The Nexus experiment
I've been part of the Android community for just under a year now. My first Android-versary will be next month, a year after I bought my HTC One X. During my time in the community, I've noticed that while we are all united in our "fight" against the other OS, there's quite a bit of bickering within the community as well. For as long as I can remember, we have HTC fans arguing with Samsung fans. It usually boils down to arguments about build quality, the necessity for removable batteries and microSD cards, and of course, TouchWiz vs Sense. I try my best to not get involved in these civil wars because to me, these differences and these choices are what make Android great. Would you guys rather be part of that other OS and not have any choice at all? I think not. So I choose not to argue over what makes Android great, but I'm getting off topic here. With the introduction of the Google Edition Galaxy S4 at Google I/O 2013, and the Google Edition HTC One just a few days ago, I saw this as an opportunity to conduct a little experiment. With TouchWiz and Sense out of the way, and only the physical factor of the phones to go on, which would people prefer if the Nexus brand didn't exist?
I posted a hypothetical question in the Nexus community on Google+ to see which of the two phones would most people choose in a world where the Nexus brand doesn't exist. The result was almost unanimous, with the HTC One winning 89% of the votes (only +1's on my comments were counted). I left the comments open for people to voice their opinion after voting, and I've managed to reach some conclusions which I will share with you. Now these are just my perspectives on the issues based on the results of this experiment, not fact or official representation of the entire Android community or anything like that. You are of course free to disagree and share your thought in the comments below.
We only make up a fraction of the smartphone community
When the S4 was announced, all popular Android and mobile sites did comparisons and asked the readers to vote for their favourite. EVERY poll I voted on listed the HTC One as the winner. Not only that, almost every comparison between the two by industry experts names the One as the winner. 7/8 authors on the +Pocketnow website chose the HTC One. 89% of the people who participated in my experiment chose the HTC One. So why are HTC still struggling while Samsung have sold 10 million S4's since it's launch? It's because people like us, tech enthusiasts who follow mobile news more closely than local political news only make up a small fraction of the market. Most people - the average consumer - buy what they see in advertising; which is Samsung. Samsung smother us with advertising, winning the hearts (and wallets) of the average consumer, while HTC are left to pick up the crumbs; people who make an effort to study other options and not just buy the most popular phone in the market.
The key differentiator between the One and S4 is the battle between build quality and removable batteries and microSD expansion. A unibody metallic build against the freedom to change batteries and add external storage. As far as the tech community goes, the majority are willing to sacrifice removable batteries and expandable storage. Just look at the above paragraph as proof. With various cloud storage services, media streaming services, improving internet speeds, and the acceptance that battery technology is not going to improve anytime soon, most of us are willing to give up the removable battery and expandable storage in favour of a phone with arguably the best build quality of the year. Some people still prefer to have media on their device instead of in the cloud, and some prefer to swap out batteries instead of being tethered (likely people who are always on the move), but as far as the majority is concerned, HTC's build quality is too good to pass up.
Some people choose phones for their hardware. They say if they don't like the software they can always just flash a custom ROM, or use a custom launcher. Others choose a phone for the software features. If they dislike the feel of the phone or are worried about it's durability, they can just slap a case on it and be happy. Fact of the matter is, neither one is more important than the other. HTC's camera works best with HTC's camera software. Samsung's Smart features and Air View/Gesture although made possible by hardware, require TouchWiz to function. With stock Android on both the S4 and One, many people were asking if exclusive features like Zoe, BoomSound, Air View and Smart Scroll would still be available on the GE phones. Most likely they won't, as they are not part of AOSP. This goes to show that we cannot base decisions solely on hardware or software alone, but a combination of the two.
When Guy Kawasaki teased a possible future where smartphones could be customisable, the whole tech world went bonkers. The idea that you could custom-order your smartphone was a dream come true. But of course, some things are too good to be true. No matter how hard OEM's try, every phone will always have some sort of flaw. What we are left with is to decide which features we are willing to sacrifice; to compromise and choose a phone which ticks the most checkboxes on our list of requirements. We can fantasise all we want about the perfect smartphone, but unless we are able to manufacture our own devices in our homes, we will have to continue to make compromises.
The price was the strongest selling point of the Nexus
Most people who own a Nexus device claim to want a pure Android experience. No carrier or OEM bloatware, prompt updates direct from Google, no middle man. Yet when we are given more choices when it comes to a pure experience, most people are unwilling to fork up the $600 for the GE One or the $650 for the GE S4. Reasons may vary, and they may very well be good reasons. But this just proves how greatly the price of the Nexus 4 contributed to it's success. Great hardware at a great price. Stock Android was merely a bonus. If the original HTC One and Galaxy S4 were to sell at Nexus prices, I bet they would be even more successful than they are now. Some Nexus owners might even jump ship. Price has always been our number one concern when buying phones, and will continue to be moving forward.
The HTC One and S4 are both rightfully the flagships of the Android kingdom. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and now come in two flavours of Android. Like I said above, I am not into the habit of arguing over what makes Android so great; choice. It's OK if you want removable batteries and expandable storage. It's not wrong to want a phone with front facing speakers. If you think skins slow down Android, get a Nexus (or a Google Edition phone). Some people say the GE One and S4 are stupid since you can get AOSP on the originals by rooting and flashing. Need I remind you, we are only the minority. How many average consumers do you think are willing to go down that path? The fact that average consumers can now experience stock Android on more than one device, without needing to root and flash custom ROMs to me, is a huge win for Android.