Who's buying Google's $650 stock Android phones?

A phone not sold in cellphone stores, with a potentially confusing difference from the popular version, and with an eyebrow-raising price tag — who is buying this phone?

Credit: Image via Google.

My favorite moment of this year's Google I/O developer conference, in the ironic sense of "favorite," was when Google's Hugo Barra told the audience that what he was about to announce was "not a giveaway." Not only was it not a giveaway, it was a $650 unlocked phone, for sale in late June.

This was an audience who had paid, or had somebody pay, more than $500 to attend Google I/O, but there was audible groaning beyond the press section. The saving grace was that this phone was not running any of the eye-tracking, water-rippling software that Samsung designed: this was a "pure," or "stock," or "vanilla" Android experience, with future Android updates promised to arrive on the phone.

Google has these kinds of unlocked, up-to-date, plain-experience phones: they are Nexus devices. They are manufactured by Google in partnership with a third-party firm, and then offered for sale at mostly non-subsidized prices. They're popular among Android developers, dedicated Android device fans, and as give-aways at I/O conferences.

But now there is the Google-y version of the Galaxy S4, and now, reportedly, also a Google-y version of the HTC One. Both the S4 and the One are phones that have been written about as suffering somewhat from Samsung and HTC's respective customizations. But a phone not sold in cellphone stores, with a distinct difference from its popular version, and with a rather eyebrow-raising price tag—who is buying this phone?

No, seriously, I'm asking. Because I might buy this phone, because my contract is up, and I make a lot of stupid phone decisions based on what I think I might need for future writing and testing. But to make all the modifications needed to ensure a smooth stock experience on an S4 or One, to flash that experience onto a certain subset of phones, and to keep them in stock and shipping out, well, that is not free. And capitalism, when last I checked, involves risks taken for an assumed potential for profit.

Do Nexus phones just not give developers access to, and an understanding of, the hardware features on the most popular phones? Are millions upon millions of S4 and One buyers writing into Google, asking for stock versions of the phone they're holding? Are the CyanogenMod and OpenKang and other ROM/hack projects not enough to get stock/vanilla/plain Android versions onto popular phones?

Just asking.

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