Google’s new Galaxy Nexus: a phone with a soul

October 19, 2011

Google wants your phone to make you a superhero, to make you more powerful and to make you smarter.

On top of all that, Google wants you to love your phone, too. Apparently, love is an emotion the company has found lacking when it comes to its Android line of smartphones.

I know what you’re thinking: How is it possible the public has failed to fall in love with devices called Droids? Devices that are advertised primarily in violent television spots that seem to indicate the phone is as likely to put you in a meat grinder as it is to help you find directions to the nearest deli?

According to the head of user experience for Android — a man named Matias Duarte — for people to love their devices, the company had to figure out what the “soul” of Android was. “I don’t think anybody ever asked about the soul,” he tells me. “This was my question. It was the question I challenged the team with.”

The answer to Duarte’s question — the romantically named Galaxy Nexus, which was built in partnership with Samsung — was revealed this week at an event in Hong Kong. Literally a huge slab of a device, the Galaxy Nexus comes with all the fixings: a nearly five-inch HD display, a fast dual-core processor and Verizon’s 4G LTE service. But what is the soul of the new machine? It’s a new, more lovable version of the Android operating system dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich.

Duarte says that his team studied the current crop of competitors — most notably Apple’s iPhone operating system iOS and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 — and found their visual ideas lacking. Apple’s iOS deals in the re-creation of real-world objects in almost cartoonish ways — the calendar with leather edges, for instance. Windows Phone 7, Duarte says, is stark and cold, like “airport lavatory signage.”

The new Ice Cream Sandwich software is an evolution of the tablet operating system the company announced in January nicknamed “Honeycomb.” But, Duarte says, “we wanted to do more than just bring Honeycomb to phones.”

So while the Honeycomb interface had a cold futurism to it, Google wanted to use the Web as a basis for design in Ice Cream Sandwich — meaning the company needed to find a consistent language and layout, but not stay lassoed to a particular style. The Galaxy Nexus’s interface is still plenty futuristic, but it eschews the familiarity of Apple’s cartoonish icons, the flatness of Microsoft’s OS and the hard lines of Honeycomb. It’s friendly without being exaggerated, modern without feeling overly synthetic.

In Duarte’s words, the company “pumped up the snooty design quotient” and “toned down the geeky nerd quotient.”

For a company known for data rather than design, Ice Cream Sandwich is a big step in the right direction. While Apple has known all along that the experience and feel of a device can be more important than its abilities or specifications like memory capacity or weight, Google is just starting to play catch-up in the world of aesthetics.

But what about your phone making you feel like a superhero? There are tricks for that, too.

The phone can now unlock itself just by seeing you using facial recognition. It can take nearly instant dictation for
e-mails, messages and more. It can take photos with zero shutter lag (meaning you never have to wait for the picture to save to keep snapping). It can “beam” files back and forth to other Galaxy Nexuses just by tapping the two devices together — a neat trick made possible through the use of NFC (near-field communication) technology. The phone can even tell you when you’re using too much data on your plan — and cut you off if you want it to.

Google’s Ice Cream Sandwich also includes a new “People” application, which is meant to help you stay more connected to friends and family.

I’ve seen and used the device, and I can say that it really is a big change for the Android that most people know. Not only is the Galaxy Nexus a serious competitor to the best-in-breed iPhone 4S, but in many ways, it feels like Google is purposefully attacking the hard, masculine branding of its devices that Verizon has been keen to push in its advertising and partners such as Motorola have heartily embraced.

Instead, Google seems to be saying these aren’t just devices for the bleeding edge, but for the center. It’s an ironic statement for Google to make, since it currently has a larger market share in smartphones than any of the other players in the game.

When I talked to Duarte about his vision for this new device, he told me that long ago he’d decided that smartphones weren’t for a certain kind of person. “They were for everyone,” he says. “Smartphones were the way phones were supposed to be.”

With Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus, it looks like Google is starting to believe that, too.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of The Verge, a technology news Web site debuting this fall, and former editor in chief of Engadget.

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