While Google didn't give us the headline-making full platform release we were expecting, it gave us something that's arguably more valuable in the long run: a revamped approach to the way the company handles the Android software experience.
In a nutshell, Google's picking up the pace on its move to unbundle core elements of the operating system -- pulling the pieces out of the OS and offering them as standalone applications any user can install.
It's something we've been seeing in small doses for a while now. Way back in the fall of 2010, for instance, the G-Team announced it was pulling the Gmail app out of the operating system and offering it as a regular download in the Play Store (then Android Market) instead. At the time, Googlers said the move was designed to make it so "Gmail updates aren’t tied to Android version releases anymore" -- allowing users to "get new ... stuff faster without having to wait for system updates." Bingo.
Since then, we've seen other system apps follow suit -- apps like Google Calendar, YouTube, and Chrome (which replaced the original OS-integrated Android Browser). Even Google+ is a core system app that's updated and maintained independently of the base OS. All of these things add up to a way for Google to deliver significant updates to the platform without having to rely on manufacturers and carriers -- both of whom are notoriously slow at keeping up with their ends of the deal.
That brings us to today: At this year's I/O event, Google took the decentralizing concept to new heights. The company introduced a giant update to Google Play Services, a behind-the-scenes system that lets developers tap into core Android features within their own applications. Many of these features are things that traditionally would have been built into the OS itself -- meaning you, as a user, wouldn't have access to them (and consequently wouldn't be able to use apps that took advantage of them) until your phone got the latest Android release.
With the functions separated out into Play Services, Google can deliver them to every phone instantly -- within a matter of days -- regardless of what carrier you use or what version of Android you're running. Play Services provides support all the way down to Android 2.2, Froyo (and let's be honest: If you've got a phone running anything lower than Froyo, it's way past time for you to get a new device).
So what's new in Google Play Services? A lot. The system now includes APIs that let developers harness the new Google Play Game Services as well as robust location-based functions, cloud messaging and universally synced notifications, and a cross-platform single sign-on feature.
That's no small upgrade: It's because of this system that Google's new Hangouts app -- the retooled version of the previously bundled Google Talk service -- became available to millions of Android users within hours of its announcement on the I/O stage. And as more third-party developers begin integrating new features into their applications -- things like that new gaming center -- it'll be the reason you'll be able to use them right away, whether you have the latest Android OS version or not.
The "Android Upgrade Alliance" of 2011 may have been an embarrassing failure, but Google seems to have learned from its mistake. While OS upgrades will undoubtedly continue to have a huge impact on big-picture things like system performance and user interface, the move to pull pieces out of the OS means more of us will see meaningful updates more often -- without the need for reliance on manufacturers and carriers.
Think of it this way: All the stuff announced over the past several days -- a brand new music app with optional on-demand streaming, a new universal messaging system, a new series of context-sensitive Google Now commands, a new and improved Google Maps, a new version of Google+ with loads of advanced photo manipulation tools, and the aforementioned new gaming center (whew!) -- would have amounted to a major, maybe even "magical" OS update on any other mobile platform.
With Google's new approach to Android, we're getting all of that outside of an official OS update. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.
When you stop and think about it, that's pretty damn impressive.