Android: State of the Platform

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Android 2013 year in review
Every once in a while, it's worth it to take a moment both to reflect and look forward; and, with that in mind, this is the first of a (potential) four-parter that will look at the changes that have happened on each of the three major mobile platforms over the past year, where those platforms are headed in the coming year, and the last part will take a look at the new challengers on the way. It can be surprising the amount of change you'll see over the course of a year, especially when we usually focus on the incremental changes that happen day-to-day. 

Over the next few weeks, we'll go through all of the major platforms - Android, iOS, and Windows 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.

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. 

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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.

Platform numbers

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. 

Form factors

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).

Google Play

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. 

Where Android is going

From here on out in this State of the Platform address, we're diving deeper into the world of rumors and speculation. There are some products and trends that we know will be happening, others that have only been rumored, and still more that we certainly hope to see, but are far from confirmed. We are going to make this easier by (generally) following the same path that we took with the review of the past year; but, it should be noted that as we were in the middle of writing this, there were a couple of bombshell announcements that threw off what we were considering to be reasonable predictions for the coming year. First, Samsung and Google agreed on a global cross-licensing patent deal, and possible changes to Samsung's Android software customizations, which point to a much closer relationship between the two companies. Then, Google agreed to sell the Motorola devices division to Lenovo for $2.91 billion. Rest assured that those big deals will be included in the sections that support them. 

Now, on with the show!

Platform numbers

This is by far one of the more difficult things to predict when it comes to Android. There are so many devices in the wild that it can be hard to keep track of which devices will be getting what updates. Making it all even more difficult is the 18-month update provision in the Android Open Handset Alliance guidelines, which states that any device must be updated to the newest version of Android that is released within 18 months of its release. Unfortunately, the provision doesn't make any mention of when that update has to come, so it isn't uncommon to see forgotten devices getting updates to fairly old software. 

Emerging markets would love KitKat

That said, the big trend that we expect to see over the next year is a push in companies trying to capture share in emerging markets. Google obviously knew that emerging markets were the next big growth area for smartphones, which is why Android 4.4 included a number of optimizations to things like memory usage, which make Android run better on lower-spec devices. Emerging markets are areas where users can't afford top-of-the-line handsets, but Google wants Android makers to be able to offer high-quality options at low cost. We saw that blatantly with the release of the Motorola Moto G; but, as is always the question when it comes to Android, it is a matter of whether or not manufacturers get on board with Google's plan. 

In Google's perfect world, we could see a fair number of higher quality Android handsets running Android 4.4 on a Snapdragon 400 processor and aimed at emerging markets. If manufacturers come through on that, we could easily see Android 4.4 adoption outpace previous versions of Android. However, there is a very real possibility that Android makers will stick to the current game plan of releasing 2+ year old hardware and software with no real modifications to emerging markets in order to minimize development cost and keep device prices low. The only real pressure on Android makers to not take that path is if another platform like Windows Phone can continue to grow quickly in emerging markets, but competition is still getting going in those regions and the pressures aren't high enough to warrant real effort just yet. 

It is also possible that the Android 4.4 KitKat improvements will be used more in non-Google Android devices over the coming year. As we mentioned earlier, non-Google Androids made up about 25% of global device shipments in Q4 of 2013; and, the majority of non-Google Android devices are found in emerging markets like southeast Asia. The key to those markets is in low-cost devices, and Android KitKat could encourage a race to see who can build the best low-end device. If it does, makers like Xiaomi could be quick to adopt 4.4 to give their low-cost devices a bit of a performance boost. Of course, as mentioned earlier as well, Google doesn't add much value to the open source Android system, so those non-Google Android devices will still have to compete with devices that offer Google Play services. Even if Google Android devices don't look quite as good on the spec sheet, or don't run the newest version of Android, Google services could still win over users, unless manufacturers can add significant value in software as Xiaomi has done. 

Where Samsung goes....

Another interesting consideration is the new "sea change" in the relationship with Google and Samsung. The two sides are reportedly closer than ever after signing the global patent deal mentioned earlier. Additionally, there are reports that Samsung may have agreed to change some of its software customizations on Android, including modifying or removing the new Magazine UX and promoting Google Play content rather than its own content. If this is true, it isn't impossible to think that maybe Samsung will try to do things in a bit more Googley way. Samsung is by far the market leader around the globe, and where it goes, so does the ecosystem. If Samsung can push updates faster, or release Android 4.4 devices to emerging markets, it could cause a bigger shift in the platform numbers. 

