Hopes and Fears for Android in 2014

By Ryan Whitwam

Android is already on top, at least in global smartphone market share. Now we get to see what Google does to keep it there.

Android has always been a bit of a balancing act for Google. It's rooted in the open source ethos, which attracts tinkerers and enthusiast users. At the same time, it allows carriers and OEMs to customize software and bundle exclusive services. Somehow Google has managed to keep all the balls in the air so far, releasing platform updates in a rapid fire fashion that pushes the mobile industry as a whole forward.

But what does the future hold for Android? Let's take a look at the forces shaping the Android platform in 2014 -- the story starts, not surprisingly, in the past. The trends of 2013 will carry us forward, and it's been a wild year.

Photo credit: Flickr user mor10 via Creative Commons

The OTAs Must Flow

A good Android update was hard to come by a few years ago. Phones and tablets would go months without even a word from the OEM about an OTA. While things aren't perfect now, we're in a much better position. Google has pushed out two versions of Android in the last six months and OEMs are practically tripping over each other to promise updates. More startling -- they're actually delivering.

The Moto X seemed like a great device when it came out, but there was a nagging suspicion that it would be left behind too quickly. Apparently that isn't the case, because the Verizon Moto X was actually the first phone the get an OTA update to Android 4.4. Yes, even before the Nexus 4. The update then reached all other major variants in a few weeks. I'm not sure what parallel universe I've fallen into, but I like it.

The HTC One might not be on Android 4.4 yet (in the US), but the company promised repeatedly that it would get the 4.3 update this fall, and it did. Even the Verizon version eventually reached Android 4.3, and this is a phone that arrived last spring with Android 4.1 on board. The unlocked One does already have KitKat, though. Sony and Samsung have also been pushing OTAs for their flagship devices that bring them up to Android 4.3 at least.

OEMs are finally thinking of updates as a feature to be promoted, and that can only be a good thing. The fact that you can buy a phone that isn't a Nexus and get Android KitKat a mere month after release is kind of amazing.

Why? 2013 was the first year we saw the Platform Developer Kit (PDK) in full effect. The PDK gives device makers a head start on building updates by providing early access to the tools. I suspect next year is going to bring more improvements in the update cycle, but don't expect everything to be a Nexus. Although, maybe you won't be pining for an update in quite the same way.

Google Experience

The home screen interface is the heart of Android for regular users. It's where all the stuff is, and where OEMs and carriers like to get their content in your face. Many folks don't even bother to get rid of most of the pre-installed apps and widgets, so they're more likely to use them. The Google Experience Launcher (or whatever Mountain View decides to call it) is going to give Google's services that same placement, and it's on its way in 2014.

The Google Experience Launcher (GEL) is already living inside your search app. In fact, a quick sideload of an app extracted from the Nexus 5 will enable the new home interface from Google's flagship device. There have been third-party apps like Nova and Action Launcher, but this is Google offering an alternative to the OEM skins -- it's going to be huge when it's finally official. Because the Google Search app is already on virtually every Android phone, it can be tweaked and improved without the user really noticing. In fact, that's already happening.

The new home screen isn't the only way Google is expanding its preferred experience. Google is in the business of making its stock Android experience more appealing to regular people, and the GPE program is going to be a big part of that. 2013 saw the first Google Play Edition devices with the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4. These were followed up by the recently announced LG G Pad 8.3 and Sony Xperia Z Ultra GPE devices.

In the past, the version of Android Google talked about was a version almost no one would ever see. Nexus devices had pure Android, but not everyone cared for Google's hardware. The GPE devices are a way to offer a better software experience to more people outside of the Nexus program.

People are going to expect more GPE phones and tablets in 2014, and I imagine we won't be disappointed. A Googley Galaxy S5 and next-generation HTC flagship are probably going to happen, and that's a great thing.

Of course, the GPE devices only make sense if stock Android is improving, and I'd say it is -- by leaps and bounds. Android 4.4 has a more mature, refined look. It also sets Google Wallet free with easier NFC payments and support for third-party services. Whatever Google does going forward, the experience of stock Android is clearly a top priority.

What's Open?

It might not be all sunshine and rainbows in 2014 for Android. I'm troubled by Google's trend of incorporating more closed source elements into Android (as users experience it). When you look at Google Play Music, Google Search, and all the other first-party apps, they have often replaced their open source predecessors. Even the stock camera app is technically already forked from the open source version.

We're now left with abandoned apps in the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) that weaken Android as a true open source platform. While it's true that other entities can commit code to AOSP, there is little incentive to update these apps. Android has always been run as a nominally open source project with the final code being kept secret until Google makes its big announcement.

In the coming year, Google could continue breaking Android off into closed pieces in Google Play, and I have to admit I'm torn about that. While the neglect of open source components is troubling, Google's closed source apps are wonderful, and having these apps updated through Google Play is good for the user experience. Google can push out updates to Play Music every day if it wants. That certainly beats one update every few months (or years) with the old built-in music app.

Does Android need to become less open to be a better platform? I hope not, but we're probably going to find out in 2014.

Hands Off That Dev Tool

While the Android 4.4 update has (in my estimation) been awesome, some users are up in arms about the removal of certain services. Specifically, the 4.4.2 update completely removed the App Ops UI from Android. App Ops, in case you haven't heard, is a system for manually revoking permissions from apps. This was heralded as a great way to manage privacy, but Google has reminded everyone App Ops is a developer tool and could break things. So it's not surprising it has been removed.

Google has been taking a real beating in the wake of this change. Even though this was an internal dev tool that was not even exposed in any menus, people resent its removal -- and they should, not because we should be using App Ops, but because Android's permission system is a bit of a mess. The mud being slung at Google could finally get it to do something about permissions and how they are managed in 2014.

When you install an Android app, it tells you what permissions it needs. You can either accept and install, or simply not install it. There is not, for example, any way to block a game from accessing your location. App Ops could block permissions, but it did so in a way app developers couldn't properly support. There was no was for many permission checks to fail elegantly, so things would often look broken.

The App Ops debacle only served to illustrate the frustration in the community. 2014 is going to be the year we find out how seriously Google takes privacy on Android. Something has to change with the way Android permissions are implemented, but it won't happen overnight. Developers are going to need at least six months of lead time to support any radical changes, but it's definitely time.

Good, Bad, or Ugly?

It seems pretty clear that Android is going to continue to kill it in 2014, my limited reservations notwithstanding. Even if my concerns about the open source apps is well founded, it's not going to affect most people. Rolling more apps into Google Play will make Android more pleasant to use, but could upset developers. That's more a concern for 2015 and beyond, though.

The user experience is better than it has ever been and we have a multitude of amazing devices running stock Android to choose from. Even the not-quite-stock Moto X is an incredible phone -- the modifications are smart and the updates are coming fast. Overall, Android is probably headed for a great year in 2014, at least from most perspectives.