Google is going to open its first physical retail store this year in NYC. This is not surprising, given many other big companies making consumer tech products already have physical locations. But if taken in the context of news that has come out in the last few years, it marks a shift in Google’s ambitions and the way they will approach the Android ecosystem in the coming decade.
To understand this better, let’s go back to the first iPhone; Apple redefined what a phone could do in 2007. Sure it was expensive, but to Apple’s credit, there was no competition either. This was terrible news for the other smartphone manufacturers; the choice was clear, adapt or perish. Fortunately for Apple’s competitors, Google was able to offer an open-source alternative in Android, which saved them from the relatively expensive affair of developing their own OS.
Google’s primary goal with Android was to stop Apple from completely dominating the smartphone space. In hindsight, we can say they were pretty successful, but now what?
While Android’s success was primarily due to its open nature, it was also the cause of the platform’s fragmentation. This is primarily why the Android ecosystem is considered subpar compared to Apple’s, where everything is very tightly knit. Google clearly wants to fix this, but how exactly? Let’s have a closer look.
Google’s Own Custom Hardware
We now know Google will arm the Pixel 6 series with an in-house developed SoC. To be fair, Qualcomm doesn’t make bad chips; in fact, they are the only legible competition to Apple’s Bionic series. But an SoC is not just about sheer CPU GPU performance; there’s a lot more like the Image Processing Unit and the Neural Processing Unit, things which can make a big difference in experience in modern smartphones.
From the references, it seems that Whitechapel is being developed with Samsung Semiconductor’s system large-scale integration (SLSI) division, meaning the Google chips will have some commonalities with Samsung Exynos, including software
It seems Google and Samsung are collaborating on the chip design, and possibly the end product will closely resemble a flagship Exynos chip, with Google fine-tuning the image processing, AI, and Security components. One apparent reason for this is that migrating to an in-house chip will allow Google to offer extended OS support beyond the standard three years Google currently provides with its Pixel phones.
Moreover, having a custom SoC will give the company greater flexibility over its architecture and help Google better integrate the hardware with the software. This is one of the things Apple does very well across its product line.
This is also why many smartphone manufacturers are working on their own SoC designs, including Oppo and Xiaomi. However, increasingly expensive Qualcomm chips and regulatory issues can be driving factors for these companies.
Android’s initial goal was mass adoptibility, so it was desgined in a way where consumers could take advantage of a mordern powerful OS and partner companies could still have enough control to implement their own design language withouht having to do the hard task of building a platform from the ground up.
Now the goalpost has clearly changed for Google, given Android is the reigning champion when it comes to market share. Google, over the years, has worked hard to bake its ecosystem in Android, making it hard for anyone to De-Google on Android. This has been happening for a while and essentially, what Google has done is, make their Play Service a critical part of Android, and without it, most of Google’s own apps won’t work, and even a lot of other apps which depend on Google’s API access. Sure, you can still run AOSP without any of Google’s services, but replacing Google’s suite is going to be an uphill task and impractical for almost everyone.
The financial reasons for doing this are obvious for Google, but there are other reasons as well. Fragmentation in Android was a big issue a couple of years prior; You had all these companies doing their own flavor of Android. While this would give them a unique selling point, it wasn’t exactly beneficial for the ecosystem, given a lot of extra work had to be done to port phones to the latest Android versions, and honestly, most companies didn’t bother after a single major update. This hindered Android’s development because devs had to take into consideration multiple versions of Android and ensure cross-compatibility.
Google realized this early on, and they introduced Project Treble with Android Oreo. This excerpt from an excellent AndroidAuthority article shows how it works broadly.
Unfortunately, Android didn’t used to have much in the way of plug-and-play compatibility with low level hardware; code had to be heavily tailored. This takes a considerable amount of time, testing, and cost on the part of silicon vendors and OEMs. Project Treble solves this problem by separating the Android OS Framework from the vendor hardware code implementations, therefore allowing Google and OEMs to update the OS without having to reconfigure all the the lower level hardware parts.
Data from Google shows Project Treble has had a marked impact in terms of adoptability of a new Android Version after launch; security updates are also more common as some are directly being pushed from Google through the Play Store.
The Final Piece – Wearables
My first smartwatch was from Asus, the Zenwatch 2. The Zenwatch series actually was quite well known in the Android space, but after the third release Asus never announced a successor citing poor sales. That is more or less the story of every Android watch; WearOS started strong and then it kind of fizzled out.
So with WearOS, Google ditched its lessons from Android and tried to directly compete with the Apple Watch. In consecutive generations, the gap widened; compared to the Apple Watch, Google’s WearOS wasn’t as smooth, and app support wasn’t as great. Then there were a host of other problems. Given that WearOS was an open platform, manufacturers were experimenting with a lot of things like square-shaped displays, round displays, different chipsets, and sizes. This again meant developing for WearOS was difficult given you had to keep so many different configurations in mind. Also, pricing wasn’t a steal either, and by this time, manufacturers were abandoning WearOS in favor of an in-house solution.
This wasn’t a huge deal for Google a few years back, but now it seems people are warming up to the idea of a smartwatch, given how connected our lives are now. Missing out on wearables would be a huge opportunity loss for Android. The search giant acquired Fitbit in 2019 to help their wearable effort and recently announced a partnership with Samsung to co-develop wearables.
This exhibits Google’s renewed commitment to the future of Android wearables. The partnership with Samsung also makes a lot of sense; their Galaxy Watch series is one of the de facto options in the Android camp and can significantly benefit from a well-done WearOS implementation.
All these moves tie in nicely with Google’s plan to further the Android ecosystem in the next decade. They have got many things right, like smart home products and AndroidTV; hopefully, they will deliver on the rest, especially wearables.