A colleague of mine sent a very compelling message while I was walking around the mall last night. The gist of it was this: “Why hasn’t anyone made a big stink on Google not having its flagship phone available while if that happened to Apple all hell would break loose?” It’s a really great question, and one I had generally shrugged off in the past, including this year with the launch of the Nexus 6, which is nearly impossible to find anywhere. I don’t have a straight up answer, but I do have a few ideas as to why the Nexus 6 and, in previous years, other Nexus smartphones have been hard to come by.
My immediate response to my colleague was this: “I think because Apple controls manufacturing.” In other words, Apple directly gathers the parts for its smartphones, manages the supply chain, and makes sure that everything is ready to go at launch. Google, on the other hand, isn’t a hardware manufacturer. Year after year it has picked a partner to manufacture the hardware for its flagship Android device instead. This year, that’s Motorola for the Nexus 6 and HTC for the Nexus 9. So, my quick response was that Google can’t really guarantee stock because it seems ultimately up to Motorola. That’s just my gut reaction, but I think there’s more to this.
We have to consider that, in the past, Nexus devices were built for developers and not really consumers. That has very much changed this year. In meetings with Google, we learned that the Nexus 9 and Nexus 6, like the Nexus Player and Android Wear devices, are entry-points into Google’s Android ecosystem, platters to serve up its software and services. In some ways, sure, the Nexus 9 and Nexus 6 are points of reference for OEMs – but let’s not kid ourselves, there’s huge demand for pure Android, and the majority of OEMs slap their own skins on these devices. They really aren’t reference designs anymore, at least not to enthusiasts, and Google should make stock available for the demand it’s creating itself.
Another thought that crossed my mind is that, perhaps, as Motorola Mobility officially transitions under Lenovo now, Google didn’t have as much of a hand in any say on the manufacturing end. That’s probably now up to Motorola Mobility and the Lenovo management, who have their own business transitions to deal with right now.
Also, What does Google have to win from increased Nexus 6 sales? Perhaps that’s also why we don’t see it covering the subsidy this year, and why the Nexus 6 has a scarier up-front cost than in previous years (though compared to other flagship Android smartphones, it’s still a solid off-contract price.)
My colleague is right, though. If Apple announced the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus this year and then sold out of inventory immediately – inventory of all models, and then simply said it would offer limited stock each Wednesday, investors and consumers would be up in arms. We’d all yell that Apple has lost its touch, that it’s veering off track, that it’s clueless.
Yet, we have to keep in mind that these are two very different companies. Apple is in the hardware business and Google is not, instead relying on partners to build its products. Should it push them to build phones quicker? Sure, but what real benefit does this serve Google? Does Google make substantially more money if one partner sells 50 million Nexus 6 devices as opposed to, say, 50 million Galaxy Note 4 units? That’s the difference here: Google wins on marketing, on exposure, on bringing people into the Android ecosystem, no matter who builds its phones. Conversely, Apple needs to sell phones, it doesn’t have other partners to rely on.
And that’s not to mention – how would key partners like Samsung react if Google started telling everyone to buy the Nexus 9? It would be stepping on toes of major OEMs who have helped shove Android in front of a billion people around the globe.
So, I suppose I don’t have a real answer in regards to why Google can’t simply keep the Nexus 6 in stock. I have a few suspicions, though: it doesn’t control hardware manufacturing and it probably doesn’t want to step on the toes of other OEMs who also build products. Should we scream and yell at Google because it’s still hard to buy a Nexus 6 even though we want one? Maybe, but not for the same reasons that we would be upset if Apple did the same thing.