I’ve been at IFA, Europe’s biggest tech show, for three days now and I’ve had my eyes filled with a parade of all the shiny, beautiful new technology coming to an Amazon delivery drone near you. Much of that technology is powered by Google’s omnipresent Android software, but you wouldn’t know it from the way the new devices are presented. Android has become many tech companies’ original sin: fundamental to their identity and the character of their products, but buried under a thick veneer of insecure puffery, denial, and evasion.
Welcome to Xperia!
Sony would have us believe that buying an Xperia phone grants us a pass into the exclusive Xperia experience. But the most compelling software on its Android devices will be found via Google’s Play Store, and the best apps preloaded on those new phones will also be Google’s: Chrome, Gmail, Maps, even basic things like Google Keep. The stuff actually differentiating the Xperia brand is (sorry, Sony!) junk and bloatware: the Xperia assistance software is a mobile version of Microsoft’s Clippy.
Huawei is even worse in its Android omerta, deathly afraid to utter the green giant’s name. The last time Huawei said "Android" in public was probably when Steve Ballmer was still in charge of Microsoft and trying to sell us Windows Phones. This might be reasonable if Android was evenly distributed and implemented across manufacturers — if the Android experience was universal — but it’s quite the opposite.
Tell me why you think it’s okay to launch a phone without the latest software
I understand that hardware companies want to spend more time talking about their hardware, but all these launches feel lobotomized without a proper discussion of the software driving their devices. Tell me about your implementation of Android. Tell me why you think it’s okay to launch a phone without the latest software. Reassure me that I won’t be left behind the way that many 2014 Android flagships already have been, and explain to your users why they don't need smarter multitasking, improved notifications, and baked-in VR support. Yes, those are harder issues to discuss, but dodging them is what makes customers untrusting of Android manufacturers.
It also makes things too easy for Apple. In less than a week’s time, the Californian company is going to launch its new iPhones, which will run its latest iOS software and will be the absolute best way to experience it. What would Apple’s dream scenario be in that case? A bunch of Android OEMs blithely talking about how they invented their own split-screen (hi, Nubia!) instead of implementing the latest Android software and getting that benefit directly. Fractious uncertainly instead of solid, predictable quality.
At the end of this month, Apple’s iPhones and their spit-shined new software, will go up against a litany of admittedly pretty, admittedly high-spec Android devices that are nevertheless serving up Marshmallow in the age of Nougat. I love the design of Sony’s new Xperias almost as much as I hate the outdated software on them. Marshmallow isn't in itself bad, but it's no longer either the latest or greatest from Google. Why should I spend money on a new device with less than the best available software? And what sort of confidence does that inspire in the purchaser of an expensive new smartphone for the future?
First step is admitting you have a problem
If we don’t talk about Android, how can we address the failure to release devices with the latest version of Android? I haven’t heard the word "Nougat" uttered anywhere outside of Berlin’s confectionery shops this week. Google’s latest and best software is a complete absentee from this most important of tech exhibitions. I find myself gazing across a wide landscape of future technology and seeing no mention of the most essential piece of future software.
The world runs on Android now. That’s universal. But the way that Android runs in that world is not. There’s good Android and bad Android. There are timely updates and patches, and then there’s wondering if the maker of your device even has a software division. If we don’t speak the green monster’s name, we’ll never be able to figure out a way to tame it properly.