Could Google’s Interests as an OEM Spell Trouble for Android?
Android is something special to me: My original Droid was one of the very first big new purchases I had ever made. It was the first time I signed onto a mobile carrier contract leaving the prepaid system and moved on from running Windows Mobile devices that got me visiting XDA almost 9 years ago.
Even more memorable for me is that it was one of the first major milestones with my future wife, having her join my phone plan and go under contract — serious business right there. Android was there when my first child was born too, as corny as that might sound. The day we went to find out his gender I stood in line at 8am at my local Verizon Wireless store waiting for the Galaxy Nexus release. There are likely a few of us who remember the horrible delays for shipping of the original Nexus 7… well, my shipping notification came within an hour of my son being born — my wife still doesn’t let me live that down. Since Android has been so woven into my life I tend to be very opinionated when seeing its faults and flaws, but also its very positive elements.
If you were to ask me 12 months ago what Google and Android needed I would have said in a heartbeat that Google needed to bring its Pixel mentality to Android by showing them, the OEM’s, how it is done, I even wrote about this long before rumors of a Pixel phone were a concrete thing. Nexus was not working, while the software was there the hardware always had some critical flaws that prevented it from standing out to the mainstream public. The Nexus 5 took months to have a decent camera, and the battery life was still horrible. The Nexus 6 was too large, the 5X was overpriced and bootlooped. The 6P was likely the closest to perfection, but bendgate 2.0 (as overplayed as that was) and the horribleness that was the Snapdragon 810 severely dampened its larger appeal, and the way it was sold even in Western markets hindered its adoption. Pixel was and is the way forward, right?
Well, there are criticisms to this approach (Google taking on the role of OEM) that have well founded arguments. If Google had a piece of the pie, then of what benefit is it for them to assist other OEMs like LG, Samsung, Motorola, Huawei and others to not only make the very best, but support the latest and greatest in software? In all actually, it is now competition. Needless to say it was easy to brush off this argument since Google has had the Pixel Chromebook lineup for 2 generations but yet they still deliver exceptional support to other Chromebooks via advertising and so-on. But in the time since the Pixel phone release, Google has made some decisions that while independently don’t amount to much, they are a little worrying when put together. Now at this point in the article it is critical to understand that this is mere speculation based on things that can be seen from a consumer standpoint, take it for what it is: a devoted fan that is getting concerned.
We are going to take a look at two things in recent times that have made me scratch my head, wondering what has changed. The first is the launch of Android 7.1.x and the second is Wear 2.0. Let’s start with Android 7.1. It came as a surprise to many of us that when the Pixel phones were announced, it was launched on the then-unreleased 7.1 OS version. The reason this comes as a surprise is two-fold. The first is that aside from minor leaks leading up to the release there was no 7.1 announcement which is especially telling considering the second part of the surprise, Android 7.0 was just launched, like within a month. Now it is not uncommon for a new flagship release to launch with a new version of whatever OS is coming. GraceUI launched with the Galaxy S7 and was backported to older devices overtime and other OEMs do the same thing with their flavors of Android. However, Android 7.0 was in beta testing for over 6 months prior to the launch of the Pixel phones and now with the launch of 7.1, the newest build would not come to Nexus phones for another 2 months. OEMs were also affected by this.
It is not often that a Q3 flagship launch has the latest version of Android, but LG managed to accomplish that with the V20… for all of about a month. Similarly other OEMs seemed to have been caught off guard with the 7.1 announcement since months of work had been completed based off the Android 7.0 changes and in some cases it was too late to make the port to 7.1. So Google worked on a new version of its OS to launch with the Pixel to exemplify its strengths, what of it? Well this is actually a pretty big deal since this action that benefited them adversely affects OEMs.
While Google was quick to say there was a wall between Pixel and Android teams the indications are otherwise; from the outside it is apparent that Google held back the release of Android 7.1 for other OEMs and even its Nexus teams to help differentiate the Pixel phone from the competition, similarly to how they handled Google Assistant. Now that’s a strong allegation to throw, and again I refer you back to my speculation statement earlier and yes, it is a stretch to see this from this example. But take the following into consideration and a larger picture begins to unfold.
Android Wear 2.0 was rumored to have launched around the time of the Pixel phones, but appears to have been delayed not long before that time came. Wear 2.0 betas for the LG Urbane and Huawei Watch had been around for a while and continued to stick around for quite some time through the delays and into 2017. There were also Nexus-like watches that were slated for release alongside Wear 2.0 but were, like the OS, delayed. This adversely affected OEM partners, ASUS being an example. The ASUS ZenWatch 3 was slated to be the first Wear 2.0 device but since Google pulled the rug out at the last moments before launch, ASUS was forced to launch the device on the older Wear 1.x version and no doubt stymied the launch of that watch creating quite the awkward launch. But in early February, Google did finally launch Wear 2.0 alongside two flagship devices the LG Watch Style and Sport — the rumored “Nexus Watches” from 2016. What about the ASUS ZenWatch 3, a device was presumably was ready for Wear 2.0 months ago? Not coming till the next quarter.
A month out, the two devices running the preview, up-to and including the final preview with the finalized API’s, still do not have Wear 2.0 and it does not even appear on the horizon with many Wear OEMs saying it is still a ways out. Add to this that things like the rotating crown and Android Pay support appear to have been added very late in the development cycle and devices that were in planning prior lose out by not supporting all the features of the new OS, like the ASUS ZenWatch 3 and the rumors about the Huawei Watch 2 being planned for late 2016 instead of early 2017 indicate. However, the two LG watches just released have all these features despite being in production around the time of the ZenWatch. Just to throw another element to the pile, all Android Wear smartwatches aside from the two LG devices which were “Designed with our friends at Google” have been removed.
Again all of these elements on their own mean nothing, and even combined could be nothing, yet there is a trend that emerges from it. It cannot be overlooked that as Google has taken more of a hands-on approach, and now has “skin in the game” as the saying goes, their devices and devices they closely partner with appear to the consumer to be at a seemingly unfair advantage to the rest of the field — earlier OS upgrades, newer or exclusive features, and so on. Time will only go to tell how things continue to trend, but as someone who has loved being an Android user for years, it no longer feels that Google has Android’s best interest at heart, but instead has pivoted to profiting off its own hardware, even to the degree of disadvantaging their partners and those who, quite honestly, are the reason Android is what it is today. “It’s not personal, it’s just business” applies here — Google, now a subsidiary of Alphabet, can no longer go around losing money at every turn while partners like Samsung rake in the cash off their operating system, which is understandable. But “You Either Die A Hero, Or You Live Long Enough To See Yourself Become The Villain” is also a fitting quote. Competition is a great thing, and Google getting involved should help move OEMs to make better more compelling devices, but placing itself with the appearance of an unfair advantage is worrisome.
It could be a sign of future things to come, or it could just be Google horribly mismanaging things, something we have seen before. In case you missed it, Google has a new motto replacing its old “Don’t Be Evil”. The new motto is “Do the right thing”. What isn’t clear though, is who the “right thing” if for, though with Google’s latest movements it appears to be the shareholders.
What do you think about Google’s tighter grip on its software and its new role as a hardware provider? Sound off in the comments!