Google to Samsung: Thanks for the cool phone, now we've fixed it

Android manager Hugo Barra demonstrates the unlocked Galaxy S4. Credit: IDGNS San Francisco

Google has a big quandary with Android. Its open source heritage is partly why it's become so popular, with almost 75% global smartphone market share, according to the latest Gartner numbers.

But that also means that every vendor in the world can take Android and do whatever they want with it. As a result you get things like Facebook Home, Amazon Kindle, and a bunch of custom smartphone interfaces from vendors like HTC and Samsung. All of these "Android" flavors help differentiate the devices for their creators, but do little or nothing to help guide users to Google services. 

And after all, the entire business point of Android is to guide mobile users to Google services -- or at least to the open web where Google can sell ads -- so it can keep its ad revenue cranking while the world goes mobile.

Google periodically tries to claw back some control over Android with its Nexus devices. These devices are created in conjunction with a particular hardware partner, and feature the "Google" version of the latest shipment of Android. 

In addition, Android vendors have no obligation to update their devices to the latest versions of Android as they come out -- which means that developers have to target lots of different versions, and that customers may be stuck with an outdated experience (at least from Google's perspective.)

Today at its I/O conference, Google took another step in this direction. Beginning on June 26, Google will start selling through the Google Play store a version of the Samsung Galaxy S4 that basically strips all the Samsung-specific features out of it.

Instead, it ships with the latest version of Android -- 4.2.2., a recent update to Android "Jelly Bean" -- and the "Nexus experience" that shipped on the Nexus 4, which was manufactured by HTC, last fall. The phone is unlocked, so users can switch carriers, and "bootloader unlocked," which means users can easily install their own software on it. And Google promises that it will push the latest updates of Android to it as they come out.

Sounds great, right?

But you'll pay for the privilege -- because it's unlocked, there's no carrier subsidy, which means users have to pay the full smartphone price of $649.

In other words, this is a phone for Android fans and developers who want cutting-edge hardware combined with the latest, most Google-friendly version of Android. Not a consumer product. 

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