Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

Pure Android is still touted as an advantage by some brands and has no shortage of fans. But that’s rare these days – there are Google phones, obviously Sony, Nokia, Motorola, and Asus are also trying to stay close to stock. OnePlus has done the same, but OxygenOS is already in the process of being merged with Oppo’s software.

What if you could have a flagship from Samsung, Sony, Motorola, or HTC, but without manufacturer customization. No carrier provided bloatware either. Would not it be nice ?

That was the idea behind the Google Play Edition program, which used hardware from regular versions of phones, but removed as many unavailable features as possible. Of course, not everything was different with Nexus phones, so you couldn’t just run Nexus ROM. But GPE phones have come as close as possible to inventory.

The program got off to a good start at the Google I / O 2013 event where a special edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 (the Snapdragon 600 version) was presented. No TouchWiz in sight, just store Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. In the US, this model was available exclusively through Google Play and sold for $ 650, which was higher than the regular version’s $ 580 price tag.

The HTC One also arrived in 2013 and replaced the Sense UI with the original Android. The Google Play store initially charged $ 600 for one, but dropped that amount to $ 500 the following year. The starting price was again higher than the non-Google version, which was $ 575 in the United States.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

Is this what happened, the prices were too high despite the same material? Well, it sure didn’t help, but you might have noticed that we only quoted US prices and it’s no coincidence – Google Play Edition phones had very limited availability. Google has never been good at selling hardware products globally, so limiting these phones to its own store was a big contributor to GPE’s failure.

By the way, we reviewed the Galaxy S4 GPE as well as the HTC One GPE at the time. Both were superior to the Nexus 4, but if you read the reviews all the way to the conclusion you’ll know that we missed some of the features that TouchWiz and Sense added, and the extra cost didn’t make too much sense. Not to mention that the Nexus 4 was a flagship killer at $ 300.

Samsung Galaxy S4 I9505G Google Play Edition
Samsung Galaxy S4 I9505G Google Play Edition
HTC One Google Play Edition
HTC One Google Play Edition

Galaxy S4 GPE compared to Nexus 4 • HTC One Google Play Edition

While some use ‘pure’ Android as a synonym for ‘good’, the reality is that Google has always been slow to embrace new features – these came first on custom skins and eventually made their way to AOSP afterwards. a few versions. We’re not saying that’s a bad thing, AOSP needs to be the stable middle ground for all Android implementations. Potentially half-baked high-tech features have no place there.

And keep in mind that “pure” Android is something not many people have seen – even Pixel phones have proprietary software, it’s just made by Google.

The last of the 2013 generation of GPE phones was a version of the Sony Xperia Z Ultra, although it dropped the “Xperia” brand, so it was only the Sony Z Ultra. It was again limited to the US Google Play Store and cost $ 650 at launch. It was actually a bit cheaper than the Xperia version ($ 670), although both received price drops in 2014 – $ 200 off the GPE phone and $ 230 off the Xperia phone.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

There was also a Google Play Edition tablet based on the LG G Pad 8.3 as an alternative to the Nexus slates. This one cost $ 350 at launch, which equates to a fully loaded Nexus 7 (2nd gen) with 32GB of storage and LTE connectivity. The G Pad only had 16GB of storage and no LTE, which makes it comparable to the Nexus 7 at $ 230. However, the LG tablet had a larger screen and a newer Snapdragon 600 chipset. Still, pricing was clearly a major issue with these Google Play Edition devices.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

The Moto G was a very popular mid-range in 2013 – it was quite cheap at $ 180 and quite capable. And Motorola was still owned by Google at that time, so it was already using Android in stock. Despite this, Motorola released a Google Play edition in 2014 at the same price as the regular version – $ 180 for 8GB, $ 200 for 16GB.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

HTC entered for a few seconds with the HTC One (M8) GPE. It was advertised alongside the regular version of the phone and cost $ 700, $ 50 more than the regular version. Worse yet, the Developer Edition of the phone also cost $ 650 and you were free to flash whatever software you wanted on it – the hardware was the same on all three versions. What was Google thinking? Either way, the old HTC One GPE got a $ 100 to $ 500 discount on the same day.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

Despite multiple leaks, a Galaxy S5 Google Play Edition never really materialized.

Google unplugged the Moto G GPE on January 7, 2015, which only left the HTC One (M8) GPE available – which was also grazed on January 21. Without Galaxy S5 GPE and new additions from Motorola (which had been sold to Lenovo a few months earlier), the Google Play Edition program ended less than two years after its launch.

Higher prices, limited availability, and missing features, come to think of it, Google Play Edition phones had no chance of success. These were niche products that only smartphone connoisseurs would appreciate. And then not all, since the Nexus 4 and 5 were quite powerful and quite cheap.

Flashback: A look back at the “pure Android” Google Play Edition phones and why they failed

There has never been a successor to the Google Play Edition program. The closest we’ve gotten is Android One, which debuted in 2014. Manufacturers can announce 2 OS updates, 3 years of security patches, and a standard user interface. Best of all, they can sell them anywhere, avoiding GPE’s limited availability error.

While HMD Global is very keen to release the Android One Nokia phones, most of the other manufacturers are not and therefore One phones are quite rare. It looks like Android stock isn’t such a big draw.

Android itself has changed a lot, making these pure versions less necessary. The interface is customizable enough that you can tidy away most of the questionable elements of designer skins. And these skins have gotten pretty good over the years, many really appreciate the features they bring.

When it comes to software support, getting 2 OS updates on a mid-range phone is not that unusual today, some series even get 3 updates. And an additional year of security fixes. This helped Google make major internal changes to Android to make it easier to develop and deploy a new version.

Android will never be like iOS where a company dictates everything about hardware and software. For better or worse, Android offers a wide variety of both.

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