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Why Google wants to kill SD cards, and what's holding them back

Posted: , by Michael H.

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Why Google wants to kill SD cards, and what's holding them back
Especially after hearing that the Galaxy Nexus will not support USB mass storage mode because it doesn't have an SD card slot, many have been asking why Google has been so against SD card slots recently. The last three flagship devices from Google and its partners, the Nexus S, Motorola XOOM and Galaxy Nexus have all shipped without SD card slots. We don't have the official word as to why this is happening, but we have an educated guess on what Google's strategy is in regards to SD card slots. We also think that Google is jumping the gun on getting rid of SD cards, and needs to do some work before killing them completely.

Android hardware evolution

Android has built its market share on two things: customization and cost. In the early days of Android, a big concern was in keeping down the cost of phones in order to be competitive in the booming modern smartphone market dominated by the iPhone. One easy way to keep down costs was to have limited internal storage and rely on SD cards for additional storage. This kept handset prices down by passing along the costs to consumers. It also allowed for more customization, because users who didn't need as much storage could just buy a smaller SD card, and those with higher-end needs could get that as well.

However, the reliance on SD card storage quickly became a major bottleneck in the Android ecosystem. Apps couldn't get too big, because phones had limited storage, and the Android system itself couldn't outgrow that storage either. So, as a stop-gap measure, Google introduced Apps2SD with Android 2.2 (Froyo), which allowed users to move certain apps to the SD card and run from there. This feature has been troublesome in itself, because even though it only required one new line of code, developers were slow to update apps and allow movement to the SD card. Additionally, users who needed the feature the most were often the last to get it, because those users had older and lower-end phones, which are notoriously the last to be updated by manufacturers.

SD card limitations

We say that SD card storage was a stop-gap measure, because beyond app and OS compatibility troubles, it had inherent functionality limitations. It clearly wasn't a full solution because running an app from the SD card led to one huge limitation with a number of consequences: apps on the SD card can't auto-load on a device restart.

This means that when you reboot your phone, any apps on the SD card need to be manually launched in order to take advantage of automatic functions like background updates, or push notifications. For example, if you have the official Twitter app installed on your SD card, you will have to launch the app and login every time you reboot, because the app won't do it automatically. Additionally, there will be a delay in rebooting your phone and being able to access any apps or data on the SD card, and of course delays of any kind are the worst offense against the laws of Google.

Another big limitation is that apps on SD have widgets disabled. So, when it comes to apps that take up a lot of storage, like say the Google+ app, users constantly have to decide if having the widget available is worth the extra space taken up in internal storage. This is especially annoying for Google, because widgets are one of the major and most noticeable features which separates Android from the competition. 

Google's pushback problems

These limitations are not something that Google wants. Google wants user to be able to use all apps to their fullest capabilities. So, with the Nexus S, Google started trying to push manufacturers to adopt larger internal storage by putting 16 GB of internal storage in the flagship phone. But, beyond that the Nexus S was also the first Android flagship device to ship without an SD card slot. Subsequent flagship devices - the Motorola XOOM and Samsung Galaxy Nexus - have also shipped with large internal storage, but no SD card slot.

The trouble is that the logic doesn't fully connect. Having devices with large internal storage means that there should be no issues with apps or widgets, apps will run faster, phones can boot faster, and it removes storage limitations for OS updates. Unfortunately, there is no reason why larger internal storage should preclude the option of an SD card slot. The only reasoning that makes sense is in making a more streamlined experience for casual users, even at the expense of angering advanced users. 

Apple had to have large internal storage from the start with the iPhone, because there was never any chance that Steve Jobs & Co. would be offering expandable memory options on those devices. Having expandable memory often means having to open up that file system, and Apple would not allow users to add or remove content without iTunes. But, at least Apple has iTunes as a solution, where Google still has no cohesive syncing solution.

While much of the load has shifted to the cloud, Google still hasn't created a solution for backing up application data. Aside from additional storage, one great thing about SD cards is that they make your data portable. So, when you upgrade your phone, you just swap out the SD card and you still have all of your photos, videos, and music. Unfortunately, unless you are a rooter and use Titanium Backup, there hasn't been and still is no way to bring application data from one device to another.

What Google really needs first

Rovio claimed it would be launching a syncing service for Angry Birds this past summer, but that never happened. Even so, it shouldn't be on individual app developers to create that service. Google may want to remove SD cards from the equation in order to make sure all apps get the most capabilities available in Android, but before that can happen, Google needs a more complete syncing option.

