JR Raphael says that Google is deconstructing Android, and that is awesome, but what does that mean?
Google has been slowly separating the Google Experience from Android
When Google first launched Android, it included core Google apps like Maps, Gmail, and the Android Market. The bundle of Android and the core apps became known as the Google phone, and the phones that had the entire bundle had the “With Google” logo located on the back.
The core parts of Android are open source, which enables Amazon and Barnes & Noble to use it to make their own tablets without paying Google for Android, but that doesn’t include the core Google apps for which manufacturers pay a fee to be able to include. While most Android device manufacturers pay the fee to include Google Play and the other core applications, they are able to pick and chose what to include and what to develop to create their own user experience.
The combination of different user experiences, different availability dates of upgrades to Android, and the different versions of Android included in new phones has been labeled by the press as “Android fragmentation.” The consequence of fragmentation is many different versions of Android being available, users not being able to upgrade their phones to the most current version of Android, and developers having to test their apps on too many versions of Android.
Google determined that the real issue of Android fragmentation is that the parts of Android that users see and use is not being kept current by the manufacturers and that users have no way to upgrade those parts on their own. Most people don’t care if the Android kernel on their phone is not current, but they do care if the version of Maps is not current.
Google also realized they couldn’t get hardware manufacturers nor the carriers to release upgrades fast enough.
So, their solution is to separate the apps that make up the Google Experience from Android and distribute updates to them via the Play store, which just about every device other than Amazon’s has installed. Consequently, users now get updates to the parts of their Android phone they care the most about as soon as Google releases them.
What To Watch For
Some key components of the Google Experience remain bundled with Android, and in order for the fragmentation issue to be completely resolved they will also need to be separated. The key components to look at are the Launcher and the Play store.
The Launcher is Android’s primary user interface and includes the home screens, support of widgets on the home screens, and the app drawer. HTC Sense and Samsung’s Touchwiz are basically alternatives to the Launcher that Google provides with Android. Several alternative Launchers are also available in the Play store.
If Google releases the stock Android launcher as a separate app in the Play store, and perhaps calls it Google Home, that means if you own an HTC One you could make it function as stock Android phone. Another potential result of Google distributing the Launcher via the Play store is that they would no longer need the Nexus devices because users would be able to convert any phone running the Android kernel in to a “stock” Android phone.
The Play Store
Key to Google’s plan of addressing fragmentation is their control over the Play store, it allows them to make their apps available and push updates to any phone that has Play. If handset manufacturers chose to prevent users from replacing their user experience, they would have to remove Play from their phones AND prevent users from installing apps from any other source.
To not include Play on their phone, manufacturers would have to provide their own app store or partner with someone else like Amazon. If manufacturers started building phones with their own store and apps, Google could be forced to make Play a separate app like their other core apps and prevent manufactures from being able to block the ability to install apps from third parties.
So far, handset manufacturers have not taken steps to prevent users from replacing their user experience with another that is available in the Play store. For example, today you can replace HTC Sense with Nova Launcher. The worry is whether the Android handset manufacturers will start a war to preserve their user experience at the expense of users. Samsung has already their own app store and has been working on their own mobile operating system.
- I’ve recently been shocked to realize that I actually prefer using HTC Sense on the HTC One rather than stock Android, and therefore I don’t think I would actually install the Android launcher on my phone if it were available. The main reason why I prefer it is that I have come to really like Blinkfeed.
Fewer Android Upgrades
Finally, another result of Google’s apparent fragmentation plan is that they can slow down the frequency of updates to Android. I think we have already seen this in the fact that Google did not announce Key Lime Pie during the Google I/O conference.
Fewer Android upgrades will increase the likelihood that the majority of phones will have the same version of the operating system, and that will be appealing to developers and corporate customers. Developers and corporate customers would prefer to see less frequent updates to Android as each update requires a lengthy, and therefore costly, testing process. I would not be surprised if we did not see a major upgrade to Android until next year.
The Strategy Is Working!
In my opinion, the strategy is working to the benefit of everyone. Separating the core apps actually makes it easier for Google to quickly release updates because the releases don’t depend on fewer teams within Google, and don’t need to go through the manufacturer/carrier blockade.
Users see more frequent updates, and with that feel better about the investment they made in the smartphone they purchased. To the average user, it feels that Android is “newer” than iOS just simply because they seem to get a new version of Gmail or Maps, or other Google apps much more frequently.
- iPhone users also benefit too because now Google releases iOS versions of their apps as frequently as Android versions.
Developers, manufacturers, corporate customers, and carriers are happier because they don’t feel stuck on the constant treadmill of having to test new changes to Android. However, I do understand how manufacturers and carriers may be slightly dis-satisfied because the result could be users not buying new phones as frequently.
So, when do you think we will see the Google Launcher?