and pointless additions have real options in the form of the Moto X and Moto G. But until Google has complete control over how and when every important part of the OS is updated, the ecosystem at large is going to be dealing with the same update problems it’s been grappling with for years.

So ends the Google Play edition story. Probably.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see the program come back in some form at some future date—it was never a blockbuster commercial success, but it was never really positioned or sold as one.

Personally, I’ve always suspected that GPe phones were just as much for the benefit of OEMs as they were for developers and Android fans. Google developed the OS and the apps and actually delivered the updates to the phones, but each one of them required OEMs to supply the kernel and support the underlying hardware (including hardware-specific features that were available on some GPe phones but not others). Having Google Play phones to update guaranteed that software developers within the OEMs would have to start working with new Android code as soon as it was available.

If the goal was to get OEMs to push out updates a bit faster, it has at least kind of worked. There are so many factors involved in actually getting an Android update from Google’s labs to OEM-and-carrier-controlled smartphones that the company can only do so much. Maybe the program is over because of consumer disinterest. Maybe the OEMs didn’t want to go to the trouble anymore. Or maybe the Google Play edition program has quietly served its purpose and run its course.

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