We know that some of you are addicted to your SD cards, but the reality is that expandable storage is quickly becoming an unnecessary feature, because that storage is being shifted to the cloud. Google has an amazing array of products in the cloud, and most of them reduce your need for large amounts of storage on your device. Music can now be stored and streamed from the newly released Google Music, documents from Google Docs, photos from Picasa, and more and more video comes through YouTube (although before YouTube really makes this leap, Google needs to add device syncing, so you can start a movie on a PC and continue on mobile or visa versa.) Given all of these services, the vast majority of users won't need more than 16 GB of storage. And, before you all start crying, please remember that many of you in our readership are not the "majority of users". You are mostly advanced users with unique requirements, and there will always be manufacturers catering to you. But, right now, Google is trying very hard to push the Nexus brand and stock Android to a mass market, and that means alienating some of you for the betterment of the entire ecosystem.

So, while most of your data can sync to the cloud, that still leaves app data in the lurch. While we may be very willing to replay Cut the Rope, we may not be so excited for the prospect of losing all of our progress in most other games. Unfortunately, it seems like Google doesn't really have any plans to offer a solution to this problem. It's possible that a more full backup solution will come when Google finally transitions Docs into Google Drive, but we're not holding our breath.

Conclusion

The impulse to push larger internal storage for Android devices is a good one from Google. Larger storage removes any limitations and quirks brought on from the Apps2SD process, and it means that older devices may not have as long of delays in getting OS updates, because manufacturers won't have to try squeezing in the system and any UI overlays into small spaces. Google likely also sees that expandable storage and SD cards will become unnecessary given the emergence of the cloud, but we aren't quite there yet, especially without better solutions for syncing app data and transferring data to new devices.

On this one, Google may be a bit too forward thinking for its own good, and it may be pushing too hard to get the Nexus and stock Android into the hands of casual consumers. Just because Google wants a wider audience doesn't mean it needs to alienate advanced users. Like it or not, Nexus appeals to advanced users who don't want manufacturer UIs, carrier bloat, or difficulties associated with encrypted bootloaders. Nexus appeals to early adopters who want the shortest path available to Android OS updates, and those users also have unique needs that are beyond those of casual users. We have said before that Google seems to be going too far to make a successful consumer device, and the removal of SD cards seems to be another compromise in that endeavor. 

85 Comments
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posted on 22 Nov 2011, 15:30 16

1. hunted (Posts: 403; Member since: 21 Sep 2011)


one drawback of not having SD slot is, if our phone is affected from virus the entire memory should be formatted. But if we have dual memory(like sd card) at least we can protect our data.

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 01:25 1

44. 530gemini (Posts: 2198; Member since: 09 Sep 2010)


Don't you guys back up ur data on your pc? Lol.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 15:41 26

2. remixfa (Posts: 14327; Member since: 19 Dec 2008)


the answer is already out there in the SGS phones. Large internal memory + memory card. Everyone is happy that way. Its not like that little card reader costs more than a few cents to make, and neither does a memory chip.. espeically when your the manufacturer of said devices like samsung.

Thats one of the main reasons i cross my eyes at the iphone pricing scheme. Even at retail there isnt more than 10-20 bux between 16-32gb and 64 probably isnt even that much of a difference either. Do it at mass production whole sale and ur looking at a few cents to a few bucks per chip. And that brings me to a idea about the lack of memory slots that wasnt brought up in the article. Retail pricing schemes. Like it or not, apple is leading the way in a (what is to me a..) grotesque price gouging scheme and they are seeing massive profits off of it. It wouldn't surprise me at all if other manufactures wanted to try their hands at that.
After all, if Samsung can get even a $50 difference between a 16 gig and 32 gig version of the phone, that is almost all extra profit for them as the chips have very little price difference on mass wholesale. Add in the fact that they actually manufacture those chips, and its going to be an even smaller difference. (internal memory is nothing but an sd card buried in the phone most of the time, in case you didnt know)

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 15:59 5

5. tacohunter (Posts: 408; Member since: 06 Nov 2011)


Yeap, agree.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 16:04 8

6. MikeG77 (Posts: 414; Member since: 24 Nov 2008)


remixfa i'd rather have either a 32 gb nexus or a 16 gb with a sd card slot. I think thats a reasonable request. Like you said it doesn't cost that much to add in a sd card slot.

