Stock isn’t Going Anywhere: On the Nexus Identity and Why Stock Android is a Useful Label

Stock isn’t Going Anywhere: On the Nexus Identity and Why Stock Android is a Useful Label

At this year’s Code Conference, Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke with Walt Mossberg about a few topics, including the company’s own Nexus Phones. During the conference, Sundar mentioned that Google will be ‘more opinionated’ with how they look at Nexus Phones.

Some news outlets have taken this as meaning that Google will no longer be shipping Nexus phones with ‘Pure’ or  ‘Stock’ Android. And once an idea is shared on the internet, it is commonplace for others to hook on to this idea and share it around endlessly, often times spreading false information. This is what I believe is happening with the “Nexus will no longer receive the Pure/Stock Android treatment” rumors as of late. Before we go on, let’s take a look at what was actually said during the talk (emphasis is ours):

Walt: So will you have next year, a phone at least that is made by you? Where the whole thing is made by you?

Sundar: We trade, do it as Nexus devices, that’s a plan but…

Walt: Ah, not made by you

Sundar: they’re not made by us but you know, we are investing more effort into them, and so you will see us putting a lot more thought into our nexus devices going forward because, and there are categories beyond phones which we are doing like Google Home and Chromecast and so on, so I think we’ll be opinionated where we’ll need to be to push the category forward.

Walt: Let me unpack that for a second, you’re doing other things, that are yours… I mean obviously contract out the manufacturing but basically it’s yours, both the hardware and the software, you’re gonna put more thought into the Nexus phones? What does that mean? Doesn’t that just lead you to make them?

Sundar: It depends on…

Walt: Or at least one of them?

Sundar: So for example today when we ship Nexus phones we just ship stock android on Nexus phones, right? You’ll see us, y’know, thoughtfully add more features on top of Android on Nexus phones so there’s a lot of software innovation to be had as an example of it. We could be more opinionated about the design of the phones even though we are working with the OEMs to do it, so those are all the kinds of evolutions you’ll see.

Walt: But you’re not, does that mean you’re not going to make your own phones?

Sundar: No, not as a, our plan is still to work with OEMs to make phones yeah.

The Nexus experience has exclusively offered one thing at every release: an “unadulterated” Android experience with all of Google’s latest core services. This means that Google provides users with a phone that runs off of the Android Open Source Project with all of it’s Gapps and services. As some have claimed, the Gapps and services Google provides are closed source — but this is not entirely true, most of the applications and services found on the Nexus devices have open source variants or alternatives.

If you’ve ever flashed a custom ROM onto your device, you are aware of Open Gapps, a package of Google apps and services provided to enrich the experience of Stock Android based ROMs. Google’s goal and vision in it’s software development is to provide users with a rich Android experience that will benefit their daily use. It always has been, and it always will be.

As you can see from the transcript above, Sundar never even mentioned changing how Nexus Phones receive android. His mention of being opinionated is in regards to the hardware, and how they interact with the OEMs to create the Nexus devices. When talking about software, Sundar mentions that Google will thoughtfully add software features. They have already been doing this, with features such as Google Play Services, Google Now on Tap, the ever-evolving Google Camera (which is particularly good on the latest Nexus devices, virtue of it being specially designed for them), and even the Nexus Imprint being spearheaded by Nexus phones. Google is planning to continue to mold Android for the better to shape the future of the mobile industry, and give the Nexus phones extra spice in the process — that we can surely infer from that statement.

But what is Stock Android? Why do we use the term?

Part of the debates sparked from Sundar and Walt’s interview is a debate about what the meaning of Stock Android truly is. Historically, Android did not start out as a Phone OS, but the platform was shifted into the mobile phone OS market, and was bought by Google. When it was first commercially launched there was no such thing as a third party skin, however they started to crop up to be able to stand out among the different phone products in the market. But Google had also launched the Nexus line of phones, offering an unaltered “Stock Android” experience. From then on, the term Stock Android has meant many things, ranging from Google’s vision of Android to pure AOSP source code, making for a slightly muddy definition

Stock Android as a term serves a practical purpose by denoting a specific type of UX

But what makes a phone a “Stock Android” Phone today? Here at XDA, when we think of Stock we think of a laid-back, leaner and less-modified Android, “as Google intended”. That doesn’t mean completely unaltered.

Some phones, such as those in the Moto X line, offer users a ‘basically stock’ experience with small features added in to help differentiate the product.

The term “Stock Android” or “basically Stock” is fundamental to describing what kind of experience the user will get when using the phone. It is a practical term that serves a purpose, and it’s been held in high regard by many precisely because it indicates a particular kind of Android experience. It is often a selling point for many users, and can easily communicate what an UX or UI is like.

Unfortunately, some sites and communities have confused or degenerated the term, often describing phones with a far-from-Stock Android experience as being Stock. A good example is HTC’s Sense software: many outlets have and will tell you that Sense is ‘as close to stock as you’re gonna get’ with third party software additions, usually used as an equivocation to cater to the aforementioned group, exploiting the muddy definition the term holds around the blogosphere. We noted this in our full review of the HTC 10, where we specified the changes in iconography, menus, notification shade, lockscreen and general design language, as well as the introduction of HTC features and the removal of system customization options.


Some of Sense’s inconsistencies

This re-design was not widely thorough, leaving much of the iconography stuck between design languages, making the interface look inconsistent. Stock is not just a theme that can be applied on any phone, it’s an experience the user will receive when interacting with their device. And even though you will find many, many “Stock Android” themes floating around for OEM phones, they will not bring you a Stock experience.

These observations still haven’t completely resolved our identity issue, however. To do so I think we’ll need to take a closer look into the definition of “Stock Android”. The term Android isn’t a mystery to any of us, so let’s look more at the meaning of the word Stock. Generally in the tech industry, the term Stock refers to an original, off the shelf part. In terms of modifying our phones, we refer to Stock ROMs as the ones that came on the phones when they shipped (Touchwiz, Sense, LG UX, Miui, etc). But how does this “out of the box” characteristic apply to Android as a whole?

A few people will try to lead you to believe that the AOSP source is ”Stock Android”. However, AOSP is really an initiative created to guide development of the Android mobile platform. In other words, it is a striped down version of Android meant to be a resource and guide for ROM developers to build their Android concepts. It’s not “Stock” in that it is purposely devoid of the proprietary features in Android that dictate some of the key characteristics of “Stock Android”. 

Earlier I mentioned many define Stock Android as being ”as Google intended”… So that begs the question, is the Android experience on Nexus devices indicative of the “Stock Android” experience? What about upcoming Nexus phones? In short, yes. It is the view of Android that offers the closest experience Google intended for the platform at that specific time, designed by Google, following their vision for Android.

What are your opinions on the matter? What does Stock Android mean to you? Let us know in the comments below.

About author

Jake Westall
Jake Westall

I'm a senior mechanical engineering major, a dad, a star wars fanatic, and I play drums and a bit of bass. If you would like to know more about me feel free to ask.