Android, the world’s most used mobile operating system, is going through a step change. For years, its creator, Google, only made a small number of own-brand devices running it for developers and enthusiasts. That changed with the release of the Pixel.
ThePixel is Google’s first real attempt to challenge Apple and Samsung’s smartphone dominance, but it wasn’t made by the same team that makes Android.
In fact, Google’s hardware team, headed by the ex-Motorola chief executive Rick Osterloh, aren’t even in the same building as theAndroid team, but instead are situated across the street.
ThePixel phones introduced a new version of Android to the world, a version more Google-y than any before, that broke away from the standard or so-called pure Android experience of the open-source operating system underneath.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google’s head of Android, Chrome OS, and Google Play told the Guardian it was a conscious decision for Google to not change core Android: “The Google consumer hardware team’s product vision is a phone for Google fans, who have adoptedGoogle technologies.
“Samsung takes a different approach, LG and HTC take a different approach: that’s the core of Android - they get to customise Android and build own experiences on top. The one from Google happens to be for Google fans. It makes sense.”
But that act of Google making both Android and a phone that runs it could be seen as a big kick in the teeth to long-time licensees of the mobile operating system who have driven its success.Samsung has been Android’s champion for years and there are hundreds of other smartphone and device manufacturers who license and use Android on their products.
OnePlus, a rising Chinese smartphone manufacturer, is just one of Google’s licensees. It creates a modified version of Android called OxygenOS, which runs on the companies smartphones including the recently released OnePlus 3T.
Carl Pei, co-founder of OnePlus, told the Guardian he embraced Google’s decision to make its own smartphone for the mass market. He said: “The interesting thing about the Pixel series is that Google’s diverging from pure Android.
“That gives everyone else much more creative freedom, because before we’ve had the purists complaining that every time you made a small tweak that ‘this is not pure Android’, but now even the Pixel is not pure Android so that gives you more creative freedom to realise your vision.”
OnePlus is just one of Google’s licensees. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian Lockheimer’s pleased other manufacturers see it that way: “For Carl and OnePlus to feel free with OxygenOS, that’s great, that’s exactly what we wanted to see happen. And what he and the team did with OxygenOS, Rick [Osterloh]’s doing with the Pixel team. Differentiating for a Google-orientated audience,” he said.
‘Android has always been about choice’
Google’s open-source moves with Android – giving it away free with a liberal licence to make it your own – but still maintain some control in the form of licences with conditions over app bundling and compatibility has put it in the firing line of the European commission.
Google is embroiled in a battle with the European commission, accused of using its dominance over Android to exclude competitor apps and services. While Google’s legal counsel and the European commission thrash outcharges,responses and eventually a likely settlement of some kind, does that change the way Android is built?
Lockheimer said: “Android has always been about choice, about enabling others to build business on top, whether that’s multiple OEMs adopting the same source code because we’re giving it away, millions of developers building businesses on top of it, or simply being an open platform to provide consumer choice from the high to the low end.
“So I think we’re very much aligned with the goals of the commission. We want choice, we want openness, and that’s how we’ve been thinking about it for a while. And that’s how we’ve always been operating.”
Time will tell if the commission agrees. Being able to customise Android is certainly one of the operating system’s strengths, but it also introduces a weakness beyond European commission filings: software update delays.
In a world where products radically change, normally for the better, over their lifetimes through software, updates are more crucial than ever. They’re the linchpin of modern security, delivering critical fixes for holes that could let hackers into the one device that knows more about you, your comings and goings and your personal information than anything else.
Google releases annual updates to Android, denoted by a new name such as Lollipop, Marshmallow and now Nougat, but it can take months, sometimes a year or so before those big updates reach devices made by third-party manufacturers. Some put the blame on chip makers, others manufacturers, networks or even Google.
Lockheimer acknowledges the difficulties: “We share the source code with chip makers such as MediaTek and Qualcomm, as well as manufacturers including Samsung and others before we publish Android. But it really is a pipeline.
“If you’re in an operator-driven market, such as the US, they also add their customisations, so it adds another layer in the pipeline of development. We’re doing things to make Android more modular to speed things up.”
One such effort has been the unpacking of some services specific to Google that get updated more regularly into what’s known as Google Play Services - a layer that sits on top of the Android operating system and delivers all of the Google-ness of the smartphone.
Lockheimer said: “Android is an operating system that’s not tied to any one company. The Android Open Source Project, doesn’t know that Google exists, it doesn’t call into any Google servers or anything like that. So all the Google specific technologies are put into a thin layer on top of Android.”
Samsung, LG and HTC each customise Android. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images With Google’s apps and Play Services updatable separate from Android operating system underneath, material updates that change the look and field, the way Android works can be performed directly without having to go through various channels and without significantly changing the underlying system.
Security updates have also been made more modular, although still require Android system updates to apply. Here there has been progress from the big manufacturers including Samsung, Google and others that have pledged to keep up with the Android team’s monthly security update releases.
Cross-pollenating Chrome OS and Android
Even full Android updates are being made easier on the user, according to Lockheimer. Google’s other operating system, Chrome OS which runs on laptops and desktop computers as an extended Linux-based version of the company’s Chrome browser, has been doing seamless updates for years. Now the latest version of Android 7 Nougat (N) has the same technology employed.
Lockheimer explained: “Android N does operating system updates in the same way as Chrome OS, in the background so that the user doesn’t know it’s happening. You just reboot and boom you’re using the new version. It’s literally the same technology as used in Chrome OS.”
Much has been said over the years about the slow merging of Chrome OS and Android, with speculation that Google would eventually ditch Chrome OS for Android and run a desktop version of Android. The introduction of the Android Google Play store onto Chromebooks this year did nothing to quell rumours of the merge.
Lockheimer said: “We’re not interested in merging the source code of Android and ChromeOS, but we are doing is to bring the best of both systems to each other. One area where ChromeOS was lacking was app support. We happened to have this great ecosystem in Google Play for Android, so why not stick it on ChromeOS?
“So not really a merge, more taking the best elements of both and cross-pollenating.”
Could Google claim Huawei’s spot in the market?
The future of Android is still unclear. Google’s experiment with the Pixel has changed the landscape, whether that’s for the better for all or simply for Google remains to be seen. Samsung and Apple dominate the smartphone market, selling vastly more smartphones than anyone else, but the race to be the third biggest smartphone manufacturer is on. Huawei occupies that spot, according to the latest data from analysts firms – could Google take its place with the Pixel, and how would everyone else feel about the Android maker out competing them?
Pei is bullish: “It’s fair game. If Google makes a product that everyone likes and remembers, they will get the number three spot. But if we do it, we get the spot behind Samsung and Apple.”
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