Nexus phones will never see huge sales—but here’s why they don’t need to

September 30, 2015, 6:50 PM UTC

Yesterday at Google’s annual Android event, the company unveiled two new Nexus smartphones, the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P. Like previous generations of Nexus phones, these just-announced devices represent the cutting edge of Android in both a hardware and software sense, running Android 6.0 Marshmallow and including new features like a fingerprint reader and support for Project Fi.

But with Nexus devices failing to gain a foothold among most consumers, some may wonder why this brand continues to exist at all.

“The goal of the Nexus program is to highlight what’s possible in hardware and showcase the best Android experience possible,” says Google communications manager Chelsea Maughan. “It’s Google’s take on not only the user experience, but the total experience including the hardware design, the retail experience, how you get security updates (monthly) and how you get software updates (for two years). But more than that—these are great phones that push the larger Android ecosystem forward.”

If that sounds like an admission that sales have fallen flat, that’s not a coincidence. Google (GOOG) has even said as much, with a company exec sharing that Nexus sales were down during the Q1 2015 financial earnings call back in April. But units shipped is beside the point: Nexus devices are clearly not intended to drive revenue.

Ian Fogg, senior director and head of the mobile and telecoms team, agrees. “Sales are not the reason Google does Nexus phones,” he says. “This is a product designed to be a standard bearer for Google’s innovation for Android.”

MORE: Hands on with Google’s new Nexus smartphones, Pixel C tablet

That’s not to say the Nexus brand doesn’t serve any practical purposes. For mobile developers, the phones are valuable tools, as they showcase the latest Android capabilities without any software tweaks from carriers or phone manufacturers. The smartphones find an audience among early adopters and industry analysts, too. And Nexus phones can provide a solid opportunity for OEMs like Huawei and LG—Huawei manufactures the Nexus 6P and LG manufactures the Nexus 5X.

“Google needs the handset makers because most shipped Android phones are not Nexus devices,” Fogg says. “It’s big that they’re using two OEMs, and one of them is Chinese. Huawei is just starting to break away from the pack, and the fact that Google has chosen it [to make a Nexus phone] means it could really take off.”

Finally, without huge sales expectations, Google can treat Nexus devices as an experiment, seeing what resonates most with users. As Maughan says, “The Nexus 6 was a good learning experience for us. Some people loved having a larger screen with them for work and play. Others missed the Nexus 5 and wanted it back.”

Even if both Google and analysts agree that the Nexus brand serves to set the pace for Android rather than set new sales records, one issue remains. For the last several years, the latest version of Android has only made it to a select handful of phones, leaving most users running outdated software.

“Google will need to have some way to get the latest version of Android into more people’s hands,” Fogg says. As to how the company might do this, he points to another product announced yesterday, the Pixel C Android tablet. “Previous Android tablets from Google have gone out of the Nexus brand, so it could be an issue of re-branding.”

Whatever the future holds for Android devices, it’s fair to say that Nexus phones will be at the forefront, even if they don’t find a place in many consumers’ pockets.

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