Android in 2014: The Year in Review (and 2015 Resolutions!)

By Ryan Whitwam

It was a year of soaring highs for some and staggering setbacks for others.

There were big hits and big misses in 2014 when it comes to Android. Some phones that should have been home runs were disappointments, while others proved surprisingly popular. At the same time, Google embarked on one of the most significant UI transformations in Android's history. Yes, a lot has happened, but what will the next year bring? Let's look back at the ups and downs and see if we can figure out some of Android's new year's resolutions.

Flagship Hits and Misses

Looking at the Galaxy S5 in a vacuum, it's a good phone. Samsung has improved its software experience, the camera is fantastic, and the design is well… it's fine. It's just not very exciting, and that proved disastrous for Samsung in 2014. Instead of showering Samsung with sales and accolades, consumers largely shrugged their shoulders and passed on the GS5. Some sources have reported sales of the device were 40% lower than expectations.

In response to this, Samsung has changed up its product development team and started experimenting with more premium materials. Devices like the Galaxy Alpha and Note 4 are examples of the beginning of this transformation. It also seems likely that a planned Google Play Edition GS5, which popped up in a few leaks, was canceled in the wake of poor sales.

Samsung learned a hard lesson from the Galaxy S5. It didn't look different enough to impress people who care about aesthetics, and the specs weren't enough of a jump to appeal to the spec-obsessed. It was a perfect nexus of blandness. With profits slumping, 2015 will be a big test for Samsung--it needs to make a premium flagship phone that recaptures the prestige it lost last year.

Samsung was struggling with its flagship, but hometown rival LG had reason to celebrate. The LG G3 was announced a mere eight months after the G2, but it made a few significant improvements. LG's laser autofocus system put Samsung's phase detect tech to shame, and the industrial design, while still heavily based on plastic, felt surprisingly premium with slim bezels and cool rear-facing buttons. Even the software was a vast improvement for LG.

LG probably didn't move as many units as Samsung did, but it wasn't expecting to. Still, the LG G3 stands out as one of the best devices of 2014. The jump to a 1440p LCD might have been a bit premature, but you can't win every time. LG is in a good place going into 2015, but it needs to be careful about competing too directly with the Note series. That's still a product segment that Samsung completely dominates.

If there was one 2014 flagship that set the stage for a great 2015, it was the HTC One M8. This device had a lot going for it, and it sold fairly well. After years of sinking revenue, HTC saw a notable uptick following the M8's launch. This device was, however, held back by a somewhat small battery and weird Duo Camera feature. The 4MP Ultrapixel sensor simply doesn't cut it anymore, but HTC must know that by now. My suspicion is that the Duo Camera was the best HTC could come up with given supply chain problems. With a few tweaks, the M9 could be the phone to beat in 2015.

Lollipop Everywhere

Google did something new in 2014--it released a developer preview of Android 5.0 Lollipop. Of course, at the time we only knew it as Android L, and that's what it will always be in my heart. This gave developers a chance to get ahead of the big design changes coming with 5.0, and it worked. Android 5.0 debuted in November and was greeted by a fair number of apps that took advantage of its unique UI features.

The rollout of Android 5.0 has gone well, all things considered. Nexus devices are up to date, of course, but a few OEMs have really stepped on it. The Nvidia Shield is already on Lollipop, as is the Moto X (unlocked and Verizon), and the LG G3 in Europe is done too.

Lollipop brings a plethora of behind-the-scenes changes that improve responsiveness, battery life, and security. It's also the most feature-rich Android update since ever. Google went through KitKat and looked at every menu and feature. There are usually a few things in each update that feel unfinished or simply abandoned, but everything in Lollipop seems to have gotten at least a little attention. The new material design interface guidelines allow for some really fantastic, colorful apps too.

2014 was also the year Android left its traditional home on phones and tablets. Android Wear launched with a KitKat base, but was recently updated to Lollipop. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Android Wear at first, but I've become very accustomed to having it on my wrist. It brings together Google Now, notifications, media controls, and voice commands in a compelling way. For once, Android got to a product category well ahead of Apple, and OEMs are embracing it to release some great wearables.

