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The Google Play Edition - (Nearly) One Year in


  1. Medion

    Medion Well-Known Member

    Background: During the Keynote of Google I/O in May, 2013, Google announced the Galaxy S4 Google Play Edition. Both this device and the HTC One (M7) went on sale June 26, 2013 as the first two Google Play Edition devices. They officially began shipping to customers on July 9, 2013, although many of us received them days beforehand (I didn't :( ). This was the start of a new program for Google that now has 6 existing Google Play Edition devices by Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG, and Motorola. And as part of another bold step, all current Nexus devices (except the 2013 Nexus 7 LTE), GPE devices, and Motorola unlocked devices (X, G, and E only) started receiving 4.4.3 within 24 hours (for initial the rollouts).

    I was one of those early adopters of the Google Play Edition program, and I'll be replacing my S4 GPE this upcoming week. I wanted to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of this program as well as speculate on what's to come down the road.

    Google's Intent: It's hard to get into the minds of Google, so one can only speculate based on the way that they treated this program. Clearly, high sales volume was not intended. This was evident based on a multitude of factors, including; USA availability only, limited numbers with no configuration options, no price subsidy, no installment plan options, and no carrier availability.

    Also, these devices aren't like Nexus devices. Whereas unlocking the bootloader and rooting a Nexus is encouraged and does not void the warranty, the same cannot be said of GPE devices. For one, it's beyond pointless to purchase a GPE device and then customize it via root/ROM. You could do the same with a carrier-branded version that will also run the GPE ROM. A Galaxy S4 GPE cannot run standard S4 ROMs due to the different partition (to date, I believe that only the HTC devices allow full conversion). The point of purchasing a GPE was to get the Nexus-like experience out of the box in terms of usability and speed of updates, but with the hardware of different devices.

    Strengths: When the first two GPE devices were released, they existed alongside the Nexus 4. The Nexus 4 came with a 4.7" display with a 768p 16:10 display, 8 or 16GB of internal storage, and no official LTE support. The GPE program allowed users to get the Nexus 4 software but with more storage (32GB on the One, 16GB + MicroSD on the S4), LTE support, and 1080p displays. There were also other distinguishing features unique to each or both devices. For the first time, users could get a Nexus experience with more hardware choices.

    Further releases included an excellent tablet that many would take over the Nexus 7, as well as three more phone choices. All hints suggest an S5 GPE coming soon as well. The Moto G GPE was the first to offer some real choice, allowing the user to select 8 or 16GB and having the same custom shells as the non GPE (it is, after all, the same hardware).

    Weaknesses: But as with all options there's a downside too. As I mentioned before these devices are nearly pointless to root/ROM unless you're doing it just to say that you can. The non-GPE versions are far more flexible in hardware customization (storage sizes, colors) and in terms of ROM availability. You buy these devices purely for the Google Experience.

    Another issue was the "red-headed stepchild" approach that Google took with their software. It became apparent after initial release that these were just tweaked Nexus 4 ROMs on non-Nexus hardware. While the S4 and HTC One supported LTE, LTE support was not properly baked into the software. The Nexus 4 had a sofware toggle for HSPA (3G, "4G") and Edge (2G). The GPEs had the same toggle. If you set your phone to 2G only for the sake of saving battery, you could never get LTE back (without a hack or 3rd party app). Reverting to 3G/4G only gave you HSPA+ support. A workaround was added in the 4.3 update. A proper fix was added in the 4.4 update, where these devices moved to the Nexus 5 software (which had proper LTE support).

    This software issue was apparent in numerous other design choices. With KitKat, Google rolled out a feature called "Storage Access Framework," or SAF. This is their file picker that applications can call upon to access shared content. On third party devices the SAF will detect both internal and external (MicroSD) storage banks and let you move files between them. On a Nexus device, there is no MicroSD. As a result, GPE devices with MicroSD cards (S4, One M8, Z Ultra, G Pad 8.3) do not have the MicroSD card supported via SAF. This is yet another issue that Google overlooked (and they've confirmed to me that it will be fixed in a future update). It took them two weeks to address the LTE issue after I reported it directly, so I'm optimistic that this could be fixed soon.

