I have never really been a fan of Android, as evidenced by the editorial I wrote back in February titled “Why I’m afraid of Android”. But that is not to say I hate Android. I understand the need for competition in the marketplace, and I understand that Android is a fantastic operating system that many people love and use every day. Still, all I could see when I looked at Android were the fundamental problems surrounding software updates and never-ending hardware launches, and that turned me off.
Joshua Topolsky of The Verge recently published an interview with Android’s lead UX designer Matias Duarte about the latest version of the OS, Ice Cream Sandwich. In the article, Duarte explains that his goal was to find the soul of Android, and to bring that soul out and let it shine through in the next version of the operating system. What he and his team created was Ice Cream Sandwich – the most stunningly beautiful version of Android yet. Duarte truly believes in the power of great design, and that shows in Ice Cream Sandwich on Google’s newest flagship device, the Galaxy Nexus.
It was in reading this man’s words that I thought, “Yeah, Ice Cream Sandwich and the Galaxy Nexus are great, but we’re never going to see the OS in this form on any other device, so why bother getting all excited?” And then it hit me.
I’ve been looking at Android all wrong.
What I have been missing is that Ice Cream Sandwich (and stock Android in general) is to Google as iOS is to Apple. Google releases one “true Android” device running stock Android every year, just as Apple releases one iPhone running the newest version of iOS every year. Apple and Google are taking the same approach here: one phone, one operating system.
HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and all of those other Android hardware manufacturers are essentially releasing phones running their own operating systems, which shouldn’t really be viewed as Android. Android itself isn’t the operating system; it is the base for many customized operating systems. Duarte even calls Android “the Lego system” (Topolsky) that other companies will build their products out of. HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, MotoBlur; these should all be viewed as separate operating systems, with Android hidden somewhere deep in the background. There should be no expectation for these devices to be updated to the next version of Android, but instead to be updated to the next version of their unique OS.
What does it matter if the DROID RAZR, for example, gets Ice Cream Sandwich? Do you think it will have a beautiful new UI like the Galaxy Nexus? Will it feature Face Unlock? Will the camera have an “instant shutter”? Will it have the Android Beam tap-to-share feature? Will the new ‘Roboto’ font carry over? Chances are the answer to most of these questions will be “No”. Motorola has their own way of doing Android, as do the rest of the Android device manufacturers. Ice Cream Sandwich on other devices will feature none of the soul that Matias Duarte worked so hard to infuse into this new version of Android. It won’t really be Ice Cream Sandwich.
But that is the philosophy of Android, a philosophy that had eluded me until now. To Google, Android is an operating system. To companies like HTC, Samsung, and Motorola, Android is the building-blocks with which they will build their own unique devices. Google makes Android phones. Apple makes iOS phones. HTC makes Sense phones. Samsung makes TouchWiz phones. Motorola makes MotoBlur phones.
I suddenly get Android.