Google has been a major force in the smartphone world since 2007, when it unveiled the Android mobile operating system. Nearly a decade later, Android powers about four of every five smartphones in the world. At least 1.4 billion people around the world use Android, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company announced last year.
Google, however, makes very few of those devices itself, instead licensing the Android software to hardware manufacturers like Samsung, LG and HTC. That has given Android one major advantage over Apple's iPhone lineup: Consumer choice. Android phones are available in a wide range of sizes and formats, ranging from cheap basic models to expensive high-end handsets that can be dunked underwater or dropped without fear of damaging them. Apple, meanwhile, only sells five different iPhones, not counting color and storage space variations, and they all tend to be relatively expensive. Google recently based a major ad campaign around this very idea, featuring the slogan "be together, not the same."
But this approach also hinders Android in some ways. Whereas Apple controls iPhones' software and hardware, companies that make and sell Android smartphones typically supplement the operating system with their own features and apps. This has the effect of creating a fragmented experience for Android users, since the software and user interface varies between different devices. Using an Android device made by Samsung likely won't feel the same as using one created by LG or HTC, unlike different iPhone models, which don't vary much in terms of software.
It also makes the process of updating Android a slow and onerous one; pushing out a new software version requires both carriers and device makers to approve it and possibly modify it before it reaches the consumer. This is not only a disadvantage for Android device users, who must wait longer to get Google's newest features and security patches, but it also poses a challenge to developers creating new apps and features for Android. "Fragmentation is [Android's] number one problem," says J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "It holds Android back." An exception to this rule is Google's own Nexus lineup of smartphones, which usually run a barebones version of Android without modifications and are the first to get crucial software updates.
Now, Google may be showing signs of changing its approach to Android and smartphones more broadly. The move, experts say, appears motivated by a desire to make the Android experience more uniform. Technology news site The Information reported earlier this year that Google is looking to take more control of its Nexus devices, which the company typically creates in collaboration with hardware partners. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said this summer that Google would "be more opinionated about the design of [Nexus] phones" moving forward. And just this week, tech blog Android Central reported that Google may even go so far as to add features on top of so-called "vanilla Android" for its Nexus phones. A rebranding effort, possibly along with a new name besides "Nexus," might follow. Google declined to comment for this story.
Why the shift? Nexus devices are Google's way of showing smartphone makers what Android is capable of being. Establishing a firmer grip on them could be a way to nudge manufacturers in a certain direction. "They're trying to show the partners and the ecosystem what a good Android experience looks like," says Gownder.
That doesn't mean Google wants every Android smartphone maker to quit tinkering with the software. Rather, Google may be trying to streamline the various versions of Android out there, says Tuong Nguyen, a principal research analyst at Gartner. Clarifying Android's purpose and vision is even more important as the platform moves from phones and tablets to other devices, like smartwatches, televisions, and even cars. Nguyen compared the situation to children on a field trip. They may branch off and venture to different areas when exploring a museum. But the teacher will eventually wrangle them towards the next display or exhibit. "I understand you have your own goals," Nguyen said. "But let's all head in the same direction."
These steps would mark a significant departure from Google's approach towards smartphones. It's also a risky move. Nexus phones are popular with a subset of Android users exactly because they offer a stripped-down, "clean" experience. Any tweaking on Google's part might ruin that.
That said, Google could do plenty of interesting things by being more bold with Android. The company's recent focus on fields like artificial intelligence and machine learning, for instance, could result in much smarter smartphones. But fully unlocking that potential might require controlling both the hardware and software sides of smartphone design (count that as another advantage for Apple, which is reportedly making strides in smartphone-based AI). Just look at the latest Google software, like Google Assistant, a promising Siri-like tool that can understand and answer specific questions, to get a glimpse of what might be possible. That's potential that Android fans should cheer.