However, that is all speculation right now, and we have no idea what will come from the newly close relationship between Samsung and Google, since the majority of the information on this relationship is just rumors. Still, most of the ecosystem is already on Android 4.1 or higher, so it's not like asking to see a repeat of the huge shift in 2013 from users on 2.x to the majority of the Android ecosystem being on Jelly Bean.  It is just a series of incremental updates for the platform, which should be faster to push out than the massive change that Android 4.x offered to both users and manufacturers. Usually Android manufacturers give us reason to be pessimistic when it comes to software updates, but this time we don't think it is unreasonable to expect 2014 to end up with a solid majority of the ecosystem on Android 4.4.

Android 5.0?

The Android platform won't only be seeing moves towards Android 4.4 though, because Google is undoubtedly working on another update to Android as we speak. The question is whether 2014 will continue the incremental updates for Android, or if it will bring a full version number update to Android 5.0. If we had to guess, we'd say that 2014 will be the year that we see Android 5.0 (Lemonhead?). It is possible that the summer will see an incremental update to Android 4.5 KitKat, but we'd guess that it is more likely to see the next version of Android be 5.0. 

The reason we are guessing that is because Google has tended to reserve the major version number changes for times when Android sees a visual overhaul or expansion to new form factors. Android 3.0 brought tablet optimizations, and Android 4.0 brought the Holo theme and the UI overhaul that has been the basis for Android ever since. Android 5.0 may not change the way Android looks on phones and tablets so much as it will likely bring visual optimizations for wearables and TVs; and, it is likely to bring official 64-bit optimizations to the Android system. 

It is no secret that wearables are expected to be the big push this year (as we'll talk about soon), and Android needs to be optimized for those devices. Google needs to be able to get Play services and the Play Store onto smartwatches, and also Google Glass. Glass is supposedly being released this year, and we've heard that when it does, its apps will be found in the Play Store. Right now Google Glass software is based on Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich; and, there is no way that Google can release a consumer version of a flashy new device like that running the OS from almost two years ago. Glass may not launch with Android 5.0, but it should at least launch with 4.4 (assuming of course that Glass does launch this year, but again we're getting ahead of ourselves). 

Similarly, Google has consistently claimed that it has not abandoned Google TV. We tend to believe them, because Google TV is a good idea, but has suffered bad implementation. A big reason for the bad implementation of the product is that almost all Google TV devices are based on the long forgotten Android 3.2 Honeycomb, which was specifically designed for tablets. We expect Google to come back with a bang in the TV space, and Android 5.0 should be a big part of that. Also, because Google can't let Google TV wait too much longer, and Glass has been rumored for a summer release, we wouldn't be surprised to see Android 5.0 released this summer as well, but we're not holding our breath on that hope. 

Form factors


Since we're a mobile tech website, we'll leave that last bit as the only real discussion of Google TV; and we'll also leave out the impending push of Android in home appliances and cars. Cars may be very mobile products, they don't quite fit into our purview of "mobile" here at PhoneArena as we tend to focus on devices you can wear or carry in a bag. What we do care much more about is that 2014 has already been labeled "The Year of the Wearable" by quite a few media outlets, and that is probably going to be an accurate label when all is said and done. Wearables like smartwatches, fitness bands, and various Google Glass competitors were found everywhere at CES earlier this month. But, that doesn't necessarily translate to big things for Android, because the majority of the wearables that we saw (and got excited about) were life-tracker bands that would only connect to your Android device, and not run Android itself. 

Google is almost certainly working on a version of Android that is designed to scale to wearables, and is rumored to be building its own smartwatch; the beginning of the work for that can be seen in the optimizations for lower-spec devices in Android 4.4. And, there are Android smartwatches on the way, with smaller company options like the Neptune Pine and the Omate TrueSmart. Samsung is almost certainly going to be announcing the Galaxy Gear 2 soon enough, and the hope is that Samsung has learned a lot from the beta test that was the first Galaxy Gear smartwatch. This could also be another point where the newly close relationship with Google could come into play again; because, while the first Galaxy Gear ran Android, it obviously didn't include the Google Play Store (since there are no smartwatch apps in said store). If Google and Samsung are working more closely together, it's not hard to imagine Google Play making an appearance on the Gear 2 at some point. It surely won't happen at launch, given that rumors say the Gear 2 will hit in the next couple of months, but the Gear 2 may be one of the first with the Play update when it is ready, or Google and Samsung may work together to get developers on board with smartwatch apps, since Samsung already has developers on hand for the Galaxy Gear. 