    Another issue was that the software simply wasn't optimized for the hardware. There were very few comparative tests but the ones that were conducted unanimously showed that the respective Touchwiz and Sense versions of phones outperformed their GPE counterparts in battery life (without or without battery saver options turned on) and camera performance.

    What Does the Future Hold?

    The future undoubtedly has a Silver lining :rolleyes: All rumors point to an Android Silver program replacing both the Nexus and GPE programs. While I fully expect there to always be a development phone available (like there was before the Nexus One), I don't think Google will be offering it at a low price (which began with the Galaxy Nexus and only shortly before the Nexus 4 release).

    I suspect that after toying with Motorola and the GPE program, Google has decided that the Moto E, G, and X are models of what we can expect from Android Silver. That is, a predominantly stock experience with some minor customization by the OEM, customizations allowed by the carrier for their models but unlocked models available to users at full price, and fast/simultaneous updates across all devices within the program. Also, this allows the software to be truly optimized for the device for the sake of performance, battery, and using available hardware (like the camera).

    It's been a great year with my GPE, but I always felt that I was part of a Beta program. And really, that's what GPE was in my mind, a beta for Android Silver. Going by how the Beta went, I suspect that Android Silver will truly be something special. With the right marketing and availability, it should appeal to both purists and mainstream users.

    Thanks for reading and I look forward to the comments :)

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  2. EarlyMon

    EarlyMon The PearlyMon Moderator

    You have a far better vision of Silver than I.

    I believe firmly that the more the idea gets sold that our devices can all look and act fundamentally the same with minor hardware variations, the less actual choice we're going to end up with.

    Google software has never been advanced either in operational capabilities or UI features - quite the opposite.

    And yet thanks to the endless, uninformed ranting by the blogosphere writers that anything not Google is bloated, we're facing a potential future where the OEMs in the Open Handset Alliance will be rewarded with free advertising for reducing their R&D in favor of further reliance on Google.

    First Android to integrate apps so that user actions were contact centric rather than app centric was not the GNex with ICS but you wouldn't know it to listen to the faithful. Google was years behind HTC on that approach. And I can cite example after similar example.

    Everyone raved about a browser without a history feature and an inability to reflow text after zooming - and forget about setting the UA string permanently to desktop - iow, hilariously primitive. But Google wrote it and called it Chrome and that weakling was suddenly acclaimed as OMGZ PWNIES the best.

    Honestly - has anyone gotten a stock Google camera that didn't simply suck?

    I'm all for Google fans (you may call them purists, I won't) getting what they want.

    Android has always been about choice and if that's what Google fans want to choose, more power to them and I'll continue to be glad that Android fills that niche.

    But taking Silver mainstream - no.

    If I wanted the comfort of a software house that stays years behind in essential features but has everyone snowed that it's more important to be years behind while getting rapid updates for everyone at once, I'd get an iPhone.

    Google provides Android, key combinations of apps make it valuable.

    Those combinations can come from OEMs or from users picking their own app suites.

    And those apps need a solid base to run on. Cue the custom roms.

    Today, I see less discussion about key apps and capabilities and more nonsensical chatter about who is selling the most, who has the best hardware (I still don't know what that means) and who is Teh Winnah.

    I don't see how Silver will do anything more than encourage that nonsense.
  3. zuben el genub

    zuben el genub Well-Known Member

    Some of this actually needs rethinking. It's ok to update, upgrade, whatever, but if your cell company charges heavily for excessive data, and the new updates require more, a lot of people might be upset if their bill changes. (A seller doesn't always tell you the truth. TMO sellers have a habit of not telling new signups that they will be billed from signup date to end of billing period.)

    You either have to get a larger family bucket, or increase account by account (TMOUS)

    It is starting to look like unlimited data might be getting throttled by all carriers. Too many people streaming to avoid cable bills.

