Android: State of the Platform
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Phone - and, if we have time, we'll also take a look at the smaller challengers either attempting to fight its way back (BlackBerry) or the new options on the way - Tizen, Firefox OS, Ubuntu, and Jolla. We'll work our way through from top to bottom in terms of market share, because ranking which platform is the best in terms of features and experience is a very subjective undertaking that is best left done on an individual basis. That means we will be starting with the current market leader: Android.Over the next few weeks, we'll go through all of the major platforms - Android, iOS, and Windows
Where Android has come from
In terms of raw shipment numbers, Android has been an absolute beast once again, which is why we're starting the series with Android (and why there is so much to talk about with the platform. If you haven't noticed yet, this is a loooong article, so feel free to take it in chunks or Pocket it).
According to numbers from Canalys, Android shipped 481.5 million smartphones in 2012, which was good enough for 68.8% of the global smartphone market. Apparently, that wasn't quite enough, because in 2013 Android shipped 781.2 million smartphones, which raised its global market share to 78.9%. Let's just take a moment to let that sink in. Globally, there were close to 1 billion smartphones shipped throughout 2013, and almost 80% of those were running Android. That is pretty insane. While lower-end handsets do account for a fair number of those handsets, but the only region where iOS is beating Android is Japan so Android is also taking a fair amount of the high-end in most regions as well.
If we dig into the numbers a bit more, there are even more interesting tidbits to find. It was recently estimated that in Q4 of 2013, 75% of all Android devices shipped were running Google Android, while 25% of devices didn't include Google services. That would be a small number of devices from Amazon, but the majority of those non-Google Androids were in regions like China and Russia; and, a fair number of the non-Google Androids in China were running Xiaomi's MIUI fork of the platform.
Devices running Android without Google services is a part of the ecosystem that Google has always claimed to accept and even welcome, but Google's actions have always supported the rhetoric. In action, Google has shown that it doesn't want to help those devices any more than it has to. This is part of the reason why the majority of Android development that happens at Google is not in the open source system layer anymore, but rather the Google Play services layer and the Google Apps that come through the Google Play Store. And, it's also the reason why Google has essentially created its own brand of Android with those services, and slowly replaced apps like the browser, calendar, email, and gallery with the Google equivalents: Chrome, Google Calendar, Gmail, and G+ Photos. It's hard to say what Google will do in regards to non-Google Android devices this year, but the past says Google won't help too much.
The best place to understand the changes 2013 held for Android users is in the platform distribution numbers, because that tells the story of the user experience in the ecosystem. One year ago at the beginning of January 2013, Android 2.3 Gingerbread made up 45.6% of Android devices, Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich was second with 29%, Android 4.1/4.2 Jelly Bean took third with 13.6%, and Android 2.2 Froyo round out the versions worth mentioning at 8.1%. So, the number of users running the older Android 2.x versions of the system was a majority at 53.7%, and the proportion running the revamped Android 4.x versions made up just 42.6%.
The past year since then has introduced two new incremental updates to the platform - Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and Android 4.4 KitKat - and, it has seen a massive shift in the platform distribution overall. Android 2.x has dropped to just 22.5% of the ecosystem, and Ice Cream Sandwich dropped as well to 16.9%, leaving Jelly Bean as the majority of the ecosystem at 59.1%. This alone is a major change for Android users for a number of reasons. Just look at the difference between the Android 2.3 reference device, the Nexus S, and the Android 4.2 reference device, the Nexus 4.
This alone gives a good indication of the differences users have seen in the market. Android 2.x was a relatively ugly system, which is why manufacturers like Samsung and HTC felt the need to skin it in the first place. Devices running 2.x were generally smaller with bezel space relegated to capacitive buttons, and they obviously had lower specs overall. With Android 4.x, the average screen size for devices started creeping ever closer to 5-inches, bezels shrunk, buttons moved on-screen (on many devices that don't have the Samsung branding), and the average specs moved to quad-core processors and upwards of 2GB of RAM, not to mention 720p and 1080p displays.
And, all of that just speaks to the hardware options available for users. The software differences from Android 2.x to 4.x are pretty stark as well. In the past year alone, the ecosystem shifted from using versions of Android where the platform was still growing and finding its way (2.x) to the Android that knows what it is and how to best control its own fate (4.x). Now, over 60% of the ecosystem (including KitKat users) have access to Google Now, the performance improvements of Project Butter, the data usage meter, actionable notifications, and the visual consistency of the Holo theme, Roboto font, action bars, and overflow menus.
