The Android OS is Now Just a Bunch of Apps

The recent release of Google Keyboard and Google+ Hangouts to the Play Store demonstrates a key trend in Android’s evolution. Specifically, apps and services that were once deeply integrated into the OS – like the stock keyboard and the former Google Talk client – are now apps that nearly anyone running ICS and later can download onto their devices. Google is chopping up Android and distributing it to anyone who can access the Play Store. You don’t need a cutting-edge, “clean” Android device to get a “stock” user experience now.

Almost all of the beautiful Holo-UI apps that make up the “stock Android” or Nexus experience can now be loaded painlessly onto the majority of Google-centric Android devices. Along with the trend toward “Nexus Experience” versions of previously OEM-skinned devices like the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, I think we may have seen (in the white Nexus 4) the last of standalone Nexus hardware. The piecemealing of Android is certainly a driving force behind this trend.

The amount of exclusive territory that Nexus/stock devices have left is shrinking, now that Google has distributed much of the core Android experience (i.e., its own apps) via the Play Store. By my count, stock devices still have the following non-downloadable apps:

  • Calculator: serviceable, but lacks a lockscreen widget.
  • Camera: the stock camera APK.
  • Clock: most notable for its analog widget, which is still inferior to some 3rd-party alternatives.
  • Downloads: the downloads manager/lister.
  • Email: an email client that looks like a sadder version of Gmail.
  • Gallery: the stock photo picker, with integration with G+/Picasa web albums, as well as its own peculiar set of filters.
  • Messaging: the barebones SMS client.
  • Movie Studio: an unstable but richly-featured video editor, which is somehow one of my favorite Android apps.
  • News & Weather: a barebones news and weather client that redirects news stories to Chrome.
  • Phone: the Holo-themed dialer.

There are a few other interesting items that could be tossed-in, like the stock iWinn IME (an emoji keyboard) or even the (Android) Launcher itself, which I could almost half-see being relaunched as, ugh, Google+ Home.

Is this a net positive for users? It’s hard to know. Stock Android is pretty, but commercially unimportant. While it has some of the most beautiful UI available on any platform, stock is increasingly an aggressive vehicle for Google’s own services, to the detriment of many 3rd-party developers (and would-be competitors). Google Keyboard? It takes direct aim at both Swype and SwiftKey, the latter having been one of the top-grossing Android apps of all time. Google+ Hangouts? A shot at WhatsApp (one of the most successful Android apps), Tango, Skype, and many others.

I don’t see competition with these 3rd-party devs as something evil, but in the context of Google’s overarching ambition, it is worrisome. They’re trying to run the table, and that mission comes thru even in seemingly innocuous releases like Google Keyboard.

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