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LG in talks with Google for Nexus device

LG wants to be on the ground floor for one of the next iterations of Android. An LG executive noted that there were still no firm commitments yet.

LG and Android are as close as ever.
Roger Cheng/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--LG is jockeying to be the next handset partner to craft a Nexus device--allowing the company to get first dibs on one of the next iterations of Android.

"We're having discussions," Ramchan Woo, head of LG's smartphone division, told CNET in an interview. "We're working on it."

Over the past few years, getting the Nexus title and working directly with Google on a mobile device has carried an element of prestige. That handset maker gets access to the latest and greatest from Google, giving it some bragging rights over its rivals, even if the financial benefits have been mixed.

LG, which hasn't had a shot to work with Google on such a project, is vying for such an honor. Woo warned that there have been no commitments yet, and it's unclear which version of Android LG is aiming to run with. The next major release of Android, known as Jelly Bean, is expected to work with tablets alongside Windows 8. Such a win would give LG a shot in the arm and reinforce the image that the company is a major player in Android.

LG has only had middling success in the smartphone business, having jumped on the Android bandwagon a little later than its rivals. Once a major name with cell phones, the company is still trying to claw its way back up the smartphone ladder.

Meanwhile, HTC was out of the gate with the first Google phone, the Nexus One, while Samsung Electronics just released its Galaxy Nexus, the first phone with Ice Cream Sandwich. Along the way, Motorola Mobility had the first Honeycomb tablet in the Xoom.

While partnering with Google on the latest version of Android carries bragging rights, that sometimes doesn't translate into sales. The Nexus One, which was Google's experiment to sell phones directly to consumers, failed badly, while the Xoom didn't turn many heads.

What it does provide is a lot of engineering support from Google. The teams essentially work together on a new version of Android, giving the handset vendor a major leg up on the next release.

There are concerns that Google will let Motorola, which it is in the middle of acquiring, get access to all of the latest Android updates. Partnering with LG on a Nexus device would alleviate concerns that the Internet search giant is playing favorites in the mobile world.

LG favors customization
In the ongoing debate about stock Android versus customized user interfaces, LG squarely lands on the side of customization.

Sure, there are the Nexus devices that offer the first glimpse into a new Android operating system. But beyond that, LG prefers to customize the user interface to set itself apart from its competitors.

LG believes it has the know-how to build a better user interface than Google can with its stock Android software. The company has put a lot of time and resources into testing how people interact with mobile devices, including a lab in Seoul that actually measures brain wave activity during phone use.

"We know the customer data better than Google," Woo said, adding that some people are uncomfortable with the native Google user interface.

LG is just one of many handset makers that must wrestle with the decision to use the standard Android operating system--which many gadget enthusiasts prefer--and risk getting lost in the pack, or going with a custom interface. HTC, for instance, has done well with its Sense user interface.

Android has previously been criticized for being too geek-friendly, one of the many reasons why many flock to the iPhone's easier operating system. But Google has worked to make the operating system easier and more intuitive to use.

Woo noted that LG will make little tweaks like using a white background versus Google's preference for black backgrounds, or adding separate navigation buttons that are below the display, as opposed to the software buttons found in Ice Cream Sandwich.

The biggest complaint from custom user interfaces is the lag between upgrades to the latest version of Google. A phone with HTC's Sense or LG's custom interface will take longer to get the next version of Android than a phone that uses the native operating system. Woo noted that customers with an LG smartphone could expect an upgrade two to three months after the release of a new version of Android.

Still, he said the delay in getting a new version of Android is a problem LG acknowledges and is looking at.

Updated at 12:08 p.m. PT: to include additional background on the benefits of getting a Nexus device.