Of course, 2014 won't only be filled with wearables for your wrist, because it is also supposedly the year for the commercial launch of Google Glass. We say "supposedly" because Google Glass is one of those products that could easily be delayed and it wouldn't surprise anyone. But, Google has seemed pretty confident that the device will make its commercial release sometime this year; and, the company has been getting ready for wider use with the redesign to the hardware which now supports prescription glasses, and a deal with vision insurance provider VSP to subsidize the cost of compatible frames and train opticians in fitting users with Glass. 

The big question surrounding Glass is what the price will look like when it does make it to commercial release. Currently, it will cost users $1500 for a Google Glass; and, if you need prescription lenses, that will cost you an extra $225 for the frames plus the cost of the prescription lenses, which vary by how blind you are. The rumors have said that Google might not be able to get the cost of Glass down under $500 for the commercial release, which is expensive enough that even after it is released to the public, it wouldn't be much more than a larger beta program. 

There are a few Google Glass competitors in the works, but none has shown off hardware that is very appealing. Google Glass may be very noticeable and futuristic on your face, but at least it isn't big and clunky like some of the prototypes shown off by other manufacturers. And, even if a competitor can put out a device comparable to Glass in terms of looks, it is hard to imagine any company being able to offer the app support and system that Google has been cultivating for almost a year now. 

Smartphones and tablets

2014 won't only be about new form factors, but those do look to be the more interesting area for the year. As mentioned earlier, mobile hardware and software has hit something of a plateau recently. Anything that you would conceivably want from a device is likely already available through the hardware, the platform, or the apps found on Android. There will obviously be advancements in hardware and software, but they are likely to be incremental in nature. But, there should still be some interesting trends to watch in 2014.

China cometh

Firstly, it should be very interesting to see what happens in terms of Chinese manufacturers making a more global push. The big news there is with Lenovo purchasing Motorola from Google for $2.91 billion. Lenovo has done well in southeast Asia, and Motorola has been growing well in North America, South America, is currently pushing into Europe, and has seen good demand for the Moto G even in India. Of course, that acquisition has a lot of regulatory hoops to jump before it becomes official both in the U.S. and in China; so, it is unlikely that we will see whatever Lenovorola will have to offer in 2014, 2015 is probably more reasonable.

Much more likely for this year is the expansion of Chinese powerhouse Xiaomi. Xiaomi is most well known outside of China as the makers of the MIUI custom ROM for Android, but this year the company is planning to expand globally and in doing so it may even begin to work with Google in offering Google Play services and Google Apps. Working with Google should be made easier since Xiaomi most notably hired Google's own Hugo Barra to be the VP of Xiaomi Global and organize the company's expansion, but the company has its own popular software, and getting Google Play access would take a lot of work to change MIUI from a fork back to a skinned version of Android. 

Xiaomi has been growing extremely fast in China, becoming the fifth largest manufacturer in the country just two years after releasing its first handset and three years after releasing the first version of MIUI. The company's MIUI App Store was also a huge success, generating 1 billion downloads in just 391 days, making it the second fastest app store to hit that mark, behind only Apple's App Store (288 days). Xiaomi started its expansion with a move into the Taiwanese market, and is planning to hit the Singapore market sometime in Q1 of this year. The plans for expansion past that aren't known, but it seems unlikely that the company will try to penetrate the competitive North American or European markets this year.

More likely, Xiaomi may attempt to expand into more emerging markets in southeast Asia, and maybe even target markets like Brazil or certain regions of Africa. Xiaomi has made a name for itself in China by offering higher quality handsets at very inexpensive prices, like the "Red Rice", which is a winning formula for emerging markets. We can't say for sure what the company will do, but it will be interesting to see how and where it expands, and whether or not it chooses to integrate Google Apps, or if it sticks with its own MIUI ecosystem. As mentioned, the MIUI App Store has grown incredibly fast, but it would need serious translation services to make the mostly Chinese apps ready for other markets, and with the work required there it may just be easier to go with Google.


Not surprisingly, one of the biggest trends of the year is going to be security. Over the past year, critics of passwords have grown louder, and the hardware associated with moving security past passwords has only gotten stronger. Apple was the first to market with a fingerprint scanner, but it certainly won't be the last. Samsung and LG have both been widely rumored to include fingerprint scanners in the next set of flagship devices, and other manufacturers are likely going to follow suit. There have also been rumors about iris scanners, but those rumors have died down for now, though we wouldn't be surprised if someone (read: Samsung) put out something of a reference device with an iris scanner before the year is out.

