Analysis: A new Nexus 5 edition is all about the Fi

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The usual rumour mills are all fired up over the possibility of new Nexus 5 & 6 editions appearing this year, mostly over who would be making them. Most of the justifications given for a new Nexus 5 in particular seems to focus on either the new Android M hardware features such as fingerprint recognition and ARMv8. However, there is one hardware feature that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere, and it’s the one reason why I feel Google absolutely must release a new Nexus 5 model this year. That reason is simply Project Fi.

Project Fi

Project Fi

Google has been trying to disrupt the US mobile industry since 2010, when it made the original Nexus One available unlocked on its own store. This went against US model of releasing phones only with a carrier’s plan; this practice famously frustrated Apple fans, who for years could only get the original iPhone on AT&T. Google’s previous attempts at disruptions seems to have had little effect however.

Project Fi is still invitation-only and there are few details on its implementation, but appears to be Google’s latest attempt to maneuver around the mobile operators. It does this by treating them as a network of networks, supplemented with WiFi hotspots. This removes the user from the tyranny of having to choose a single carrier by allowing the phone to choose the best option at any given point. Google acts as the broker between the networks (whether that will put users under the tyranny of Google remains to be seen).

Fi needs hardware

The problem at the moment however is that Project Fi is only accessible to one phone model; the Nexus 6. This is because Fi requires dedicated hardware, and the Nexus 6 is only phone that has it.

It’s not clear what this hardware actually does, but it’s almost certainly related to managing the interaction between the networks (it may also handle encryption, although the Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 has a native encryption module). The problem is that automatic hand-off between networks of different types (as opposed to hand-off between different cellular towers on the same network) is hard to do. The reason is that it must do so seamlessly, possibly while the user is on an active call. This can be tricky to do even when the network is under a common control, which is why seamless WiFi roaming requires a custom hardware, usually in the form of Zero Handoff base-stations. On disparate networks that are unaware of each-other it’s going to be up to the client to somehow mediate the flow of packets to provide a smooth experience.

Fi needs Nexus. A popular one.

So Fi requires custom hardware, and only one phone has it. And unfortunately it’s not a particularly popular phone; the Nexus 6 sales were disappointing, especially compared to the wildly popular Nexus 5. Google could rely on 3rd-party manufacturers to include support, but they’re not going do so until Fi is popular, and Fi will remain niche until there’s widespread support: catch-22. So it’s up to the Nexus line to drive the adoption and encourage the 3rd-parties to follow along. But to a degree the Nexus line has always been about providing flagship features first, so this is nothing new.

Put a pin in it

So to put my reputation where my mouth is, here’s some predictions. Come back in January to see how I did:

  1. We can expect at least one new Nexus phone this year, probably several.
  2. One of these will be an updated version of the Nexus 5.
  3. To really put it on the line, I expect the new Nexus 5 hardware to be Snapdragon 808, 32GB and 64GB models, fingerprint scanner, and Fi support.
  4. There may also be dual-SIM support as that’s also an Android M feature, although I’m less confident in that.
  5. The price-point of the new Nexus 5 will be very reasonable, probably similar to the 2013 version. The other phone(s) may be priced closer to the market though.

Let’s see how this goes, shall we 🙂 I’m going out on a limb here a bit, but I think my reasoning is sound. But I’d be interested in hearing other views, so feel free to jump in on the comments below or ping me on Twitter @tarkasteve