Android: State of the Platform
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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