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Dear Google: don't screw up Android

Dear Google: don't screw up Android


KitKat made the best of Android accessible to more people than ever, but what will the next version do?

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The history of Android has always been about more. From its inception with the T-Mobile G1 in 2008, Google’s mobile operating system has sought to compete by having more features, higher specs, and bigger devices than everyone else. Improving relentlessly with each new release, Android’s rise has produced excellent new phones but also many disappointed users who were either left on an old version of the software or bought a device that was never good enough in the first place. Late last year, Google sought to correct that by putting the brakes on and introducing Android 4.4 KitKat, an OS update that was about less.

The leaner KitKat opened the door to much nicer cheap Android phones

KitKat simplified the interface, reduced the minimum specs for a good user experience, and made it easier for Google’s partners to update their devices more rapidly. As a result, Android is now more inclusive and consistent than it’s ever been. But to rectify the fragmenting effects of Android’s constant evolution, Google had to pause that essential process. What happens when the L successor to KitKat debuts, most likely at Google I/O later this month?

The motivation behind KitKat was as ambitious as any goal the Mountain View company had previously set for itself. Having just recorded its billionth Android device activation, Google was eager to "reach the next billion" smartphone users. The company was already in charge of the globe’s most popular mobile platform, but obsolete versions of Android were cannibalizing the most price-sensitive markets in developing countries with dirt-cheap devices that didn’t include access to the Google Play Store. That created a dual problem for Google: complete Android neophytes were getting a bad first experience of the OS, and even those who liked it weren’t spending their time and money inside Google’s service ecosystem. The trouble was that good Android and cheap Android were two different things.

KitKat was the solution.

Motorola’s software VP Steve Horowitz credits KitKat’s lower spec demands for making the extraordinarily affordable Moto E possible. The E is the first of what should be a cavalcade of new Android phones that finally combine smooth user responsiveness with rock-bottom pricing. Yes, Motorola was already on this track with the excellent $179 Moto G, but the $129 Moto E addresses a far wider market. The G was cheap by European and American standards, whereas the E is cheap globally.

The Moto E is the purest embodiment of the KitKat philosophy

The Moto E is one of the missionaries spreading the Google KitKat gospel to the world. It proves that Android’s best and latest really is versatile enough to be used on every device, no matter the size or price. In India, one of the fastest-growing smartphone markets, demand for the Moto E has been high enough to twice take down the distributor’s website and the handset is currently out of stock. Even with the lingering high reputations of Nokia and BlackBerry in the country, the new Google phone is attracting buyers with a superior user experience and broader ecosystem. Whereas previously the manifestation of Android in developing markets might have been some Gingerbread monstrosity defaulting to Baidu as its main search engine, Google can now offer its finest software across the widest price range ever.

Uniting all the phone-making houses under the "powered by Android" banner

At the other end of the scale, even Vertu is now selling phones with the latest version of Android on board, proudly offering the ruby-infused Signature Touch with 4.4 as the default OS. All the big Android device makers have also finally gotten their ducks in a row and have this year shipped their devices with KitKat preloaded instead of as a promise for the near future.

Google's KitKat has been surprisingly successful at reducing the amount of fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. It's still far from the unity of iOS, but it's much better than it used to be. Now, Google is preparing to unveil its next big wave of Android updates.

Recent reports have suggested the introduction of a new Android Silver initiative that would bring in a tier of certified premium devices with a high minimum standard of quality and consistency. It would formalize Google’s demand for limited customization of the user experience and ensure that more software updates are delivered more rapidly. As such, it portends a return to the familiar strategy of focusing on high-end devices first.

Whatever Google chooses to do with Android’s future development, there are signs to suggest that KitKat’s democratizing legacy will endure even beyond the next big feature update. KitKat, as embodied by the exemplary Moto E, crosses a threshold of usability that Android hasn’t previously been able to offer at the lowest end of the market. Even if Google widens its Nexus program of paragon handsets into the proposed Android Silver group, the achievement of a usable entry-level Android smartphone may not be lost.

There's reason to believe KitKat's democratizing legacy will endure

Additionally, this year’s Android phones are consistent from a hardware perspective as well as in their software. Qualcomm’s latest chips are dominating every segment of the market and their efficient performance is part of what’s made Android viable on so many more devices. That won’t change no matter what happens at Google I/O.

It may be damning with faint praise, but Android's never felt as cohesive and consistent as it does today. Whether you buy a Vertu, a Moto, or a Sony phone, the basic user experience, performance, and features are similar enough to make them all feel like part of the same software family. Now Google’s about to resume its old habit of additive innovation and, if that innovation’s any good, disruption to the status quo should be expected. Current phones won’t slow down and functionality won’t be reduced, but the perception of a fragmented Android landscape could arise again. The tricky task for Google is to figure out how to keep moving forward without leaving anyone behind.