Google also announced Android Auto in 2014, which will bring Android to cars. This is a clever take on bringing a smart interface to automobiles. You plug in an Android phone to power the system and handle all the smarts, but the touchscreen and voice control are built-into the car. This means no upgrading the in-dash components or waiting for a new car purchase to get more capabilities. If you phone gets updates to Android 6.0 (or whatever), so does your car. The app UI is also more tightly controlled and integrated with Google Now.

Next year will see Lollipop continue to roll out on more devices and power the next-gen flagships from Samsung, HTC, and others. There will be a new version of Android at some point too, but it's not clear if we'll get a new "M" name or if Lollipop will live on--I have my fingers crossed for Marzipan. As for Google's new year's resolution, it needs to keep pushing with Android Wear as the Apple Watch finally drops. Now is not the time to back off. Keeping the developer previews going would be a good idea too.

The Curious Case of OnePlus

One of the strangest ongoing Android stories of 2014 was the saga of OnePlus and its "flagship killer" the OnePlus One. The company spent the first few months of 2014 posting bizarre teasers and talking a big game. When the $299 One was finally released, it was a rather good device. We came to find out that much of the design and manufacturing was handled by OnePlus' not-so-secret parent company Oppo, but the real key to the One's success was Cyanogen.

This was the second phone running Cyanogen OS out of the box (except in China, where it runs Oppo software). With developers able to focus on optimizing the open source CyanogenMod for a specific piece of hardware, the OPO offered a good experience. Buying one was a considerably less enjoyable experience. OnePlus used an invite system to carefully manage its inventory and production costs, which annoyed potential buyers.

While the device itself was solid, the company's PR made repeated missteps in how it promoted the device--the invites and cringe-worthy ads were only the start. For example, there was a "Ladies First" promo that invited women to post pictures of themselves on the OnePlus forums for the chance to receive an invite. This was immediately called out as inappropriate and sexist.

As we head into 2015, OnePlus is looking at a very bleak few months. Cyanogen Inc has terminated the partnership after signing an exclusive deal with Micromax to provide software in India. The One is getting updates in the rest of the world right now, but any future phones are up in the air. OnePlus is working on a replacement ROM of its own design, but it's hard to see how it can come close to matching all the work that's gone into CM over the years with so little lead time.

OnePlus was big Android news a year ago, but its next phone will determine whether the venture succeeds or implodes.

New Nexus, New Problems

Google wasn't supposed to have a Nexus phone this year, at least that was the plan in early 2014. Google was committed to a plan called Android Silver (possibly a code name) that would have put Nexus-like software on a variety of phones from OEMs like HTC and Samsung. These would then be sold at retail like other devices, but updates would be handled by Google. This plan reportedly fell apart when Silver's main backer at the company, Nikesh Arora left Google for SoftBank.

The Nexus 6 is what we ended up with, but it's probably a last-minute stand-in that started life as the Moto S, a Silver handset. LG is rumored to have cancelled a Nexus, code named Jaws in early 2014 when Google looked to be dumping Nexus phones. The Nexus 6 is priced like other flagship phones at $650, and it's huge. The 1440p AMOLED panel is a whopping 6-inches.

If Google thought the high price and large size would hamper demand, they thought wrong. The allure of the Nexus is strong, and the phone has been consistently sold out since its release. It's been quite a mess in 2014, so if there's anything to look forward to next year, it's that Google will actually have the device in stock.

There's also a new Nexus tablet, and it's the first tablet from HTC in years. The Nexus 9 is the first mainstream 4:3 Android tablet and the first with a 64-bit processor (the Tegra K1). It too comes with a higher price tag than past Nexus tablets (starting at $399), but it hasn't been as widely praised as the Nexus 6.

The Nexus 9 has a lot going for it including a great screen and form factor, but early build quality issues left a sour taste in people's mouths. The software was also a bit laggy at launch. It has actually improved dramatically with software updates, and most of the early issues are solved now. It's a good device if you can justify the cost, but 2014 just wasn't a great year for the Nexus brand. Hopefully Google can turn it around in 2015.

So that's 2014 in Android. Now prepare yourself as the battle for your wrist heats up, Samsung gets a do-over, Lollipop continues its rollout, and more in 2015.