Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) added two new devices to its Google Play store on Tuesday. Both are Google Play editions of pre-existing Android devices: LG's G Pad and Sony's Z Ultra. They join Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF ) Galaxy S4 and HTC One, whose Google Play editions were released earlier this year.
As Google rolls out more Google Play edition devices, it's worth asking: What's the point? While these phones are unlikely to find much support among consumers, Google's larger Play edition initiative could help close the gap with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) when it comes to mobile software development.
Not going to move millions
There are two things that differentiate Google Play edition devices from their standard counterparts: their price and their operating system. The Google Play edition of Samsung's Galaxy S4 costs $649 off-contract and comes equipped with stock Android; the standard edition features Samsung's heavily modified version of Android with its TouchWiz skin, and is available for $199 on a two-year contract (or for free if buyers took advantage of recent Black Friday deals).
The Google Play edition also doesn't benefit from Samsung's enormous, multi-billion dollar advertising budget -- Samsung champions its flagship handset, but never bothers to mention the Google Play edition.
The same is largely true for nearly every other Google Play edition device: they're phones and tablets that aren't intended to sell en masse. Even if they offer a superior user experience, as many tech critics allege, the high upfront cost and lack of marketing makes them practically irrelevant when it comes to smartphone shipments. The numbers on Google Play edition sales haven't been released, but it's probably safe to assume that very few have sold -- you'd be hard pressed to find one in the wild.
A device for mobile developers
Instead, the Google Play edition might be better thought of as the developer version. In addition to offering a basic version of Android, Google Play edition devices also sport unlocked bootloaders. On standard phones, the bootloader is locked, making it difficult (though not impossible) to tweak the phone's performance. By offering an unlocked bootloader, Google is making it easier for mobile developers to tinker with the devices.
That might help to explain why Google's hardware partners have been willing to cooperate on such a device. On the surface, Samsung benefits little from the Google Play edition of the S4 -- it doesn't make sense to sell an unlocked version with stock Android; it's far better for Samsung to get its customers hooked on Samsung-specific apps and features.
But by offering such a device, it's possible that the developers who buy it would work to make their Android apps more compatible with Samsung's hardware.
When it comes to hardware, Google's Android is available on all sorts of devices. That's advantageous for consumers, who have a wide selection of phones to choose from, but something of a problem for developers, who have a more difficult time coding for Android. The mobile game developers I've spoken with tell me that designing games for Apple's platform is far easier -- with only a couple of different iPhones, coding for Apple's iOS is a breeze compared to Android.
Indeed, there are far more games available for Apple's iPhone, and popular apps typically start off on Apple's platform before eventually being ported to Android. Recent examples include the dating app Tinder and tower defense game Plants vs Zombies 2.
Given its open nature, Google's Android will probably always be fragmented, and as it's long as it's more fragmented, Apple's iOS will likely enjoy better developer support. But Google has shown its interested in closing the gap -- and more Google Play edition devices could help.
Certainly, I don't think investors should read too much into the release of more Google Play devices -- two more isn't going to make a meaningful difference in the near-term. But as Google continues to support the program, releasing more Google Play editions of popular Android devices, the gap between Apple and Android could slowly narrow.
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