Android Intelligence Analysis

Think Android 14 seems boring? Think about this.

Google's initial Android 14 beta release may seem modest on the surface, but there's a whole other side to the software most folks are failing to notice.

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Redquasar/Google/JR Raphael

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Look, I'll be honest: When I first got my grubby gorilla paws on Google's latest and great Android version — the hot-off-the-griddle first beta of this year's Android 14 update — two terse words kept ringing in my head:

That's it?

Also: Mmm, pancakes. But that's just because of the griddle reference I'd already cooked up in my deeply demented man-brain.

All flapjackery aside, there's no way around it: On the surface, the inaugural beta of Android 14 isn't exactly exciting. In fact, in most day-to-day use at the moment, you'd be hard-pressed to notice much difference between it and the Android 13 update that came before it.

So while the instinct to label Android 14 as a ho-hum underachiever is understandable, framing this as a moment in which Google isn't doing much to move the Android experience forward misses one major point — a point that's important to ponder if you care at all about understanding this platform and how it actually fits into this wide, wild mobile-tech ecosystem of ours.

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It's a point that folks on the Apple side of the divide love to gloss over. But doing so paints a misleading and woefully inaccurate picture of what actually happens here in the land o' Android.

The easily overlooked Android 14 asterisks

We'll get to that major point in a second, but before we do, we need to speed-skate our way through two other Android-14-related asterisks we'd be remiss not to mention as a part of this conversation.

First, it's always worth emphasizing: What we're seeing in the early beta of a new Android version is rarely the full story. Particularly with Google's current development cycle, El Googenschplort's almost always got something still up its sleeve and saved for a splashy debut at or around its grand Google I/O showcase in May.

If nothing else, we know Android 14 will be the foundation for an entirely new type of tech-type product via the upcoming Pixel Tablet. So, y'know: Stay tuned...and all of that.

Asterisk two is that oftentimes, it's the under-the-hood stuff in a new Android version that's ultimately the most consequential — even if it isn't the most immediately electrifying piece of the puzzle. That's where the critical enhancements in areas like privacy, security, and performance appear, and while those tend to be far less tangible than the fancy front-facing stuff, you'd better believe they matter.

In reality, in fact, those elements are generally more important than the surface-level changes and convenience-boosting feature additions — particularly when it comes to professional use.

But those asterisks aside, here's what you really have to remember: We've reached a point where the smaller updates to system-like components across Android are often much more interesting and meaningful than the big honkin' OS updates, at least from a purely experience-based perspective.

And that leads us to the real overlooked realization with all of this: On Android, those sorts of system-like updates show up all the time — year round — by way of individual app updates in the Play Store.

That's where Android is decidedly different from that other mobile operating system and where all the comparisons and new version assessments always fall flat.

Android 14 and the full Android upgrade reality

Consider just some of the following system-app-centric improvements we've seen on Android in the past few months — since the start of the year. Take a deep breath:

  • The stock Android Messages app gained end-to-end encryption for group chats involving up to 100 people
  • Messages also received the ability to react to any message with any emoji — not just the small handful of choices you're initially shown by default
  • Google Keep, the default notes app for Android, got a snazzy new single-note widget along with the ability to display multiple notes side by side on tablets and folding devices
  • Gmail started being able to show you specific package tracking info related to an email right in your main inbox view
  • Gmail also gained a new two-pane view for more efficient use on tablets and foldables
  • The default Chrome browser got upgraded with a switch to protect your private incognito tabs and require biometric authentication before returning to 'em
  • Chrome also just got an under-the-hood update that supposedly makes it 30% faster on certain Android devices
  • Google launched an update to its Android Nearby Share system that lets you wirelessly beam files back and forth between an Android device and any Windows computer
  • The Google One service saw a hefty update that brought a built-in VPN and dark web privacy breach monitoring service to anyone with any paid storage plan
  • Photos' fantastic Magic Eraser feature for easily removing elements from images expanded to all Pixel phones as well as all Google One users
  • Google Drive gained the ability to let you mark up any PDF file with drawing and highlighting right from your phone
  • The stock Gboard keyboard got a hefty interface update that includes easier and more capable customization along with new dedicated emoji keyboard and language switching shortcuts
  • An update to the default Android Clock app started empowering you to record your own custom alarm sounds
  • YouTube quietly gained an option to start a collaborative livestream with someone else, using two different phones together
  • Google Meet gained 360-degree virtual backgrounds for mobile video calls
  • The Google Home app got a helpful TV control panel for compatible connected televisions
  • Google Contacts got new widgets along with a feature that highlights upcoming birthdays amongst your favorite human people-persons
  • Various updates to YouTube Music introduced real-time lyrics, intelligent suggestions for covers and remixes of your favorite songs, a nifty new custom radio creation system, and a system that automatically downloads recently played tracks for effortless offline access
  • A new cross-platform Health Connect system started to roll out for easy sharing of health and fitness data between different types of apps and devices
  • Cross-device timer tracking came to all Pixel products
  • Google's Direct My Call system, which lets you skip through annoying in-call menus, expanded to the midrange Pixel 4a and Pixel 5a phones
  • Newer Pixels saw an improved version of the already-excellent Night Sight photo-taking system
  • And at the platform level, an under-the-hood update to a Play-Store-based service introduced a space-saving auto-archiving system that can collapse apps you aren't actively using while keeping 'em readily available for future use

WHEW! And holy moly: If this were iOS, all that stuff would be bundled into a once-yearly major operating system update and getting all sorts of attention. Here on Android, we hardly even notice it or think about how incredible of a collection it adds up to create. (And remember, too, this is looking at only a tiny sliver of the stuff that's rolled out over the past few months — not even going all the way back to the last major Android version update.)

For context, Google's been pulling what were once core operating system elements out of the operating system proper and treating 'em as standalone apps for well over a decade now. That means those elements get updated numerous times a month, all throughout the year, in a way that reaches every single Android device more or less immediately.

But it also means those updates tend to get lost in the shuffle and seen as scattered little scraps instead of as part of a larger, connected story. And yet, a fraction of these same updates would make up an entire Apple iOS release and be touted as a massive leap forward.

No exaggeration: If you look at the list of features in Apple's latest iOS update, the vast majority of the items there revolve around these very same types of updates — updates to core system components for photos, messages, email, on-screen typing, health and fitness, home control, and notes. It's the same exact sort of stuff, only instead of showing up scattered throughout the year in an easily overlooked a la carte manner, Apple bundles it all together into a heavily hyped annual package.

Google's approach actually presents a pretty significant practical advantage, since the updates to all these pieces often land multiple times a month instead of being collected into annual clusters — but with the way bigger OS updates command the most attention, it also presents a very real problem around perception. Plain and simple, Google doesn't do much to emphasize the fact that we get these sorts of updates constantly on Android while iPhone owners get 'em only once or twice a year. When you stop and think about it, it's really no surprise that so few people see the forest for the trees and realize how it all adds up.

So the next time you find yourself thinking that Android 14 or any other incoming Android update seems underwhelming, remember that the OS update itself is only half the story — more like the foundational groundwork than the full construction. And remember that in actuality, all of us on Android get the equivalent of multiple iOS updates multiple times a year.

That may not create as cohesive or as powerful of a marketing message as what Apple delivers — something Google could absolutely stand to work on — but when it comes to real-world experience, it's arguably a much smarter, more sensible, and more advantageous approach. It's just up to us to put the pieces together and consider the whole they create.

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