Apple is seeing massive profits because of how there supply chain is setup and because all there products are made over seas where they can pay there people a lower wage, no wonderful unions and or environmental protection laws.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 18:08 2

27. belovedson (Posts: 1026; Member since: 30 Nov 2010)


i dont think you guys used the nexus s. if you did your opinion would change. having an sd card is annoying. its slow, causes force closes, and used unnecessary space.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 19:33 1

33. ZEUS.the.thunder.god (unregistered)


true.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 20:36 3

40. MikeG77 (Posts: 414; Member since: 24 Nov 2008)


Actually belovedson you are correct I have not used the Nexus S but that doesn't mean my opinion would have been any different had I used it. Anyone who really uses there smart phone wants all the options they can have available to them.

Now in my opinion having an sd card is a good thing that gives us options and hell even if there is a slot for an sd card you can choose to not use it. All of the other issues you have mentioned could be related to a host of other factors such as defective sd card, error within the app etc etc.

If you don't want a phone that has an sd card slot get an iPhone....but I bet you'll complain about that as well.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 21:39 2

42. CRICKETownz (Posts: 980; Member since: 24 Oct 2009)


i use both Android & iPhone, which obviously i'm used to not having a SD card slot on the one. to be honest i think ppl on this site over-complicate the buying process when it comes to smart phones. i fall under the category of someone who really uses their smart phone & SD card slot is well...tomato/to-mah-to. i think to only rely on one type of storage is not that secure but if you do have various back up options that further reinforces that an SD card slot in this day is age is not as significant as it use to be. I would much rather Google come out with a physical sync software similar to itunes or blackberry desktop manager vs. only having the "clouds" available. now that would be a viable option.

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 06:11 1

51. Fallout09 (Posts: 421; Member since: 17 Oct 2011)


Thats why I have a 32 GB class 10 micro sd card my friend. Lightning fast transfer speeds. I see no difference in the intermal memory reads and sd card reads.

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 08:43

53. Kease (Posts: 36; Member since: 30 Sep 2011)


"wonderful unions"?

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 09:22

55. MikeG77 (Posts: 414; Member since: 24 Nov 2008)


Im not sure if you realized it but i was being sarcastic and im not a big fan of unions but thats a topic for a different time and place.

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 09:37

57. remixfa (Posts: 14327; Member since: 19 Dec 2008)


lol, thats because the internal memory is just a memory card itself, and it sure isnt a high end one. :)

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 10:13

59. Goldeneye (Posts: 419; Member since: 22 Jan 2011)


Yes is nice to have the option of a removable memory, but Google is backing what Apple always thought "no SD cards necessary", hate to say it but Apple is leading this industry from just about every angle, Flash first, now SD cards, what's next? I think removable batteries, ahem Moto, about "ot liking SD cards slots in your phone" comment yeah get an Iphone or a Nexus, lol

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 11:24

61. deathgod (Posts: 122; Member since: 23 Nov 2011)


As a current Nexus S user, having an sd card slot would be a godsend for me. I'm constantly having to delete stuff off my phone just to make space. I hate it. That's one of the reasons I'm skipping over getting the Galaxy Nexus and will most likely be getting the SGS3 instead.

Also how is 16GB internal storage considered large nowadays. I'd consider it minimally adequate.

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 12:28

62. remixfa (Posts: 14327; Member since: 19 Dec 2008)


its amazing that I have not had those issues. :) And I have seen very few if any complains about SD card force closings. .lol

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 13:04

64. fervid (Posts: 183; Member since: 22 Nov 2011)


I've used Nexus S and various other phones with SD Card. Nexus S is somewhat of a hybrid though using its partitions to emulate an SD Card and still have access to it. I have Linux on my laptop and transfer things all the time which while possible on Nexus S would not be on the Galaxy Nexus until Linux is updated. I don't even really put apps on the SD. Usually Music, Images, or Video. On WinMobile I always had cab files for install too. Would be nice having the same type of things on Android to recover apps instead of using my data plan to redownload it all from the Market again. The 4-8GB internal memory just isn't enough for internal. I loved the design of the HTC Status, but the phone was useless with the memory it had. We need minimum 16GB internal with SD capabilities to have a fully functional phone.

posted on 01 Mar 2012, 10:26

70. TenshiNo (Posts: 3; Member since: 01 Mar 2012)


Just a quick point of note: Flash on Android isn't "going away". Adobe decided to stop making new versions of Flash (PC and Mobile) in favor of moving towards an HTML5 development suite.

