"The [GM] execs would fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, limo out to the Desert Proving Grounds and drive the company’s latest models.
Our agent says that all the vehicles the execs drove were “ringers.” More specifically, the engineers would tweak the test vehicles to remove any hint of imperfection. “They use a rolling radius machine to choose the best tires, fix the headliner, tighten panel and interior gaps, remove shakes and rattles, repair bodywork—everything and anything.
Did the execs know this? “Nope. And nobody was going to tell them . . . As far as they knew, the cars were exactly as they would be coming off the line. That’s why Bob Lutz thinks GM’s products are world-class. The ones he’s driven are.”
I read this piece (from 2009, the time of the US auto bankruptcies) at the time and filed it in the back of my mind. But I was reminded of it this week, because I've been trying to use a Sony Xperia as my main phone. I won't bore you with my impressions - this isn't a gadget review blog - but what I found interesting was the gap between the experience offered and that on my Nexus 7, or indeed that described by Paul Stamatiou's great piece on the best aspects of Android.
This is hardly a new observation: the experience you get on most OEM Androids is not the same as that you get from a Nexus phone running 'stock Android', or one of the aftermarket ROMs (which however remain very fiddly to install). Google even sells phones like the Galaxy S4 in special 'Google' versions. It's rather like Microsoft selling 'stock Windows'.
It's unfair (or perhaps incomplete) to blame Google for this - this is all part of the fragmentation that's inherent in the open model that drives Android's 40% share of global phone sales. If you want to see a phone OS with none of these issues, look at how well Windows Phone is doing.
But the reason I'm reminded of the GM story is the old computing term about 'eating your own dog food'. Nexus devices and 'official Google' devices are not Google's dog food. They're not what actual customers use.
The Nexus 7 sold only 7m units in almost a year and was only 10% of 'activated' Android tablets, on Google's numbers. The Nexus 10 appears to have sold under 1m units. There's no strong indication that the Nexus handsets sell in large volumes, and rumours from Korea are for just 4m (global) unit sales of the most recent model in six months (it sold out at launch, but we don't know the order size). One can argue about why this is - distribution, branding, sales commissions, consumer awareness etc - but the Nexus phones aren't on anyone's list of top-selling or top-used Android phones that I've seen. This is device manufacturing as vanity publishing.
Hence, for a Google employee to use a Nexus is like a GM exec test-driving a ringer. They're using 'Android'. It's great. But that's not the phones the customers are getting. They're not eating their own dog food.
The irony is that if you buy a $125 generic Chinese Android you're actually more likely to get a 'stock Android' experience with no preinstalled 'crapware' than if you spend $400 or $500. Except, of course, that if you're in China there's a more than even chance you'll have no Google apps preloaded either.