The question then becomes about implementation of the hardware, and the software solutions behind that security feature. The way Apple did it was to include a secure element on the A7 chip itself which stores the fingerprint data, which locks it off from anything that Apple doesn't allow (which is almost everything at this point). But, the Android world is much different than the iOS world, because no one company can control Android the way Apple does iOS software and hardware. As is usually the issue when it comes to new hardware features in Android, there won't be an official standard solution from Google on how to implement a fingerprint scanner, so it will be up to manufacturers to sort that out. Additionally, because there won't be official support from Google, it is unclear if you'll be able to use a fingerprint scanner for everything you might want to, such as Play Store payments or NFC payment transactions. Time will have to tell on that.


The rest of the changes expected in terms of mobile hardware are essentially nothing more than the standard evolution of devices. We've already seen flexible displays make an appearance, and they will undoubtedly become more common. Displays are also expected to push past the 1080p plateau and into the 2K/4K realm. We know that manufacturers are already working on bringing 64-bit processors to the platform, and Android is almost certainly working on the software optimizations needed. It is almost guaranteed that we will see the first mobile device with 4GB of RAM. And, there have been rumors of more intricate gesture systems using Leap Motion coming as soon as Q3 of 2014, although it is not yet clear if better gesture-tracking hardware will equate to a more valuable experience for the user. 

But, regardless of all of this expected change, the two spots that we hope to see the biggest changes are in batteries and cameras. Battery life is always hit-or-miss when it comes to Android devices that are smaller than 5.5-inches, and the culprit is usually that manufacturers are more interested in building a thin device with a 1080p display than one that can power the increasingly power hungry high-def displays that you find on handsets. We hope that more manufacturers focus more on ergonomics than thinness and use stacked batteries to offer better battery life.

Android cameras are also a point where there is plenty of room to grow. Samsung flagships and Sony flagships tend to have high-quality cameras, but many manufacturers are still stuck on the idea that more megapixels is the best way to improve camera quality. HTC gave it a shot with its UltraPixel camera, but the One was a commercial bust, so that didn't go very far. The reality that there are plenty of other ways to increase quality is becoming more well known though. Android devices are already pretty big in terms of screen size, which means there should be plenty of space inside those phones to offer bigger sensors with better image quality. 

It would also be nice to see more manufacturers experimenting with better materials. Every year there is hope that Samsung might finally realize that metals are viable options for building smartphones, but every year Samsung sticks with plastic (although it may try to trick you with its faux stitching and texture.) Very few Android handset makers put a lot of effort into using premium materials for devices, but we'd love to see more of that. And, especially after seeing the Moto X add wooden backs, we could definitely get down with more smartphones that use natural wood in mobile device cases. 

Google Play

This is by far the most difficult section to predict for the year ahead, so we're really not going to try very hard. There have been some rumors around in regards to various changes that we should see in terms of apps, but the majority of this section will focus more on what we want to see rather than what we expect to see. 

Starting off in the hardware section of Google Play, undoubtedly there will be a new Nexus 7 at some point this summer, and many are still holding out hope that a new Nexus 10 is on the way, but on the other hand, many have forgotten that the Nexus 10 is part of Google's lineup. There will likely be more Google Play edition devices, but Google already has the major hardware makers covered, so we'd expect the same names to be popping up. It seems unlikely that there will be GPe devices from Huawei, ZTE, or Xiaomi. However, don't be surprised if the Google Play hardware options expand this year to include wearables like Google Glass, a potential Google smartwatch, and maybe the new set of Google TVs as well. 

In terms of what we expect to see on the app side, the list is relatively small. We do know that YouTube will be getting a few major features soon with offline video playback, background playback (aka audio only playback), and the rumored YouTube music subscription service. The first two of those features should be pretty nice for the majority of users, but it is unclear how the subscription service will shake out, because it is essentially going to be a subscription for music videos, which have been free for quite a long time. Users don't often take well to services that had been free, but suddenly get a price tag slapped on it. Of course, we don't know how the service will work, which will have a big impact on how users react. The bits of code that we've seen point to paying a fee to remove ads from the videos and get "uninterrupted playback", which isn't a terrible idea, but the price of it will tell the tale. 

