I have to admit, if you were to tell me one year ago today that devices like the Galaxy S4 and HTC One Google Play edition would exist as things, I'd call you a liar. And I'd probably secretly hope that they did exist, too. These handsets, or really, the idea behind them, have been the enduring dream of almost every Android enthusiast from the early days of MOTOBLUR and TouchWiz. Those skins, which were bywords for "UI lag" and "carrier bloat," became synonymous with everything that made Android worse than the stock experience Google provided on Nexus devices. There were real reasons to hope that something virtually identical to the Google Play edition hardware that went on sale yesterday would eventually grace Android lovers everywhere.
Now, though, they feel far from necessary. I have watched internet commenters fall out of love, almost in real time, with these devices, particularly given the way Google has chosen to handle them from a developer and enthusiast perspective.
The HTC One and Galaxy S4 Google Play edition will very likely never receive support in the Android Open Source Project. Google will not host factory images for either, nor will they host proprietary binaries. It will be up to Samsung and HTC - if they so choose - to provide such materials. (They have not at the time of this writing provided any of the aforementioned resources.) Google will not even be directly handling the OTA updates. Google will provide the underlying Android builds necessary to update the phones, but it's still up to Samsung and HTC to get those builds working on the device (with, it sounds like, support from Google), and that task isn't trivial. And yes, this has all been confirmed by El Goog itself, and where not explicitly, through a bit of common sense deduction.
What exactly is the benefit to these devices, then? You get to skip the carrier update certification process, and in theory, you will thus receive official updates to the latest version of stock Android in a timely manner. The problem is that on closer examination of those benefits, the entire act of making these devices is basically unnecessary. We didn't need "Google Play edition" devices to get what we're getting here. Allow me to explain.
HTC will sell you an unlocked and bootloader unlockable HTC One that supports identical bands as the Google Play variant for the same price. And you get a $25 Google Play gift card? Not bad. As far as I'm aware, even AT&T's One variant is still unlockable via HTCDev (as are Sprint and T-Mo's). Sprint and T-Mobile's Galaxy S4s ship with unlockable bootloaders, Verizon has a developer edition costing the same as the Google Play edition (bootloader unlockable), and AT&T will soon have a developer edition, as well. You can also rest assured that Canadian versions (SGH-I337M) of the S4 will start showing up more and more online, which will work with AT&T's and T-Mobile's LTE networks, and are carrier unlocked / bootloader unlockable.
Why am I going through the trouble of listing out all these unlockable phones? Because if you can get the bootloader unlocked, an imperfect stock Android experience isn't far away. The biggest reason that experience isn't perfect is the handset OEM. Why exactly do HTC and Samsung need to release new phones in order to make stock Android builds available to devices? Given that these handsets seem to be getting almost no special treatment from Google, and are no more open than unlocked / developer editions, frankly, I have a hard time seeing a big point to the GPE program.
There is some standing in a simplicity argument. If you want a not-quite-completely-open high-end unlocked phone with stock Android out of the box that works on a GSM carrier with LTE in the United States (so, T-Mobile or AT&T, or a prepaid 3G carrier), these are there for you. I am happy to admit that there is some kind of an audience here. Google / stock Android diehards without major tinkering fetishes may well happily hop on to the Google Play edition bandwagon, and that audience is being satisfied. I am not saying there is no point.
However, given the response to all the information about binaries, factory images, and OTAs I discussed in the beginning of this piece, it is clear that Google has reduced the scope of the audience for these phones substantially by making them "less than a Nexus." Granted, it was never promised they'd be Nexus devices.
But the drawbacks don't end there. The HTC One GPE, for example, will have its IR blaster disabled, the
Beats Audio switch removed (it's just always on) (Edit: Apparently the switch has been added in), HTC's camera features stripped out, and obviously will lack any other HTC-specific software. This is all a given - the sacrifice one makes for a true "stock Android" experience - but with each passing handset cycle, OEM-specific features and software are becoming more desirable, not less. It just isn't like it was back in the MOTOBLUR days. Not every handset with a custom skin sucks anymore. There are reasons, arguably, to want these overlays.
The same goes for the S4. Its mountain of smart features and Samsung add-ons (like the much-loved notification bar quick toggles) are nowhere to be seen on the S4 GPE. I know this sounds so obvious that it doesn't need to be said, but I think it does need to be said: stock Android simply is not the Holy Grail of Awesomeness we so held it to be a year or two ago. I can understand an aesthetic preference for it, sure, but I for one would take the standard Galaxy S4 or HTC One over their GPE counterparts any day of the week. And as for the "make every phone a Nexus crowd," well, you're going to have a tough time getting them on board with this decidedly not-a-Nexus approach to the GPE idea.
I think the real goal that Google should be pushing for here is not to fragment (I know, that word) the hardware ecosystem by having OEMs release special stock editions of phones. At this point, it seems 95% superfluous. The push should be toward a switch, or a tool. Something that allows you in some way to "Reset to Nexus User Experience." I am not suggesting the "how" - that is a far more complex question. How would you avoid carrier update certification hurdles (on carrier-branded devices)? That's a good question, too. It's probably a pretty hard question. But if you're going to sell Developer Editions, unlocked editions, and make your phones bootloader unlockable in the first place, making a ROM with stock Android available shouldn't be too hard. Most people actually would probably prefer such an option, as opposed to buying an entirely new phone.
I think the Google Play edition devices were what many people wanted until they realized just what it is they thought they wanted wasn't all that much of an improvement over what already existed, and the improvements that would be gained from the GPE hardware came with substantial caveats. Google, Samsung, and HTC listened to those people. Of which I readily admit I was one, up until the last few months of actually using some of the newest Android hardware. I personally just don't feel that lust for stock Android anymore. Waiting on OTAs for a few new features is never fun, but I can't say it's enough right now to make me want to sacrifice the other benefits skins like Sense 5 and TW Nature UX 2.0 impart on the Android experience.
Maybe 2 years ago, the GPE program would have made sense. It might have made enough sense to catch on in a substantial way. Today? I'm not suggesting that these devices being out there is a bad thing - please don't mistake criticism for disdain - but I just don't think these phones matter now. I will say this: I am greatly interested in seeing if any more GPE devices actually come to fruition after this first round.