Stock Android is dead

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

Android M has arrived with a fancy unveiling yesterday: the crowd of developers at the Moscone Center in San Francisco witnessed impressive new features, improvements to app permissions, web experience, app links, mobile payments, fingerprint support, and power and charging. Awesome, right?

Wrong.

Most of what we saw at the unveiling will eventually make its way to future (and some current) Android phones, but not really in the way that Google itself envisioned it. The fact is that in reality, Google's vision for Android M doesn't matter. And that is because Android M, in its pure form, will never make it to the most popular devices running on this platform - the Galaxies, Ones, and Gs of the world. And while most of M's key improvements will still eventually come to these phones, this is guaranteed to happen much later than the Q3 2015 timeline that Google has set.
It's time for a reality check: how many smartphones you know of that are running on stock Android, the way Google intended Android to look on phones?

We can tell you the answer right away: one, the Nexus 6. And would you really use a gigantic 6-inch device that doesn't even fit in your pocket? Our polls say that most people would use a phone with a screen of a size between 4.5” and 5.7”, and that's the sweet spot for an overwhelming majority of users. How many such phones with stock Android do you know of? Exactly: zero.
To be fair, there used to be such a phone: the Nexus 5, a 5-inch phone that Google introduced way back in late 2013, almost a year and a half ago, and that is now discontinued. The Nexus 5 was in many ways a dream phone: sold for half the price of a flagship, it featured an excellent, well-calibrated display, pure, fast Android with instant updates, a good (but not great) camera, the convenience of wireless charging, and it was equally appealing to regular folks and developers (it was practically unbrickable). We sincerely hope that Google makes a similar phone this year.

Looking at the larger picture of the world, there are a few arguments to be made about stock Android. Those with knowledge of the platform will be quick to say that there are some phones that run Android in a near-stock version: the Moto X (2014 edition), the Sony Xperia Z series, and so on, but the problem is that close enough is often too different to count. Key features are missing, and the one that is missing sorely is the speed of operation of Nexus devices.

In 2015, lag is still an issue on Android top-tier devices: the Samsung Galaxy S6 stutters, the Galaxy Note 4 is even worse, and the issue plagues an overwhelming majority of phones. Compare real-world performance of those non-stock Android devices with the 2013 Nexus 5 and you’d be surprised how the older phone runs much smoother, faster, better.

It's not just lag, though, it's a whole lot more. Devices from leading brands come with an interface that is not a slight change over stock Android: it's a complete overhaul with different icons, different apps, different animations, different style, no app drawer. It's so different that unless you are a techie you'd have a hard time recognizing that it is actually Android that phone is running, and the change has been so profound that some custom ROM makers like Cyanogen are challenging Google itself and trying to make a Google-less Android.

Then, you have Android One, Google's attempt to bring stock Android with timely, guaranteed updates for two years to devices in emerging markets. Android One devices, however, are not a true solution to the larger issue of not having a great stock Android experience: after all, Android One devices are affordable devices good in their own right, but not on par with flagship-grade devices, as their low price forces quite a few compromises.

What we're getting to is admitting a simple fact: stock Android, the version that Google spends billions working on and polishing to perfection, the best Android out there, is not available on a great no-compromise phone that most people would want to use at the moment. 

Without a Nexus 5 of sorts, stock Android and Android M is just an idealistic idea with no material presence. And this has to change.

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