Google needs to push developers if it wants Android to dominate more than the phone market
This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Google has always had a strange relationship with its hardware and software partners. Where Apple is seen as something of a bully, forcing software partners to fall in line or face punishment, Google has always tried to steer Android with a lighter hand. That hand is getting heavier in some respects, but Google seems to be putting pressure in strange places and not taking control where it should be.
The Nexus program has often been Google's way to not only offer a pure Android experience for developers, but also to showcase the direction Google would like to see Android hardware take. For example, the Nexus 5X and 6P both have fingerprint sensors, something Google wants to be ubiquitous on Android devices; and, the two devices represent options for customers that want either a more compact device or larger phones. Quality compact phones have been harder to find (aside from the Samsung Galaxy S line) as phones hang around the 6-inch mark, and Google likely wants to make sure manufacturers don't abandon that segment and leave customers with few choices between low-end devices and the expensive Galaxy S.
But, the Nexus program has been a very passive way for Google to steer the Android ecosystem, and has had mixed results as a leader. Google has used a stronger hand when it comes to software skins and included Google apps on Android devices, but the benefits of that are still unclear. Google was successful in getting Samsung to simplify its software overlay, and more companies have followed suit, but that hasn't really resulted in faster Android updates. As of right now, more than half of devices are running Android Jelly Bean or KitKat (Android 4.1-4.4), with KitKat still leading the pack and Android Lollipop (5.x) on under 30% of devices.
Nearly all Android devices have a certain level of security because Google puts a lot of those features into Play services which is updated separately, but it still leads to a certain amount of inconsistency for developers. And, those developers are the final piece of the puzzle and the area where Google exerts the least amount of control, even though it warrants stronger leadership from Google.
Software partners need a push
Google made a big bet on responsive design to solve the problems of getting Android apps optimized for the wide variety of screen sizes and resolutions, but that bet hasn't paid off quite as well as it should have. Responsive design is fine for adapting apps between 4-inch and 7-inch displays, but once you get up over 7-inches things get wonky.
The main complaint about Android tablets is the same now as it has always been: the software isn't optimized for larger screen sizes. Certain apps still default to a portrait display mode (as you can see with Instagram below), which causes problems when using a tablet with a keyboard. And, plenty of apps end up being a mess of empty space as the phone UI is just blown up to fit the screen.
Google doesn't even get credit for leading by example because Android itself still doesn't offer native splitscreen, though that is reportedly on the way, and Google's own apps aren't always well adapted for larger displays. Rather than taking advantage of larger screens and bringing forward functionality that would normally be hidden in menus or trays, even apps like Google Docs leave the layout more like a phone app than a tablet app. And, Android has struggled to find much adoption in the TV space because unlike with Apple TV, where iOS developers worked to optimize apps for the display size and usage, Android developers have not done the same.
Beyond optimization, Google has a habit of building open apps with APIs for developers to hook in, and then the devs never do so. Remember, way back in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Google built new social APIs to allow developers to hook in to the People app (aka contacts) in order to make the contacts app into a hub with tons of functionality. Google's dreamed that users would be able to connect with anyone through any service, post to social networks like Facebook or Twitter, and add social network connections to contact info. Quite obviously, that never worked out, and social networks are even more siloed and separated than ever.
Google also wanted Google+ profiles to become the standard for online identity and created very simply author tools for people to link in, but that never happened either. It took a long time before developers really jumped on board with Google Play Games as well. And, yesterday, news came out that Google might be trying again with a new messaging app that would allow developers to create chatbots to give users access to helpful features like booking reservations, getting info from a specific app, or more.
It is worrying to hear that Google might be making another messaging app, rather than adding features to improve its current messaging app, Hangouts. Word already has it that Google might strip carrier SMS support from Hangouts and push users towards Messenger, and if Google really is making another new messaging app, it might signal that the company is giving up on Hangouts, which is troubling given the insane popularity of other apps like WhatsApp. But, aside from that, this feels like another moment where Google will build something interesting with the hope that developers will voluntarily add more value, but if there aren't many users to cater to, where's the incentive for developers?
The customers are there
Each company has its own way of doing things, but it seems pretty obvious that there are flaws with Google's approach. The same flaws can be seen with Windows, although not for a lack of trying by Microsoft. Microsoft has pumped tons of money to developers and even given away Windows 10 for free in an effort to get developers to adopt Universal apps, which would help build up the value of Windows phones and tablets. But, Microsoft is stuck in a vicious cycle with its mobile devices where there aren't enough users to give developers reason to build anything, but there aren't any users because there are no apps.
Apple makes sure that is never really a problem for its platforms because it is constantly working with, pushing, bullying, or coaxing developers to build for its platforms and adopt its new features. iPads have a great selection of apps for all use cases despite sales for tablets being down. There are a good number of Apple Watch apps despite the market being unsure if smartwatches are useful and the Apple Watch being prohibitively expensive for most people. Every time Apple announces new hardware or software, it has a line of developers that want to get on stage to show off what they built for Apple's platforms. Google doesn't have that, but it should.
Anyone who tends to buy a Nexus device right away will know the annoyance of various apps not being updated to support the latest version of Android. Just as Android updates are slow to filter out to devices, so too are developers slow to update apps to either take advantage of new features, or even just to make sure users can install the app properly. That's the most basic update of all, and doesn't even get into games being updated to take advantage of things like the latest version of OpenGL supported in Android in order to give Android the same marketing appeal for games that you find with iOS.
More than 80% of mobile devices in the world are Android, so Google certainly doesn't have the problem of developers not wanting to put resources towards a platform without users. Of course, this fact probably points towards why Google doesn't feel the need to use stronger tactics to get developers to update apps. As far as Google is concerned, maybe the incentive is already there and the fact that tablet apps aren't well optimized is something that doesn't matter to the average user, because if it were, then people would complain more. I can't say if that's how Google feels, but it does make a certain amount of sense.
But, the loudest voices in the crowd - journalists, reviewers, and hardcore users - would all like to see the software side of Android feel more like a team effort. Google has done a great job with Android and the Google layer of apps and services; developers have done a good job of making great apps for Android; but, those two sides continue to feel disconnected. Google creates services that developers ignore for too long; developers don't properly optimize apps for the wider and wider array of screens in the range of 8-inches all the way up to 50+ inch TVs; and, everyone just chugs along without trying to make things better.
Unfortunately, Google can't just sit back and let the developers sort themselves out anymore. Android phones are dominant, but in screen sizes above the phone level, Android has a very weak story. Anyone who wants to do more than basic consumption on a tablet will probably opt for iOS; Chromebooks are a far better option for laptops than Android is right now; and, Android TV feels like it was dead on arrival. Android is a great platform, though, so none of that needs to be permanent.
Google is already reportedly planning on combining Android and Chrome OS, which should help the laptop space and could benefit tablets as well, but that will be a space where Google can't claim huge amounts of market share. Google will need to get developers on board with optimizing Android apps for larger devices or Android on laptops can't succeed. Android tablets could be better than they are, as could Android TV, but it's up to Google to push developers, because developers have proven they won't do it themselves.
img src: The Verge