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Nexus 5: The first true Google Phone?

Nexus 5

The Google Nexus 5 is out, and while the Nexus brand has traditionally been considered to offer a “pure Google” experience, it would seem that the Nexus 5 gives Android users an even deeper integration with Google services. In fact, with Nexus 5 and 4.4 KitKat, the Android user experience seems to have been diluted by Google applications and services, which makes it more of a “pure Google” phone than a “pure Android” one.

Matias Duarte, Android’s director of design, intimated in an interview with The Verge that the development team “spent more time on [the Nexus 5] hardware than any other product.” The result is a phone that is more in-line with Google’s hardware-design thinking than any phone it has released before, from the use of ceramic buttons to the laser-engraved “hardcore plastic” which is “not cheap.”

The Google-ness of this phone goes beyond the hardware, however. Even Android 4.4 KitKat, which powers the Nexus 5, comes with a few tweaks and customizations that make Google services decidedly more dominant than the stock Android experience. Take for example these highlights.

The Home Screen. The Nexus 5 home screen has actually been replaced with Google Now. It does not just come with Google Now widgets or features, but the home screen app itself is Google Now code. Duarte says this is “the single most exciting thing for Nexus 5.” At this point, this Launcher is available exclusively on the Nexus 5, and Google is not likely to release it as a Google Play download anytime soon.

Hangouts for SMS. The much-awaited SMS functionality in Hangouts is finally here. Only now, it’s not only SMS functionality that is coming to Hangouts. Rather, in the Nexus 5, Hangouts itself becomes the default SMS application. While users can easily replace Hangouts with another SMS app as the default, the idea here is to introduce unification, which VP for engineering Hiroshi Lokcheimer says “is just a better user experience.” Hangouts is clearly moving toward the ideal that users will need only one app for most communication needs: SMS, instant messaging, video and IP-based calls.

Phone dialer. Apart from the home screen itself and SMS, the Nexus 5 phone dialer will come with integrated local search features, which will help users find local businesses and establishments, based on their location — sort of like Google Now, but for calling relevant businesses. Dave Burke, director for Engineering at Android says Google already has the “massive infrastructure” to support this feature, and the new dialer brings “a better experience for users.” And while Android KitKat includes this feature in its core functionalities, the locale-specific caller-ID and business search features run via private Google APIs.

Unified file picker. KitKat comes with a unified file picker, which will integrate cloud storage. While users can access any cloud storage service with this new file system, it comes better-integrated with Google Drive.

Google is increasing its influence and coverage on Android devices, from the home screen to the messaging, calling and file storage components. True enough, while Google services are at the core of the Android experience, phone-makers like Samsung, HTC and LG have introduced their own customizations and services that intend to replace or augment the user experience. With the Nexus 5 updates, however, there is a chance that Google might eventually release these features and functionalities to KitKat users at large (meaning those who run the latest version of Android on non-Nexus phones).

Should this be a cause for concern for other brands? How about other service providers and developers, which release apps that target a more pervasive user experience? Take for instance Facebook, which launched Facebook Home earlier this year as a replacement for the android home and lock screens, which intended to highlight social networking updates and connectivity with friends. The home screen replacement got negative to mixed reviews, although the efforts were lauded as having “reinvent[ed] the way you open programs on your phone.”

With Nexus 5, KitKat and a more persistent Google experience, will Google play an even bigger role in our day-to-day mobile lives?