Phoning it in: Why Google Wants Out of the Phone OS Race

This post, as a piece written for this personal blog, is designed to be sensationalist. As with all of my posts here, opinions expressed here are my own, not my employer (or friends, for that matter). The posts are designed to stir discussion and start a conversation; this post is no different.

If you haven’t had a chance to glance at the title of this, please take a moment to do so. Notice that the post isn’t that they do in fact want out of the race, but that they seem to provide a list of reasons as to why that conclusion may not be entirely fantasy. I’d like to list these as a pseudo-editorial, as both an argument and therapeutic exercise.

Before I delve into this flame-bait further, allow me to preface this with a secondary disclaimer: I’m an Android fan through and through. I’ve been experimenting, using and developing on the platform since it was initially released. I’ve used the emulator in all its stages (beta to 4.0), owned and loved two kinds of Android handsets–and gone through four Android phones in the process. The platform has novel concepts to develop within and experience as a user, and many of the new changes in Ice Cream Sandwich are exciting. I like Android.

With that said, the ball was dropped months ago, and no one seems to have noticed.

Unpolished Press Releases: I first formed this opinion after the ICS / Galaxy Nexus press conference in Hong Kong, on October 18th, 2011. The lackluster presentation, demurred excitement and horrible video quality led me to believe that Google was happy to take a backseat for Samsung. This is the legacy of the Nexus One, after all, the phone that was to change everything about buying and owning phones. That phone was designed from the ground up by both HTC and Google, too. I can’t feel the same way about the Galaxy Nexus. I mean, Nexus even takes a backseat to Samsung’s over-used Galaxy branding, and seems to reuse many components of the Galaxy S line.

Embarrassing Support: Combined with the atrocious number of orphans Google allowing to be left behind, is leaving me concerned about future purchases as a user, and confused as a developer. I’ve built AOSP. I’ve run my own compilations of CyanogenMod with custom modifications. I’ve done these things as a coping strategy when it was unclear if the Nexus One would be granted official support for Gingerbread. This was without a clear or adequate explanation, mind you, as Android 2.3 contains no technologically advanced changes to bar any 2.2-capable handset. It isn’t clear to me why phones aren’t being updated the moment the AOSP tree is updated. Oh wait, it’s due to carrier and manufacturer modifications that no one likes, or simply just a shirking of duties.

Google, as a customer and maintainer of its own Android OS, ought to be in control of how Google-loved devices (that is, those that receive the Android Market officially) are supported. News about a minimum support program came at Google I/O 2011, nearly three years after the first Android handset was released (October 2008). I’ve heard nothing about this program since I/O. It’s interesting to see that CyanogenMod, at the time of this writing, supports fifty devices.

Clandestine Releases: Google, in its infinite wisdom, has often released products with only questionable scoops on blogs or other news outlets, without building the serious fanfare one other company is capable of. The leaks before the final release of the Nexus One were ridiculous, and also surreptitiously stole the limelight from the Motorola Droid/Milestone, released only three months prior–totally alienating early adopters. The same thing is about to happen with the Motorola (Droid) Razr and the Galaxy Nexus. Why didn’t Motorola, soon to become part of the Google fold, not get a peek at ICS for their new flagship? Why is HTC determining their upgrade plans after the ICS press release? These giant manufacturers–pillars of the Open Handset Alliance–are kept in the dark about a product that is being built by the organization they’re a part of.

Late or Missing Source Code Releases: Honeycomb will never appear in the AOSP source tree. It was initially assumed that it was merely late, like Froyo or Gingerbread. After no official response from Google for so long, we now have answers such as from Matias Duarte’s interview with This Is My Next:

On Honeycomb we cheated, we cut the corner of all that smaller device support. That’s the sole reason we haven’t open sourced it.

I’ve heard from other comments from Google staff that the code is just too messy to be released, as APIs are unclear or whatever. How did Honeycomb get released to consumers at all then? Was it really the knee-jerk reaction to the iPad we all suspect it is? Six million in Android tablet sales says “yes” to me. I’m not holding my breath for ICS to appear in the AOSP tree. (Update: the release of ICS to the AOSP source tree was made in the middle of November 2011, after the launch of the Galaxy Nexus. Honeycomb was also cryptically released to AOSP.)

Another interesting point here involves the downtime of kernel.org. AOSP’s most well-known location was unaccessible for weeks. Google obviously had a backup, as the development process is closed, but chose to do nothing in terms of providing a mirror until much later. Now that kernel.org is coming back up, there is talk of providing an alternative to that canonical hosting.

In summary: I’m not pleased with the Android legacy Google is creating. These problems, however large they may seem, can be mitigated if Google feels like taking point. Rather than the silent observer (whether that’s true or merely the appearance they make), they can dive into maintaining a line of truly Google-blessed handsets, ones without heavy manufacturer modifications and with clear support cycles. The Nexus line is too young to cite as an instance of this, as it should be more than just one manufacturer favourite at a time. I must say that as a consumer, all of the court cases of Apple v. Samsung decidedly cheapen their products.

The good news is that most of the “wow” factors of Android are the (closed-source) Google apps, such as Books, Docs, Gmail, Goggles , Google+, Maps, Market, Reader, Talk, Translate, Voice, and Youtube. For a platform where “all applications are created equal,” there sure are a lot of first-party apps, but these are well-designed and work on just about every device very well.

It remains to be seen if Google knows about / cares about / is already fixing the problems described above. As a developer and “expert” user, I’m awaiting their decision, but it feels like we’re in for a tough winter of growing pains.