by Al Sacco

What Google’s ‘Play Edition’ Samsung GS4 and HTC One Mean to Android—and You

Jun 27, 20136 mins
AndroidMobileOperating Systems

Google's new Play edition Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One don't represent an effort by the company to gain more control over Android, contrary to popular belief, according to's Al Sacco. And they're not necessarily better devices than the Samsung and HTC versions. Here's why.

Galaxy S4 with “Pure Android.” GS4 with “Stock Android.” Samsung’s Galaxy phone with “Real Android.” The “Nexus GS4.”

These were some of the terms bandied about last month at Google’s annual I/O Developer conference in San Francisco. Despite many other interesting I/O announcements, and Google’s generous distribution of $1500 Chromebook laptops to all attendees, the announcement of the Google Play edition Samsung Galaxy S4—that’s Google’s official name—was probably the most well-received news during the show’s keynote address.

Google Play edition Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One

Yesterday, Google listed for presale the brand new Google Play editions of the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC’s One, which was quietly announced, at least in comparison to the GS4, a couple of weeks after I/O on May 30. Both devices are expected to ship “before July 9.”

Ever since Google first announced the Play edition GS4, I’ve been thinking about what exactly Google is trying to do by releasing its own versions of these two very popular handsets with “pure,” “Nexus” Android. I’ve read countless articles on the subject. I’ve been told that Google is “finally trying to assert some control over Android.” Oooh. And that “Google is trying to reclaim the Android narrative.” Ahh.

But I don’t think that’s Google’s intention.

When considering Google’s move, you have to ask three questions: Who; How; and Why? Who is Google trying to sell these phones to? How is the company going to convince potential customers to buy the Google Play edition devices? And why is Google selling them?

Who is Google Targeting with the Play Edition GS4, HTC One?

The first question has a relatively simple answer: The Google Play edition GS4 and One devices are aimed, first and foremost, at Android developers; that’s why the GS4 was announced at Google I/O, a developer conference. Developers are the people who most need Android updates as soon as they’re available from Google, one of the main perks of owning a Nexus device or a Play edition GS4 or One. Today handset makers, including Samsung and HTC, along with their wireless carrier partners, perform what sometimes seem like endless tests and tweaks on Android software updates, so users have to wait months or even years for the updates to be released.

Android “power users” who like to tinker with their devices and frequently install new and different ROMs without worrying about locked bootloaders or the “rooting” process will also find friends in the Play edition GS4 and One—assuming they’re willing to spend $650 and $600, respectively.

How Will Google Convince People to Buy the ‘Play Edition’ GS4, HTC One?

The target buyers of these two high-end devices, the Android developers and/or power users, probably won’t need much convincing. For the reasons described above, the Play edition GS4 and HTC One devices are no brainers for developers and advanced Android users who can afford them. Many of these folks are already used to paying top dollar for unlocked or off-contract devices because they always want to have the latest and greatest devices.

Google Play edition Samsung Galaxy S4

But the average smartphone users and Android fans, in most cases, probably want to stick with the Samsung and HTC versions of these companies’ popular devices. And that’s just fine with Google, I think. Google isn’t really trying to steal away customers from other handset makers or convince people to buy its version over the official Samsung or HTC versions.

It is also telling that both Samsung and HTC agreed to work with Google to create these devices. The handset makers want to sell more devices. And they’re still making money every time Google sells a Play edition smartphone. Clearly, neither Samsung nor HTC would have built devices to run “stock” or “pure” versions of Android if they thought it would affect sales or customer loyalty over time.

The Samsung and HTC versions of the GS4 and HTC One are cheaper than Google’s versions, if you’re willing to sign a new service contract. Many of the features and some of the advanced functionality that both Samsung and HTC spotlight in their marketing for the GS4 and One won’t work or won’t work as well on the Google versions. For example, many advanced camera features on both devices won’t work when running Google’s version of Android, because they’re dependent on Samsung and HTC software enhancement. Two of HTC’s main selling points for the One are its Beats audio technology and dual front-facing speakers. Customers who buy the Play edition One will get the dual speakers, but the Beats tech is built into the software, so they won’t be able to take advantage of those features, according to HTC.

So the most interesting question of all is probably…

Why Did Google Decide to Sell Play Edition GS4s, HTC Ones?

The concept of a “pure Android” smartphone is not a new one. That’s the idea behind Google’s existing Nexus line of devices. Past Nexus devices were built to focus on Google and Android instead of the manufacturer. For example, the Galaxy Nexus smartphone, which is made by Samsung, is not referred to as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. The Nexus 4, made by LG, is not called the LG Nexus 4. And ASUS’s Nexus tablet is simply called the Nexus 7. But these devices were focused on the software side of things instead of the hardware and the latest and greatest tech specs.

Google Play edition HTC One

Both the Play edition GS4 and HTC One represent the evolution of the Nexus line of devices, at least in part. Google singled out the two most popular devices, with top-of-the-line hardware specs, and brought the Nexus experience to these handsets.

Why? Well, because it could. And because Android is about both openness and choice. Google is creating a new niche for Android, one that offers the highest-end hardware along with a “pure” Android experience, for those who are willing to pay a bit more for this luxury. That’s a niche that has not been catered to in the past, and it’s a market opportunity for Google. It’s that simple. Google doesn’t want to steal away customers looking for a cheap or mid-range smartphone or who couldn’t tell the difference between HTC’s version of Android, Samsung’s or the Nexus experience.

Are the Google versions of these smartphones “better” than the Samsung and HTC versions? No, not necessarily. In fact, Samsung’s GS4 and HTC’s One may in some cases provide a better overall experience for the average customer.

But that’s what’s great about Android and about these two new Google versions of Samsung and HTC devices: You don’t have to choose from just one make or model, or even software version, and you don’t have to “root” or “jailbreak” your Android device to make the modifications you desire.