Will Verizon ever see a 'pure' Android smartphone again?

HTC and Samsung are both releasing "pure" Android phones this month -- but not for Verizon, the biggest wireless carrier in the U.S. So how about a successor to the 18-month-old Galaxy Nexus?

Samsung Galaxy S4 Nexus UI
Behold the "pure" version of the Samsung Galaxy S4, available June 26, but not on Verizon. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

My Verizon Galaxy Nexus is getting long in the tooth, as they say. Old. Sluggish. I bought it soon after it launched with Verizon in December 2011 because I wanted a "pure" Android experience on a network I felt had the best speed and coverage. Now I'm ready to replace it, but there's no alternative in sight.

Sure, Verizon has other Android phones I could buy. But those don't have a pure or "stock" experience, where the Android operating system hasn't had modifications made to it by the handset maker.

Pure Android with Verizon means going with the 18-month-old Galaxy Nexus. Not only is it aging, but the upgrade to Android 4.2.2 has virtually crippled mine. I'm not alone with this complaint. Sure, we could root newer phones. But there really ought to be an easier way to get a pure Android phone, with the latest processors and displays, on Verizon.

That's certainly possible with Verizon's biggest competitor, second-place AT&T. You can also do it with fourth-place T-Mobile. Just buy a Nexus 4. That pure Android phone, out since last November, works with both carriers, though theoretically it'll push data up to twice the speed on T-Mobile.

The big flaw with the Nexus 4 has been no highest-speed LTE support. That's less an issue with T-Mobile, which has only a tiny LTE network. But AT&T's LTE network is substantial.

New "pure" Android phones coming, but not to Verizon
So how about some pure Android phones that can tap into LTE? They're on the way, from Samsung and HTC, both arriving on June 26, both supporting LTE on AT&T and T-Mobile.

The HTC One with the "Nexus User Experience." HTC

Samsung is offering a Google Play edition of the Samsung Galaxy S4 for $649. HTC is offering a "Nexus User Experience" version of its HTC One for $599, which is $50 less than Samsung.

That's pretty pricey , and don't expect a carrier subsidy to soften the blow. These phones will be sold directly by Google, and they're not really aimed at the typical consumer. They're more for developers who want a stock Android phone to use and test with and, for whatever reason, may feel the Nexus 4 isn't phone enough.

Is "pure" really better or desirable?
That's a steep enough price to make me rethink whether a pure Android phone is really worth the cost -- worth paying extra without the carrier underwriting some of the phone in exchange for a contract commitment. Some of the modifications aren't bad. Handset makers sometimes provide better e-mail clients or photo modes than pure Android provides, I've found.

I can't speak for the HTC One, as I'm still waiting on a review unit to try. But I've been testing the Galaxy S4 for the past three weeks, and it's been excellent. I'll do a longer "Life with...." write-up to come, but while last year's Galaxy S3 left me cold, the S4 has quickly become my favorite phone. Importantly, compared to my "pure" Nexus 4 phone, it feels fast, peppy and doesn't leave me feeling like I'm missing much just because it's not pure.

Actually, there's one thing that I do miss, the "photo sphere" 360-shooting mode that Android 4.2 phones support. That's been omitted on the Android 4.2-based Galaxy S4, sadly. But the S4 does have a variety of useful custom shooting modes that its pure-Android cousins lack.

Perhaps having a pure Android experience isn't important to me as it once was. Certainly it never seems to have been that important to consumers in general. The Galaxy Nexus wasn't a big hit despite its pure lineage. The Nexus 4 has proven more popular, helped by its excellent price of $300 with no contract. But other phones, in particular from Samsung, still seem to outsell it, aided perhaps by even lower prices when sold on contract.

Given all this, maybe it doesn't matter whether Verizon ever gets another pure Android device again or not. That's especially so given that even if it did get one, history has shown that's no great boon. Verizon blocked things like Google Wallet on my Galaxy Nexus and took ages to release the latest versions of Android to my device. That's not what I expected from a "pure" phone that I assumed had a direct line to Google.

Nor, given all this, do I expect Verizon to get a pure Android device in the near future. Why didn't we get a Nexus 4 for Verizon? Sure, issues like LTE incompatibility and wanting to have a more "global" phone are valid, though Google never entirely ruled out that a Verizon version might come. But the answer seems clear. Google wasn't going to risk a repeat of having one of its own devices crippled by Verizon's meddling.

"Nexus Editions" to replace Nexus phones?
All of this has also gotten me thinking about the future of Nexus devices. It's a real shift, that we went from the Galaxy Nexus in December 2011 available for all major carriers in the U.S. to a Nexus 4 out the following year available for only two of the carriers to no new Nexus smartphone this year, so far, for any of the carriers. Has the Nexus brand done its duty, at least for phones?

Now, I'm sure there will be a successor to the Nexus 4. Maybe it'll be called the Nexus 5 if it gains a larger 5-inch screen size (similar to how the Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 are named). Maybe it'll be called that because it's the next number after four. Maybe it'll just stay the Nexus 4 but with better specs. Whatever happens, however, it seems likely to be less important than Nexus devices before it.

Part of the reason Google started doing Nexus devices was to help work more closely with handset makers to advance what could be done with Android on smartphones. Later, the same was done for tablets. Android smartphones seem to be doing pretty well now regardless of Nexus devices existing. Maybe the new "stock" versions of the HTC One and the Galaxy S4 are better thought of the Nexus 5 in all but name. Or maybe the future of "Nexus" isn't that we'll have Nexus devices but "Nexus editions" of phones.

Verizon: the iPhone network?
Back to Verizon, I've also been feeling the Android mojo overall has been slipping there. It's not just that the carrier hasn't gotten a pure Android device in ages. It's also been behind on the two hot Android phones of this year. It was the last of the major carriers in the U.S. to get the Galaxy S4. The HTC One isn't expected to arrive until "later this summer," Verizon tweeted this week.

The Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, both late to arrive on Verizon Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm not alone in feeling this. In doing some of the searching I did to put together this column, I came across JR Raphael's recent column at Computerworld, where he itemized some of the reasons why he sees Verizon as no longer the place for Android enthusiasts. I was struck by how we're both seeing the same pattern, and no doubt it's not just us. The pattern is there for many to see.

All this has gotten me thinking that I really just need to nurse my Galaxy Nexus along a bit longer. For work reasons, I have several phones on different networks: an iPhone and Windows Phone with AT&T; a Nexus 4 with T-Mobile. When the next version of the iPhone comes out, I'll probably switch to having that on Verizon. That way, I can be assured of finally knowing my Verizon phone will always get timely updates and not face Verizon itself messing with the operating system. What Verizon will do to Android, it won't do with Apple.

It's ironic. AT&T gave birth to the iPhone in the U.S., and I'd argue that Verizon largely gave birth to the popularity of Android in the U.S. through its "Droid" marketing campaign, which it pushed because it lacked the iPhone. These days, AT&T seems far more Android-friendly while Verizon almost feels indifferent to Android.

 

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