    The general user may only want to stream music, post on FB or Twitter and doesn't care about the rest. I see a lot of the original Iphones. We have people here on this forum whose phones only support up to Froyo.

    If Google wants to homogenize, then it should let users pick and choose between services, getting only the ones they need. If you don't need Drive, then you should be able choose not to install - you can get it later if you want it. Same for Picasa, etc. Make it easy for those with limited plans. I have a friend with an unlimited plan on Sprint, but Sprint sold her the latest Galaxy at the time, and she still doesn't understand all the features. She texts, calls, uses maps, checks Ebay and that's about it. She just gripes about how much she hates the phone. I'd say she was closer to an average user.

    If you have the data bucket and the want for all, then go for it.
  4. lunatic59

    lunatic59 Moderati ergo sum Moderator

    What I find more disturbing -- and perhaps exacerbated by a mainstream silver program -- is their (Google) integration of apps and services in the OS that are less feature rich and will ultimately thwart development of better third party apps.

    MS was not only criticized, but sued at many levels for bundling and integration of IE and Office(Anyone remember Netscape? WordPerfect? Lotus?). Apple gives you their way or the highway. It seems with this propensity to include and dominate rather than to promote innovation from 3rd parties, Google is becoming just another tech mega corporation.

    I suppose all 800 lb. gorillas look alike after a while. :rolleyes:
  5. jhawkkw

    jhawkkw Chinchillin' Moderator

    I don't have high hopes for the fast updates with the Silver Program. The LTE Nexus 7 is sold as an unlocked device on Google Play and it still hasn't received the 4.4.3 update in the form of an OTA or Factory Image yet. I firmly believe that because Verizon sells it in stores, they are muscling Google just like they did with the Gnex. Until Google can solve the carrier stronghold problem, Silver won't succeed on that front.
    EarlyMon and Rxpert83 like this.
  6. zuben el genub

    zuben el genub Well-Known Member

    Yeah, I used Netscape and WordPerfect. I had WP5 and 6 for DOS, got WP9 which I can still use on virtual XP. Opera sued in Europe about IE and won. Windows used to set IE to allow everything on a new PC or installation. There was no information for a user to set any kind of security.
    That could happen again with any cell OS and the average person wouldn't know. I depend on fora like this to find out anything.

    It will bite them in the backside sooner or later. The young generation that is consuming and wanting all the goodies easily will grow up, and it's anybody's guess what the next generation will want.

    There is no "one size fits all" It's a pipe dream of everyone who has a product.
  7. Gmash

    Gmash Well-Known Member

    I agree with Early's post, but I'm not as concerned about it because I think Silver is going to flop. Most people don't want stock Android. Only people who come to forums like this even know what it is. "Regular" people seem to like the extra features of Touchwiz and Sense. A lot of people switch from ios to Android simply because they don't like the fact that their iPhone is exactly like everyone else's. Still, I totally agree that killing Nexus for this is a huge step in the wrong direction.
    EarlyMon likes this.
  8. boyo1991

    boyo1991 Well-Known Member

    Good ideas. Fantastic thread.
    EarlyMon likes this.
  9. Medion

    Medion Well-Known Member

    This is where I hope that Google deviates. So long as they don't force OEMs to adhere to Silver, but instead, make it an option. Touchwiz, Sense, and other variations shouldn't go anywhere.

    What I'd really like to see is for Google to stop forcing their software on every phone. Let Samsung use their custom apps, and let HTC and others do the same. If I want Hangouts, I'll get it off the Play Store.

    Google software has some amazing features, but nearly everything feels beta. Everytime I use one of their applications, I'm left with the feeling of, "Man, this would be awesome if it just had X."

    Bingo. When you get a typical Android phone, you often have 2-3 applications covering the same purpose; from Google, the OEM, and sometimes the carrier. The ideal setup is to either get a Google Edition (or Silver) device with Google software, or to get an OEM variant with the OEM software. If I want a Google application on the OEM device, I'll download it via the Play Store. Absolutely no Google applications other than the Play Store should be pre-loaded on these devices. As shocking as it sounds, not everyone uses Youtube or even Gmail. And what Google did to Quickoffice was absurd. They should be facing antitrust litigation over it.