That alone is a big change for users, but the shift to Android 4.1+ in the ecosystem doesn't just speak to changes in the smartphone world, but also to the explosion of Android tablets that we've seen over the past year. Android tablets took over the majority of shipment metrics in 2012, and have only widened the gap since then. IDC just put out the numbers for the holiday season although it didn't break down the numbers by platform, only by vendor. Even so, the numbers show Apple dropping from just over 38% of tablet shipments in Q4 2012 to just under 34% this past holiday season. Even if we generously assume Windows took 5% of tablets shipped, Android would be left with 61% of the market (53.2% if you take out Amazon's non-Google Androids). And, those numbers are expected to continue for a while, at least for Android. In the numbers that IDC gave for Q3 2013, it also predicted that by 2017 Android would be just below 60% of the tablet market (presumably that number includes Amazon), with iOS at about 30% and Windows climbing to about 10%.
In the tablet market as well as the smartphone market, 2013 was a year of refinement for Android. The system itself is feature-complete at this point, which is an issue for both Google and Apple moving forward. Any features added to either Android or iOS at this point could still be quite impressive (see: Google Now), but in general the additions will be geared more towards pushing the platforms to new form factors than offering functionality that might be expected by the majority of users. At this point, whatever you want to do with a smartphone or tablet, you'll likely be able to with either Android or iOS, so the assumed expansion for the platforms is in wearables.
Towards the end of the past year, we saw where that was heading with the introduction of the first generation of smartwatches as well as the Google Glass Explorer program. Wearables were certainly in their infancy in this past year, but there is obviously quite a lot more on the horizon because the current set of wearables are still in the process of figuring out what exactly a wearable should be. The main Android powered option that is actually available on the market, the Samsung Galaxy Gear, has taken the approach of "throw it all at the wall and see what sticks". This has led to some interesting functionality, but also quite a few drawbacks, including battery life; and, many agree that the overall experience isn't as good compared to other options like the Pebble smartwatch which has more limited functionality.
The other major spot where you might have found Android in this past year was on your TV with Google TV, but there is really nothing at all to say on that front. During Google I/O back in May, Google made it sound like there was work being done which would bring Google TVs up to Android 4.x, but almost all of the devices are still based on the long forgotten Android 3.2 Honeycomb. There have been rumors of a Nexus TV and more attention to the form factor by Google, but all we've seen on that is the Chromecast, which is barely running Android at all.
Even with all of the movement in pushing Android into various new products, there are still new and exciting things that have been happening in the world of component hardware. By far, the most exciting new entries for components over the past year has been with display technology. Although the Qualcomm Toq smartwatch is not the device that anyone is likely to buy, it was a great showcase for Mirasol displays, which are something we've been waiting on for years now. Mirasol uses transflective technology meaning that it both transmits light (like a normal display) and more importantly it reflects light, which leads to far better performance in direct sunlight.
The other big addition to displays in 2013 was the introduction of flexible displays which came in the (beta) products: the Samsung Galaxy Round and the LG G Flex. Both devices were essentially glorified proof-of-concepts for flexible display technology, but they point to an interesting shift over the coming year. Regardless of if makers bother with actually curving the glass on your device, the important part is that the display underneath is flexible, which often means it is far more difficult to break. You can still crack the glass on top, but at least the display itself should continue to function. And, once curved/flexible glass options get more refined, and of course the internals of devices become flexible, we could eventually see a pretty big change in how our smartphones look, though we wouldn't expect to see that this year except maybe in prototype form (and certainly nothing as cool as the Nokia Humanform concept).
As mentioned before, Android as a system is essentially feature-complete. Anyone looking for a smartphone who picks up a new Android handset likely won't be disappointed at what the platform has to offer. You get all of the Google services, most new devices offer Google Now and its extensive voice command, and you get the Google Play Store which now has over 1 million apps, not to mention movies, books, magazines, and music. But, that doesn't mean that Android didn't see growth in this segment this year.
One major addition to the Play Store in 2013 came in the form of hardware. The Play Store had been selling Nexus devices, but in 2013 the store added a number of new Chromebooks (including the crazy expensive Pixel) as well as four new Google Play edition Android devices - the Samsung Galaxy S4, HTC One, Sony Xperia Z Ultra, and LG G Pad 8.3 (the Moto G was then added in early 2014). While those devices are sold at the normal unlocked phone prices, this gave Google Play an impressive array of devices ranging from 4.7-inches (HTC One) all the way to 10.1-inches (Nexus 10). The lineup has been so impressive that there have even been rumors that Google could ditch the Nexus lineup all-together and only offer Google Play edition devices, although rumors put that move in 2015.