We know that Chrome Apps are on the way as well, but the usefulness of those apps is still somewhat up in the air. The more useful apps that you would find in Chrome tend to already have Android versions available in the Play Store that will have much more functionality than a Chrome app; and, the less useful Chrome apps are really nothing more than a website bookmark. The really interesting part of the Chrome apps push is that the apps will also be available in the iOS App Store, but that doesn't really affect Android at all, so it doesn't deserve mention in this piece.

Beyond those apps, it's hard to say what is going to happen, but there are a couple things we'd love to see happen with Google apps. It would be great if this were the year that Google Voice finally got MMS support (though it is highly unlikely); and, it would be great to see Google Keep get more sophisticated functionality in terms of note-taking abilities, as more of a to-do list, and maybe even as a read later app similar to Pocket. Unfortunately, Google Keep has only been getting minimal updates, and already seems to be on the road to being absorbed by Google Drive. For example, if you search for "Google Keep" in the Play Store, it isn't even the first result, Google Drive gets the top spot. That's pretty crazy.

Google Play Games is still growing, but there aren't many pieces of Android that Google has replaced with its own apps yet. The only real options there are the Camera app and the Clock app. As far as the Clock app, we would note that Google did purchase Timely recently, which could point to changes coming there, but there isn't exactly much need for a Google branded clock app. The Camera app is a more interesting idea though, because the camera data would be something Google would love to have (which is why auto-upload was made). A Google Camera could be somewhat similar to modifications that we've seen with the Samsung camera which can tag your friends, but it's unclear if Google wants to be that brazen with Google+ for little benefit. But, the Camera app is one that needs major work, and this could be the year that happens. 

There will also undoubtedly be changes to Google Now, but given how quickly and how expansive Google Now already is, it is a bit hard to imagine where it can go from here. It's possible it could start automatically reminding you to call friends that you haven't contacted in a while, but people would almost certainly feel uneasy about that sort of notification. Maybe 2014 is simply the year where Google Now gets more integrated with other Google services. For example, Google Now can already follow people, stories, or topics for you, but those results should also be pushed into Newsstand; or, Google Play Music automatically adds music that you might like, why not put a notification of that in Google Now? Google has also sort of forgotten about Google Goggles, but if you take a picture of something and have Goggles set to automatically find info, that info could be put in Google Now. 

The other changes that we hope to see in the app ecosystem for Android were essentially covered in the first half of this article: games and apps still have a tendency to be released on iOS first, especially games. Google Play has been growing quickly in terms of revenue to the point where it has actually been driving revenue growth for the entirety of Google, which is saying something. The more money available to developers in Google Play, the more those developers are going to see Android as a platform worthy of priority development resources. The market share is certainly there for Android, and the money is coming, so now it just needs a bit better developer support.


In the end, what will 2014 bring for Android? Android starts this year as the king of the mobile world, and it will more than likely finish the year in that same position, at least in terms of smartphones and tablets. The best bet for predictable major change is that the platform will start to get its footing in the burgeoning market of wearables; but, it's hard to say how big a role Android itself will play in the wearable game. Smartwatches running Android are certainly on the way, but Google Android isn't quite ready for that form factor. Google Glass might be on the way, but it is unlikely the device will be a consumer hit because of the general "creepiness" of the device from the average user's perspective, and what is likely to be a prohibitive a price point.

Beyond that, we certainly have a lot of educated guesses, and even some reliable rumors. It would make sense that 2014 is the year that we see Android 5.0, but when that might happen directly affects what the platform will look like over the course of the year. If Android 5.0 is announced at Google I/O and released in the summer, then we may see a much larger number of Android-powered smartwatches and (hopefully) new Google TVs in time for the holiday season, but those wouldn't have much of an impact on 2014 as a whole. If we don't see Android 5.0 until the fall, then all of those big changes will be pushed to 2015.

Still, Android is in a great position. The biggest device manufacturer (Samsung) is getting very chummy with Google, which should be good for the overall health of the ecosystem. The Android platform itself has matured to the point where any new features are just whipped cream on an already tasty dessert (to stick with the Android themes). The app ecosystem has everything you could possibly want. There are hardware options that can appeal to just about anyone. And, the platform is poised to be the leader in the next big growth area of emerging markets. As the saying goes, it's good to be the king.

In the next installment of State of the Platform, we'll be taking a look at Apple and iOS. We promise that it won't be quite as long as this installment. 

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