I'm with you and everyone else, though: Large internal memory so that we don't need an SDCARD is great, but still at least give me a slot, so that I can add one if I want. I guess the problem is that the noobs would add an SDCARD, not realizing the complications, and then complain about how "crappy" Android is. The sad part is that most people won't take even 10 minutes to learn what the problems are. They just whine an complain to anyone who will listen, never even realizing that the problem is because of something they have done.

posted on 10 Apr 2012, 06:46

72. dr.sosua (Posts: 3; Member since: 10 Apr 2012)


is it buried in the galaxay nexus please tell me i can upgrade bought mine in thailand only 16 want 64 already full

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 15:43 9

3. remixfa (Posts: 14327; Member since: 19 Dec 2008)


btw, this is a fight i hope google and the manufacturers lose. VIVA LA REMOVABLE MEMORY! :)

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 18:19 1

28. bossmt_2 (Posts: 451; Member since: 13 Oct 2009)


Would much rather have wifi and hook up either an external to the router or a wifi external or it run through my PC and have a folder dedicated to android apps, call logs, etc. A true cloud backup or my alternative would be much preferred to an SD card simply because it's one less thing you need to worry about.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 19:41 3

35. thepeartree (Posts: 3; Member since: 13 Nov 2011)


Obviously you live in the center of a large city where wi-fi and 4G are available 24/7/365. In many parts of the country (including mine) there are dead spots where we don't even have PHONE service. Where then do we find a place for a phone that relies on cloud storage and wi-fi connections? Give me good old removable storage!

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 20:00

36. bossmt_2 (Posts: 451; Member since: 13 Oct 2009)


It wouldn't rely 100% on cloud, it would be cloud data management. So say you have a Galaxy Nexus with 32 gigs of storage, on your Galaxy Nexus you have your music, contacts, call logs, messages, apps etc all saved on the phone, when you go home it lets you know you're connected to your home network and do you want to back your data up you say yes, you can then go through and swap data like say move a picture from your computer to your phone and the other way around.

posted on 01 Mar 2012, 10:31

71. TenshiNo (Posts: 3; Member since: 01 Mar 2012)


But what happens if you're someone who frequently finds themselves in a location where the "Cloud" is not an option due to signal strength?

My previous job (just switched a few weeks ago) was in the bottom floor of a concrete building which was "recessed" so that the bottom floor was literally almost completely underground. I was lucky to get a signal at all most of the time and streaming music, etc from the Cloud was *completely* out of the question.

And even just going to parts of the city is a problem. I dated one girl for about 4 months who lived in a more rural area of the city so, while at her place, 4G was non-existant and 3G was extremely slow. On several occasions I tried to upload a video to YouTube only to have it either take 8+ hours or bomb out entirely.

The "Could" as a solution only works if you have access to high-speed data at least *most* of the time.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 15:53 8

4. Shangri-La (Posts: 72; Member since: 04 Oct 2011)


I love buying huge SD cards and sticking them into my phones/cameras even if I dont even actually need half of the capacity.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 16:06 17

7. nicodek (Posts: 4; Member since: 18 Nov 2011)


The problem with relying on the cloud is carrier limits on data. Unless you constantly use wifi you will start to his those 2gb limits fairly quickly streaming your music and videos and syncing all the apps and data to the cloud. Yes wifi is more common but its not everywhere and so not everyone can rely on it. The best solution for users is the higher memory plus sd card.

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 16:08 4

8. MikeG77 (Posts: 414; Member since: 24 Nov 2008)


BIngo!

posted on 22 Nov 2011, 16:29 3

14. beatsandmelody (Posts: 109; Member since: 01 Nov 2011)


That's true. And thank goodness ICS has built in data control on an OS level, down to specific apps, with both warnings and actual caps.

It's a shame that the carriers essentially started charging us more money for even less data ($30 for 5 GB, now $30 for 2 GB) at a time when Google and even Apple are moving ever faster towards cloud based solutions. Combine that with Verizon's great LTE speeds and... Basically I see it as someone swapping out a square puzzle piece for a circle puzzle piece, when it's down to the last few pieces. :\

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 06:14 3

52. Fallout09 (Posts: 421; Member since: 17 Oct 2011)


Dont forget times you have no cell access.... Airplane mode anyone? How would I access the cloud storage for my muisc, videos and apps then?

posted on 23 Nov 2011, 08:54 1

54. vette21man (Posts: 351; Member since: 06 Apr 2011)


Not only reaching data limits, but streaming video/music is a battery sink.

My battery lasts at least twice as long when playing high-quality music locally vs streaming low-quality pandora.

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