    To be fair, my S4 GPE camera is light years ahead of where it was nearly a year ago. Between the camera improvements within the firmware as well as the changes to Google Camera, it's passable. But yea, not as good as the Touchwiz variant (same hardware).

    This is where we disagree. I believe that Silver needs to be as accessible as any other phone. This means a presence in carrier stores with the same subsidy/financing available. Up until now, to get a pure device, you had to pay full price. Sure, the Nexus was offered at a discount the past two and a half generations. But those phones were always lacking in many areas. You really need to LOVE Google software or be willing to settle to take one of those phones. It's why I jumped on the S4 GPE in the first place. Nexus-like software with quality hardware.

    I don't think that stock Android is as far behind as you say. It's made huge strides the past few years. But you are right. Too many people on OEM software worry too much about the underlying Android OS. They don't seem to understand just how much more they get with the OEM features. My co-worker the other day had his Verizon Note 2 update from 4.1.x to 4.4.2. He didn't notice a difference. So many of the features added to stock Android in 4.2, 4.3, and 4.4 were already baked into Touchwiz.

    It's hard to tell, but I hope that Silver gives the customer the choice of Hardware X with stock and Hardware X with OEM skin. It should broaden our choice. However, this only works if Google backs off on the required GMS integration for OEM handsets. Throw them a bone.

    Quickoffice was the perfect example of this. I paid $8 for my copy, but many others paid up to $30. It was arguably the best mobile Office application. Google bought them out and quickly removed all of their cloud storage integration. The app I paid $8 for due to integration with Dropbox now only officially supports Google Drive. Sure, you can open the documents from Drive, but that's an extra step. And the saved document won't sync via Dropbox. Anyone who had this change forced on them could call Google and get a full refund, (and I did), but it shouldn't come to that. If Microsoft pulled this crap they'd be in court and fined post haste.

    Google seems to have held back the 4.4.3 Nexus 5 update so that a majority of Nexus/GPE/Moto devices could have a near-simultaneous push. And yes, it's blatantly obvious that Verizon is holding up the N7 LTE update.

    But I suspect that with Silver, Google will include the carriers on testing, much like Apple does. Instead of having to test 20 variations on 20 phones, we'd be getting one software base, getting a quicker thumbs up from the carriers.

    Overall, I'm bullish on Silver. It appeals to me, but only after a ton of speculation and dot connecting on my part. The Nexus program doesn't appeal to me simply because the phones are cheap and basic. The GPE program is clearly a half-assed attempt to slap unoptimized software on several devices. From what I've seen so far, Motorola has it right. They've struck the right balance between customization and familiarity. If the Silver program emulates what Motorola did, then it could be successful in the long haul.
  10. Crashdamage

    Crashdamage Well-Known Member

    IMHO Silver will do fine as long as a few of the major manufacturers support it and clearly Silver already has at least some OEM support. Google must have gotten some commitments from OEMs or we wouldn't even be discussing Silver. It would have died in Google meetings before it ever reached the point of leaks to the press. It doesn't have to sell S5 or iPhone quantities to be quite successful. I see no downside to Silver unless it kills the Nexus line without offering similar low-cost devices. I've got a gut feeling that either Silver will offer a Nexus equivalent or Nexus will be continued (fingers crossed).

    I truly believe it's not that people don't want vanilla Android, it's just they haven't tried it. They're ignorant of it through no fault of their own. IOW they *think* they like Touchwiz or Sense because that's what they were given. The rep at the phone store handed them a new S5 or M8, told them it was the latest and greatest and the poor customer believed it. The Silver program is designed to address this.

