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Google Doubles Down on Nexus to Keep Up With Apple

Google Inc. GOOG 0.02 % is doubling down on its Nexus program to gain more control over its Android mobile-operating system as new technology and rising competition from Apple Inc. AAPL -2.17 % highlight the value of integrating software and hardware.

On Tuesday, Google launched two Nexus phones simultaneously for the first time since the program began in 2010. The devices, made by LG Electronics Inc. 066570 1.13 % and China’s Huawei Technologies Co., have fingerprint sensors that support a new Android Pay mobile-payment service.

The devices also feature a new Android Sensor Hub that processes sensor data. A low-power sensor from Robert Bosch GmbH helps the phones determine if users are walking, running or biking, and can count steps. Most of the features follow similar iPhone capabilities.

“With Nexus, we try to push Android forward. So we build hardware along with ecosystem partners. This year we’ve gone a step further,” incoming Google CEO Sundar Pichai said during an event Tuesday unveiling the two new Nexus phones.

Apple designs its own hardware and software, so it is well placed to develop these features. Google, by contrast, authors Android software but primarily lets other companies, such as Samsung Electronics Co. SSNHZ 0.00 % and Lenovo Group Ltd. LNVGY -3.86 % , manufacture the phones. That makes integrating such features more difficult.

The Nexus program is designed to help bridge that gap. When Google develops a new version of Android, it chooses a handset maker, or two, with which it works closely on new hardware, as a showcase for other phone makers. The latest version of Android, Marshmallow, launched Tuesday with the new Nexus phones.

As smartphones blend the digital and physical worlds through services like paying in stores, integrating hardware and software grows more important.

“It’s a counterbalance to Apple’s vertically integrated approach,” said Rajeev Chand, head of research at Rutberg & Co., an investment bank focused on the mobile industry. “Nexus devices are the only ones that Google can control end-to-end.”

Google doesn’t seek blockbuster sales of Nexus phones. Instead, it hopes that the Nexus models demonstrate the value of Google’s latest innovations, so other handset makers will adopt them.

“Nexus is a way for us to prove out the software and hardware integration and drive these kinds of innovations across Android,” said Hiroshi Lockheimer, head of Android.

Some handset makers are eager to work with Google on Nexus phones to gain insight into how to integrate new Android features into their phones, said Kevin Packingham, former chief product officer at Samsung. He cited Samsung’s Galaxy S3 phone, which made its debut in 2012, as having benefited from Samsung’s earlier involvement in Nexus.

Google introduced “widgets” on the Nexus 4 phone in 2012. These app icons update with new information like stock prices or weather forecasts without users taking action. Handset makers had worried that the updates would drain phone batteries, but they adopted the widgets after Google proved with the Nexus 4 that they could work, Mr. Packingham said.

This doesn’t always go according to plan. Handset makers and wireless carriers are often slow to update Android devices to new versions of the operating system. That means new features take time to reach all users.

Lollipop, the version of Android that Google launched with the Nexus 6 phone in late 2014, is installed on only 21% of Android devices, according to the company.

“There’s some level of frustration at Google with carriers and OEMs that don’t innovate as quickly as they should,” said Colin Sebastian, an analyst at RW Baird. “This is even more important, given how competitive the smartphone market is with Apple.”

Write to Alistair Barr at US Business

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