On my Nexus 5, there are almost 30 system apps that list Google as the developer. These apps range from the often useful (Maps, Search, YouTube) to the sometimes useful (Google Play Books, Google+) to the never useful (Cloud Print, Email, Google Play Newsstand, Google Wallet). It’s ironic that “stock Android,” so often lauded as an antidote to Android phones stuffed with carrier and OEM bloatware, comes preloaded with enough apps to fill up several home screens.
I thought of Google’s enormous app suite while watching Apple’s most recent iPhone/Watch event. I remembered the addition of Passbook as a system app in iOS 6, pushing Settings down to the bottom row to fill some of the new real estate opened up by the iPhone 5’s 4-inch screen. Mercifully, Apple didn’t pad iOS 8 with new apps to eat up the space on the enormous iPhone 6 Plus.
But it felt like Google, were it in the same situation, would have inserted more apps to justify the big screen. For years now, Google has been separating-out system apps into standalone Play Store offerings, from the stock keyboard to the News and Weather app. The latter is puzzling – Google now has two built-in news apps (Newsstand and News and Weather). I can see the logic for turning Android into just a bunch of apps – it standardizes the Android experience for phones not running stock – but for Nexus phones, it’s a recipe for bloat.
And with this bloat, some of the barebones appeal of Android is lost. Stock Android is a lot different than in 2011, when felt very DIY with its WebKit browser and simple SMS, phone, and camera apps (all except the phone app are now heavily Googleized and in the Play Store). The sheer number of Google apps relative to good third-party apps also reinforces how Android, for all of its advantages in market share, is not a hotbed of good design. There are outstanding apps optimized for the platform (Press, Pocket Casts, etc.) but most non-Google offerings seem like afterthoughts.
For years, Android has had many first mover advantages over iOS, despite the app gap. It got LTE first, it always had larger screens available, and it included baked-in support for inter-app sharing and widgets a half-decade before Apple treated those functionalities as revelations in iOS 8.
Now, though, with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and iOS 8 on the horizon (which could very well be a bigger change than iOS 7, even without the cosmetic overhaul), it feels like we may be reaching the end of Android. By that I don’t mean that Android will die, but that the justification for picking it will become increasingly narrow and that Android users will become by and large individuals who don’t like Apple or are in circumstances that don’t allow for an iPhone purchase. iPhones now have LTE, big screens, extensions and easy sharing. What’s left as Android’s calling card, for the typical consumer (I’m not talking about modding enthusiasts or developers)?
Google’s app strategy is turning Android into iOS with fewer exclusive apps or consistency. Maybe it was inevitable, considering how Android had to be turned into a moneymaker somehow. Plus, Google’s apps are marginalized on iOS, which will be getting DuckDuckGo as a search option soon, too – so there’s need to create a similarly controlled OS that plays to Google’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. But for users like me, who chose Android for its weird aesthetics and flexibility, it feels like iOS has caught up and the entire ecosystem is under pressure.