    Example: I've gotten several people to buy Nexus devices. Price is what originally drew them in, but they all really like the clean vanilla experience now. Every single one of them say they will never again buy anything but vanilla devices. And vanilla is in no way comparable to the iOS straightjacket of conformity. You can still have Android your way.
    EarlyMon likes this.
  11. lunatic59

    lunatic59 Moderati ergo sum Moderator

    Everyone I've ever seen go with a vanilla Android after using SenseUI or TouchWiz is underwhelmed. It's not that they don't want it, it's that they don't understand it. I really doubt Joe consumer is going to care at all about Silver.

    Joe and Jane Consumer (and their kids, Jimmy, Joan and Jill) only care about getting the new and shiny thing in their hands for the lowest monthly cost. Total long-term cost doesn't seem to matter to the Consumer family. Silver really requires some additional rational thought as well as specific understanding of both the advantages and limitations.

    The people who understand Silver are the geeky in-laws of the Consumer family who they call when things aren't working they way they want them to, but still won't talk to them at Thanksgiving. ;)
    zuben el genub and EarlyMon like this.
  12. Crashdamage

    Crashdamage Well-Known Member

    Joe and Jane can't be cured by Silver. They'll still believe what the Verizon salesman tells them, sign another overpriced 2 year contract, and happily text while driving home in their Chevy Cobalt with the Swiss Army knife on the keyring.
  13. zuben el genub

    zuben el genub Well-Known Member

    Ain't nothing wrong with plain Vanilla Android. The less junk in anything the easier it is to fix and keep working.

    My friend is like that - believes whatever Sprint tells her. I'll argue with TMO until I get all the information I want, come here and get the rest.
    lunatic59, Crashdamage and Rxpert83 like this.
  14. Gmash

    Gmash Well-Known Member

    I think it's going to cause more confusion.

    :) Hi, I want the new Galaxy S6!

    :D Sure, we have the GS6 and the GS6 Silver Edition. Which one would you like to see?

    :confused: What's the difference?

    :D Well, there's the regular one, and the Silver that has stock Android.

    :confused: (blank stare)

    :D The Silver doesn't have the Samsung stuff on it, it's just plain Android.

    :confused: Is it cheaper?

    :) Nope, same price.

    :confused: So you want me to pay the same price for less stuff? Can I bump phones with my sister to trade Justin Bieber pics?

    :D I'll wrap up the standard version for you, ma'am.
  15. zuben el genub

    zuben el genub Well-Known Member

    I can just hear that conversation. I'd have my friend calling me to ask what she wanted.
  16. Medion

    Medion Well-Known Member

    There isn't much to understand. Vanilla Android (which really doesn't exist anymore, but that's a separate topic) isn't hard to get. It's just different. It's a different skin when compared to Touchwiz or Sense. Sense is arguably the most complete skin, as HTC has always done a great job of ensuring that all Sense apps have a clear and concise theme in terms of aesthetics and functionality (even during their Sense 2.x-4.x bloated days). Touchwiz was a mess in terms of uniformity prior to the S4. You could say the same about vanilla Android prior to 4.1. If you have a vanilla KitKat device, the UI has excellent aesthetics and consistency in functionality.

    It's not hard to get, just a different option.

    Possibly but unlikely. Yes, this is true today of both the Nexus and Google Play Edition Programs. But Silver seems to be something that will be sold in carrier stores as well as online. When Silver launches, presumably you'll be able to walk into the carrier store of your choice and choose from a variety of handsets on subsidy/EIP just as you do today, only it will now include Silver handsets (though I suspect it will have a different name when it goes live). With the financing and availability on equal footing, users will finally be able to compare apples to apples and walk out with the device that they feel better suits their needs. Maybe users will reject Google's version of Android. Maybe they won't. But at least now we can get a real assessment of what the mainstream consumer thinks about vanilla Android.

    When Silver launches, it will just be another Android device(s) with a different skin, though mostly consistent across several devices. It will be another option and won't require any geekiness. The most intuitive Android device of 2013, the Moto X, is very likely a near-replica of what Google wants from Silver.
    Crashdamage likes this.

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