May 24, 2013, 3:19 PM —
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.