At the end of 2012, there was still the lingering claim that Android tablets were lacking when it came to apps, but over the course of 2013 that idea changed. 10-inch Android tablets may still have a relatively smaller collection of optimized apps than 7-inch Android tablets or the iPad; but, when there are over 1 million apps in the Google Play Store, you're still highly likely to find what you need. Also, Google has done a far better job of not only pushing developers to optimize, but in surfacing optimized apps. Google started by pushing developers to add screenshots for tablet optimized apps, and then more recently, it changed the way apps were displayed in the Play Store, so optimized apps showed first. Now, it is very hard to claim that Android tablets are missing too much.
The first big shift in a specific Google Play content came in May at Google I/O with the announcement of Google Play Music All Access. It wasn't the first all-you-can-eat music service to hit the market, but it added a few features that made it a very compelling option. First of all, it seamlessly merged your personal collection of music that had been uploaded to the cloud with the music saved to your library through the All Access subscription. This was important not only because it made for a better user experience, but it led to better lock-in for customers. Your music library may be impressive, but seeing a bunch of albums disappear if you cancel your subscription can be painful. Google also did well by implementing easy controls to modify a radio playlist, as well as real human curation of content with editor's picks.
The other big change came more recently. Google Play added Magazines along with TV & Movies back in the summer of 2012 with the introduction of the original Nexus 7, and just 16 months later Google Play Magazines was already gone. Well, not gone completely, but folded into a unified reading experience called Google Play Newsstand. Newsstand was widely seen as the mashup of Magazines and Google's mostly forgotten news aggregation app, Currents, though we saw it more as a reimagining of Google Reader. Newsstand brought together your magazine subscriptions, news subscriptions, and any RSS feed you might want to have pulled in as well. Even more important for content creators is that they were suddenly given space in the Google Play Store, which could make it easier for readers to discover new content.
Most Google apps saw significant changes in 2013, but the biggest of all were in Google Maps and Google Wallet. Maps received a complete design overhaul, and then it got a bit smarter by pulling in accident reports from Google's acquisition of Waze. Google Wallet isn't used nearly as much as Maps, but its change this year was even bigger, because it essentially pivoted from an NFC payment system to a money exchange system similar to PayPal, and added compatibility with tons of new devices. Although, since Wallet isn't a core Android app, it doesn't have quite the same impact.
2013 was also the year where we saw the real power of Google's new strategy of putting major feature updates into Google Play services rather than the Android core system, because Google can silently update Play services on all Google Android devices and bypass the entire manufacturer/carrier update quagmire. The main additions here were the Verify Apps system for detecting malware in sideloaded apps, which was first introduced in Android 4.2, but was pushed to all devices running Android 2.2 and higher; the Android Device Manager, which allowed for locating, ringing, locking, and remotely wiping a lost device; and, Google Play Games which has brought centralized leaderboards, achievements, multiplayer, and more to tons of Android games.
Outside of the Google world of apps there were too many changes to count, but we can talk about the overall trends. In 2013 after years of seeing apps either being iOS exclusives or seeing long delays in Android versions, we started seeing more and more apps that were released simultaneously on both platforms, and even a couple that came to Android first. Unfortunately, this was more true with apps than games, as many of the best mobile games are still either iOS exclusives (Infinity Blade, Device 6, The Room 2, Oceanhorn, Year Walk), or hit iOS first with lengthy delays before the Android version (Cut the Rope 2), or maybe no specific plans for Android and just the nebulous "it's coming" (The Wolf Among Us). Don't get us wrong, there are still tons of amazing games for Android, but the majority of the best Android games are titles also found on iOS, and usually found on iOS first. The same can't be said about the best games on iOS.
Various unofficial metrics have shown over the past year that the Google Play Store's revenue has grown extremely fast over the past year; and, those numbers were recently confirmed in Google's Q4 2013 earnings call. Google credited Play Store content, app, and hardware sales for the company's revenue growth. More revenue in the Play Store is always great news for developers; so, we're hoping to see more developers changing the trend this year and bring more apps and games to Android in a more timely manner.
This story is part of:State of the Platform (7 updates)
31 March Windows: State of the Platform part 3 - Hardware and a new CEO
31 March Windows: State of the Platform part 2 - WP 8.1 and Expansion
27 March Windows: State of the Platform part 1 - Year in review
28 February iOS: State of the Platform part 3 - iWatch, iPhones, and iPads
28 February iOS: State of the Platform part 2 - Market share and iOS 8