Google announced a host of new hardware today, including a new Nexus reference device for its Android mobile OS, the LG-manufactured Nexus 4. Reading through the Nexus 4’s spec list is like checking boxes on a list of what’s required for a smartphone to be competitive. Until you hit its wireless connectivity standards and find that LTE is missing, with only HSPA+ speeds supported. What’s going on? Google has a few answers, but none really grant the decision a pass.
In an extensive piece at The Verge about iPhone accessories like apps and iPhone cases, Google provides a number of reasons why it couldn’t ship the Nexus 4 with LTE. First, Google says it can’t create a device that’s carrier-independent with LTE built-in. As a reference device, the Nexus line is supposed to be network agnostic; in order to build in LTE, it would have to make various custom phones on its own without financial aid from carriers.
That’s a fair point, but remember that the Galaxy Nexus eventually got an LTE version, so why not launch at least one LTE variant of the Nexus 4? In the past, Google has seemed willing to work with limited carrier access in order to provide some customers with true 4G connectivity, but this time around, at least at launch, it hasn’t. It’s an inconsistency that makes that reasoning seem at least a little confusing.
Second reason provided by Google: power draw. LTE uses a lot more power and battery life, and Google’s Andy Rubin cites poor user experience on the LTE Galaxy Nexus as a reason to leave LTE out of the Nexus 4. Of course, that hasn’t stopped other hardware manufacturers from working around this issue, including LG, which includes LTE radios in its Optimus G smartphone, upon which the Nexus 4 design is based. Invoking the spectre of users worried about battery life is a clever enough way to make a fault seem like a feature, but it ends up looking like lazy engineering, given how many others in the same field have addressed that issue sometime over the past couple of years.
Finally (and getting back to why it didn’t offer a Verizon LTE version as it did with the Galaxy Nexus) Google says that politics surrounding LTE network control is a big problem. It would prevent Google from issuing timely updates to devices on Verizon’s CDMA LTE network, while the cost of developing different devices for GSM/HSPA LTE networks would be the big hindrance there. Again, these excuses have some merit; Google wants Nexus customers to be able to update as soon as possible, and it isn’t looking to spend crazily on Nexus hardware since hardware isn’t its business. But still, these feel thin. For one, Verizon users would likely enjoy having the option to receive slightly delayed updates than no LTE at all. At least offer the choice. Provide an LTE version at launch next to the HSPA+ options. Saying “user experience suffers” seems like a justification of the removal of consumer options. Plus, Apple can issue updates to its devices in a timely manner regardless of carrier or network type, so that excuse again rings hollow.
And while it’s true that building on any one network standard would offer only a subset of customers access to LTE, they’re not statistically insignificant markets.
“AT&T currently has LTE in just 77 markets covering 135 million people, and Everything Everywhere in the UK has a goal of covering only 20 million people by year’s end,” reads The Verge’s post. Canada also has 25.8 million subscribers on the same frequency LTE as AT&T’s network. To characterize that potential pool as “small,” especially given that it covers subscribers with the highest average revenue per subscriber and mobile broadband usage in the world, is absolutely ridiculous.
The Nexus 4 is very affordable at $299 off contract, and that should win it some fans, but by leaving LTE out of it, it feels at least two years behind the times. For a phone that is looked to as the definitive Android handset in the media and by users, that’s not something you can explain away, regardless of the reasons you choose to use.
Edit: The final paragraph used to say $299 on contract. Straightforward typo, as is evident from the rest of the sentence.