Android Intelligence Analysis

What one silly app reveals about Google's grand plan for Android

It may look like a simple calculator, but Google's latest Play Store upload signifies volumes about its changing approach to the Android platform.

Google's Grand Plan For Android

It's all too easy to miss the forest for the trees.

This week's news surrounding a seemingly simple Android app launch is a perfect example. Maybe you heard: Google released a standalone Calculator app to the Play Store.

SAY WHAT? A new Calculator app?! Stop the presses! Whoop-dee-freakin'-doo, right?

Wait -- the app also adds native support for a smartwatch interface on Android Wear?! Okay, that's actually kinda neat. But it still isn't what makes this move important.

The move of Google's Calculator out of the operating system and into the Play Store represents something far grander for Android as a platform. It's a landmark moment in an effort we've been seeing unfold for almost six years now -- one that, with this latest step, is finally flirting with completion.

It's Google's deconstruction of Android as an operating system. And little by little, it's changing the way we think about what an "operating system" really means.

Android, unbundled

Let's step back a bit to get the full picture of what's going on here and what it really means for us as consumers.

The start of Android's deconstruction goes back to the fall of 2010, when Google announced it was pulling the Gmail app out of the main operating system and instead offering it as a regular downloadable app in the Play Store (then known as -- get ready for a trip down memory lane, gang -- the Android Market).

Android Gmail App 2010

The freshly unbundled Android Gmail app in 2010 -- whoa....

At the time, Google said the move was intended to make it so that Gmail updates wouldn't be "tied to Android version releases anymore," allowing everyone to "get new ... stuff faster without having to wait for system updates."

And that, my friends, gets at the root of why all this matters so much.

It's easy now to take for granted that apps like Gmail exist outside of the OS, where they're updated regularly in a way that reaches everyone fast. But remember: Not long ago, almost every significant app was part of the OS itself. And that meant they got updated only when a new OS release made its way onto your device (if and when that actually happened).

Since that first unassuming shift, we've seen an enormous list of apps and services that were once considered part of the OS -- and are still considered part of the OS on most other platforms -- move into similar standalone positions. Take a minute to think about all the elements of Android that now live independently as their own easily updatable Play Store entities.

In addition to Gmail, we've got basic system tools like Calendar, Hangouts and Messenger, the Google app itself (which powers Google Now and all facets of the device search experience), and the Google Now Launcher (which controls how your home screen looks and works).

Maps, Newsstand, Music, Books, Movies, Drive, Photos, Docs, Chrome, and the System Webview utility -- which allows third-party apps to show Web content -- have all been extracted from the OS. So has the stock (and more powerful than you'd expect) Google Keyboard along with the default Android Clock app, Camera app, Contacts app, Phone app, and Device Manager app (for remotely finding, locking, and wiping any device associated with your account).

Google Wallet and Android Pay are also on the standalone list, as is Google Play Services -- an app that controls significant behind-the-scenes functionality on your phone, like the behavior of Android's Smart Lock feature.

So what's still left in the OS? At this point, not much outside of the main guts in the engine room. Calculator was the last non-foundational piece of the puzzle that had yet to be pulled out, and now it's a standalone app as well.

The bigger picture

You see where this is going, right? With every non-foundational piece of the platform pulled out of the OS, Google is able to allow manufacturers to keep making all the OS-level modifications they want while still controlling and regularly updating a meaningful part of the user experience itself -- with an interference-free, delay-proof, and direct-to-user path. (And though you can obviously choose to use third-party alternatives instead of the elements Google provides, its "stock" options are there and readily available for anyone to adopt.)

Let's not minimize the significance of this. Any random month could see a level of system-like updates for Android that's comparable to a major OS upgrade on other mobile platforms. Google just does it quietly and -- perhaps at its own expense in terms of public perception -- rarely draws attention to the big picture of what's happening and how all the pieces add up.

Now, that doesn't mean full platform updates like the upcoming Android "N" release are no longer important. They contain significant foundational improvements to the operating system and its core UI, and those are areas that can't easily be addressed with standalone elements. But considered as a whole, the ongoing updates to individual system pieces in between those core releases are equally consequential -- and I think that's something a lot of people overlook within the OS upgrade discussion.

From where I'm sitting, the deconstruction of Android is practically complete -- at least, in what I'd consider to be the first and most far-reaching phase of the process. The next phase, if it ever happens, would be going deeper and starting to separate the heart of the OS from all of the surface-level interface stuff (something the latest preview release suggests Google could already be experimenting with). In theory, that could allow Google to roll out faster updates for things like security issues, since the relevant code would be consistent across devices and separate from the surface-level elements each manufacturer is able to toy around with.

Only time will tell if and when such a change could happen, but for now, it's safe to say that Android is a drastically different platform than it was just a few years ago. At this point, the actual operating system is but one piece of a much larger puzzle -- and it's time we start thinking of it that way.

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