Some brands continue to tout Pure Android as a benefit, and it has a devoted following. However, it’s becoming less common these days – aside from Google’s phones, Sony, Nokia, Motorola, and Asus all try to stay as close to stock as possible. OnePlus did the same, but Oppo’s software is already being merged with OxygenOS.
What if you could get a Samsung, Sony, Motorola, or HTC flagship without any manufacturer customizations? Also, no bloatware from the carrier. Isn’t that something you’d like to have? The Google Play Edition program, which used the hardware from regular versions of phones but stripped out as many non-stock features as possible, was created with this goal in mind.
Of course, the hardware differed from that of the Nexus phones, so you couldn’t simply install the Nexus ROM. GPE phones, on the other hand, were as close to stock as possible.
The program got off to a flying start at Google I/O 2013, where a special edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 (the Snapdragon 600 version) was unveiled. There’s no TouchWiz here, just vanilla Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean. This model was only available in the US through Google Play and cost $650, which was higher than the regular version’s $580 price tag.
In 2013, HTC released the HTC One, which replaced the Sense UI with stock Android. One cost $600 at first on the Google Play store, but was reduced to $500 the following year. The starting price was $575 in the US, which was higher than the non-Google version.
Is that what happened, that the prices were too high despite the fact that the hardware was identical? That didn’t help matters, but you may have noticed that we only mentioned US prices, and that’s because the Google Play Edition phones were only available in the US. Limiting these phones to Google’s own store contributed significantly to GPE’s failure. Google has never been good at selling hardware products globally.
While some people mistake “pure” Android for “good,” the truth is that Google has always been slow to adopt new features, which first appeared on custom skins before making their way to AOSP after a few versions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; AOSP must serve as the stable common ground for all Android implementations. Cutting-edge features that are potentially half-baked have no place in that environment.
Also, keep in mind that “pure” Android is something few people have seen – even the Pixel phones have proprietary software, though it is made by Google.
With higher prices, limited availability, and missing features, the Google Play Edition phones were doomed to fail. They were niche products that only smartphone aficionados would be interested in. And even then, not all of them, because the Nexus 4 and 5 were both capable and affordable.
The Google Play Edition program never had a successor. Android One, which began in 2014, is the closest we’ve come. Makers can talk up two OS updates, three years of security patches, and a stock user interface. Even better, they can sell these anywhere, avoiding GPE’s mistake of limited availability.
Android will never be like Apple’s iOS, where a single company controls all aspects of hardware and software. Android, for better or worse, has a large selection of both.