This isn’t a review of the Nexux 5. Rather, it’s a review of Google’s new strategy of integration as displayed in the KitKat-running Nexus 5.
You’ll find a gazillion reviews on the Nexus 5 over the next month, some detailing every feature and function. In general, these reviews will tell you that the Nexus 5 is a great phone with a great form-factor and exterior design, incredible screen, good battery life and excellent general performance. They’ll also point out that nothing even comes close to the Nexus 5′s value for money ($349 unlocked). And Nexus5/KitKat has little surprises (such as LTE tethering, even on AT&T, and also the ability to view Photospheres by moving the phone around).
I’m here not to add yet another review to the mix, but to zero in on what really matters: How Googley is this phone, exactly?
The short answer is: pretty Googley but not Googley enough.
To the extent that Nexus 5 succeeds (is better than other phones), it succeeds with integration. To the extent that Nexus 5 fails, it fails to integrate.
Here’s what I’m talking about.
For years, Google was a “spaghetti factory.” Since deciding to venture beyond the search engine racket, Google has been churning out or acquiring services and products and then throwing them against the wall, so to speak, to see if they’d stick. Many of these products were “20-percent time” projects, where Google engineers would build products (like Gmail). If users liked them, Google would keep them around.
During this period, Google’s design mantra was: No design is good design. The company’s various web sites were mostly just plain text arranged on a page, functional and utilitarian.
The problem was, Google’s products were more easily copied or bested. (Oftentimes bested by competitors matching features but adding better design.) For example, Google added a really cool 3D filing cabinet-like view for open tabs in Chrome for Android. It’s nice, but no longer a point of differentiation because Apple copied it.
At some point, the company struck upon a grand vision. By integrating many of the company’s best product with each other, they make all of them better. And by developing a unifying design sensibility across all products, they would dramatically improve usability and the overall user experience. Co-founder Larry Page has been executing on this vision since becoming Google CEO in April of 2011.
More to the point, the integration of one product into another functions, essentially, as a “feature,” but one that cannot be copied by competitors. For example, by integrating Google Now into the Moto X, Google has given that phone a feature that Apple cannot or would not copy. And that’s why some people choose Moto X over iPhone.
So integration is Google’s new “secret sauce” for developing products nobody else can copy or match.
And that’s why everybody is so excited about the Nexus 5. It’s the latest step in the execution of Google’s killer integration strategy.
So how did they do? Well, it’s a mixed bag.
Where Nexus 5 Fails On Integration
The Nexus 5 has a pretty good, albeit very slow, camera — better than the Moto X and worse than the iPhone 5S. But photography on the Nexus 5 is a confusing mess, specifically because Google inexplicably failed to integrate here.
The Nexus 5 running the KitKat version of Android comes with the old Gallery app, which displays the photos on your device categorized by how they got there (from the camera, from a download, from a screenshot, etc.). The Gallery app lets you open and edit pictures. It’s the default for viewing and editing pictures, even though its the worst app Google has at its disposal.
It gets worse. The Photos app still exists. Photos is an app for your Google+ photos, and it has its own set of photo editing tools (based on the old version of Snapseed).
The Google+ app contains a third view and another redundant set of editing tools (Snapseed, minus the new features recently announced).
This is bizarre. Didn’t Vic Gundotra just blow us away this week with the awesome new features in Snapseed? The Snapseed app is free. Why does Google bundle multiple inferior photo editing tools and not include Snapseed?
Just to clarify: The Photos app contains the same Google+ pictures found in Gallery but a different set of photo editing tools. It contains the same Google+ pictures found in the Google+ app with the same photo editing tools as that app but with an inferior user interface.
Perhaps worse than giving you three sets of photo editing tools, Google doesn’t give you the best one — only the three lesser ones. If you want Snapseed, you need to know about it, then go find and download it as if it was a third party app unassociated with Google.
Advanced and active users will figure all this out. But the failure to integrate all this both confuses average users and fails to provide one of those killer, Googley integration features that gives you a reason to buy the phone.
Without Google’s best integrated into the OS and phone as a singular and unique experience, Nexus 5 photography is a confusing mess, nothing special and unnecessarily inferior to the iPhone 5S.
Google has everything it needs to provide a better photo experience. But they just didn’t put it together. It’s as if Google actually chose to be inferior.
Integration could have made the Nexus 5 the best mobile experience for photography by far, a total integration home run for Google. The updated version of Snapseed should be integrated into Google+ and the Google+ Android app. The Google+ app should be the sole photo app in Android and the one connected to the camera feature. The Gallery and Photos apps should be buried in the Google graveyard next to Reader and Checkout.
Nexus 5 and KitKat represent the total failure of integration around photography. And this is weird, because Google+ represents the best experience with photography ever. Auto Backup, Auto Awesome, Auto Awesome Action, Auto Awesome Erase, Snapseed and all the other best-in-class, unmatchable features should be the standard, single default experience for photography on the Nexus 5.
(And don’t even get me started about the failure to integrate YouTube and Auto Awesome Movie as the default Nexus 5/KitKat video experience.)
There are many other instances where Nexus 5 fails to integrate what Google’s got. As in past versions of Android, there are multiple, confusing apps with overlapping functionality and dubious origin, contributing to a somewhat Windows-like experience and standing in stark contrast to Apple’s tightly integrated, well thought-out set of default apps. But photography is the biggest mess and the biggest opportunity lost.
Where Nexus 5 Wins On Integration
The single best thing about the Nexus 5 — and by best, I mean good and unique and Googley thing — is the integration of Google Now and search into the interface, in conjunction with improvements in how both Now and Search work.
Turn on the phone, and there it is: Search and touchless Moto X-like voice command. Search is also integrated into various functions of the phone. To call a local business, for example, you search directly from the phone-call screen. Search is similarly integrated into other functions that involve finding something from a large group of alternatives.
Sadly, the “OK, Google” command doesn’t work until the phone is turned on with a swipe. But once on, the Google Now voice command can be activated with a user-determined command. Best of all, Google Now on the Nexus 5 and KitKat will ask you for more information. When you say “Call Kevin,” it will ask “Which Kevin?”
Speech recognition is more accurate. And access to the Google Now screen is activated with a swipe to the left. That display will show more context cards, and most spectacularly, “deep links” into installed apps!
In general, what’s great about the Nexus 5 is that it’s a showcase for integration between handset, operating system, Chrome, Google+, Search and Now.
Google wins with integration and, in doing so, proves again that Google’s secret sauce is the integration of existing products.
The bottom line is that because of this integration, the Nexus 5 is probably the best and most Googley phone available.
All I can say is: MORE! Give us more integration.
More specifically, integrate the Snapseed app, Search, Now, Hangouts and more into Google+, then integrate Android with Google+.
Now THAT would be a Googley phone, and one Apple couldn’t possibly match.