Rethinking the Android ecosystem

My, oh my, how our little baby has grown up.

Android Evolution

It's hard to believe it was a mere three years ago that the original Droid phone burst into the world and made Android a household name. Before that, Android had been little more than a clunky Google experiment most non-techie-type folks had never heard of.

Two years ago, meanwhile, we were watching Android slowly but steadily rise in both mind and market share, with around 20 percent of the U.S. smartphone market compared to Apple's daunting 60 percent. And I was being called a fool (among other things) for daring to say it was inevitable, despite what certain CEOs were claiming, that Android would explode and become the dominant force in mobile computing.

Now, here we are in 2012. Android accounts for almost 70 percent of the global smartphone market. And there are more Google-powered devices out there than any reasonably sane person could count.

The Android landscape has grown in ways we could have never fully envisioned back in the days of the first Droid. We have more flavors and varieties than a Baskin Robbins at this point, with scores of manufacturers putting their own twists and turns on the technology.

No question -- Google's mobile platform has evolved immensely. And now, it's time to rethink how we view the Android ecosystem.

The Android interface issue

First, a confession: This was originally going to be a very different story.

I'd been planning for a while to write a rant about how manufacturers need to stop screwing with Android. I wrote something similar almost exactly two years ago, in August of 2010, when I proclaimed that it was "time for the baked-in Android UI to die."

Back then, I pointed out the problems with manufacturers baking their own interfaces into the Android OS: The practice slows down device upgrades, causes new devices to launch with dated software, and creates cluttered and bloat-ridden interfaces with few significant advantages over the stock Android setup.

I suggested that device-makers meet us halfway and start including their customizations as standalone apps, widgets, and launchers. That'd let them accomplish many of the same goals while eliminating most of the problematic issues -- and, just as important, would let users decide, without having to hack their phones, whether they wanted to use a manufacturer-made UI or Google's stock Android environment on any given device.

Android ICS, Jelly Bean

Since that time, Google has made enormous strides with the Android OS. Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, brought a sleek and polished new look to the platform. And Android 4.1, Jelly Bean, added even more sheen. Yet here we are in the same boat we were in two years ago, with manufacturers releasing devices with dated, bloated software, slow and ineffective upgrades, and subpar user experiences.

To be sure, some of the manufacturer-made changes are positive, with interesting feature additions like Samsung's "Pop-Up Play" floating video player or HTC's customizable lock-screen setup. And those parts of the software are fine. But the interfaces themselves tend to be cluttered, inconsistent, and less intuitive than what Google provides in its base Android 4.x OS. Ultimately, the manufacturers are depriving users of the progress Google has made, all in the name of "differentiating" themselves. Well, they're differentiating themselves, all right -- by delivering crap-encrusted UIs and disappointing upgrade experiences. It's change for the sake of change and at the expense of user experience.

It's gotten to the point where most reviews of non-pure Android devices now include a disclaimer: "This phone/tablet is good -- but the interface pales in comparison to the pure Android 4.x experience and you're probably not going to get upgrades very often." It's unfortunate that so many device discussions have to have that asterisk attached (and I know I'm far from the only mobile tech reviewer who feels the need to do it).

Quite simply, the majority of manufacturer-made Android modifications have become more of liabilities than assets. And that's a damn shame to see.

Android variety: A more nuanced view

Like I said, that's the story I was going to write. But after mulling it over for some time, I realized it was a rather solipsistic argument to make. 

Android Thinking

Manufacturers have invested far too much in their customized software visions to back down now; unless they see firm evidence that dropping their UIs would benefit sales, they have no reason to re-evaluate. We can talk about it all we want, but it's not going to make an ounce of difference.

As for those sales, one might note that Samsung is indeed selling hoards of devices with its TouchWiz UI while Google is barely making a dent with its pure Android Nexus phones. That's true -- but remember also that Samsung is marketing the hell out of its TouchWiz devices and making them readily available on most carriers. Google's Nexus phones have never gotten that kind of public imaging push or ubiquitous availability; the Nexus 7 is the first device to come close, and by most measures, it's selling quite well.

Anyway, back to the point: Manufacturers aren't going to stop screwing around with Android, and in the grand scheme of things, that's actually okay. Android is open, after all, and part of that equation means carriers and manufacturers can shape it how they want. Personally, I'd rather see companies embracing that openness by doing something innovative with the OS instead of simply jerking around with Google's base interface for no reason -- but hey, it's their prerogative. Call it choice or, if you must, call it fragmentation; for better and sometimes for worse, diversity is a core part of Android's essence.*

That's why we need to rethink how we view the Android ecosystem. We can't change manufacturers' approaches or behaviors, but we can change how we look at their efforts.

A multipronged Android ecosystem

Android Ecosystem

Consider this: Ubuntu isn't the same thing as Linux; rather, it's an operating system based on the open source Linux software. The same goes for Google's Chrome OS. With the extent that manufacturer modifications of Android have evolved -- and the level of difference in user experience they now provide compared to the pure Android OS -- it's time we take a similar approach in the way we view Android devices.

Is the Galaxy S III an Android phone, for example? Not exactly. It's a Samsung TouchWiz phone based on Google's Android 4.0 release. The One X, similarly, runs custom HTC software based on the Android 4.0 OS. It may sound like a subtle distinction, but it's an important one to make.

Why? Simple: People read or hear things about all the progress being made in Android these days, then they go out and buy a phone and get something else entirely. Having that type of choice is perfectly fine, but people need to know what they're getting. From the interface to the upgrades, the experience you get with a Google Nexus device is a night and day difference from what you get with a Samsung TouchWiz (or other manufacturer-modified) alternative.

It's a distinction I've been trying to make in my own reviews for a while. Google Engineering VP Vic Gundotra made a similar distinction recently when he referred to his Galaxy S III phone as an "Android-based" device during a discussion on Google+.

As Android continues to grow, that distinction is going to become even more relevant. Rumors are heating up about Google's reported plan to release a series of pure Android Nexus devices later this year, and Google engineers are even toying with the idea of creating Nexus-like software support for non-Nexus devices. With an entire army of pure Android devices on store shelves -- and with the type of newfound marketing intent Google is showing with its Nexus 7 tablet -- the days of Nexus-like devices being viewed solely as tools for enthusiasts may soon be behind us.

Now, if you legitimately like a manufacturer-modified interface and don't mind the upgrade situation -- or if you're planning to hack your device and install third-party ROMs on your own -- hey, more power to you. That kind of choice and flexibility is a huge part of what makes Android what it is. But remember: The vast majority of phone owners aren't going to mess with rooting and ROM'ing. And while many of those users may not spend much time worrying about geeky stuff like UI and upgrades, I can assure you I hear from plenty of people who bought non-pure Android devices and later -- usually when the next OS release rolled around -- discovered they weren't getting what they expected.

Android Power Twitter

Android isn't a baby anymore. As enthusiasts of the platform, it's time we start treating it for what it is: a vast, expanding ecosystem of diverse devices based on a common foundation. An Android-based experience isn't the same thing as a true Android experience, and it doesn't need to be. But it's time to start distinguishing one from the other and making sure people -- from technophiles to casual users -- understand the difference.

* "Fragmentation" has basically become a political term in the Apple vs. Android battle. For what it's worth, though, iOS has software differences from one device to another, too. I guess it isn't considered "fragmentation" if it's "magical."

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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