2012 in Android: A Retrospective

A year ago, when someone asked me why I used an Android phone, I felt I had to go on the defensive. Tasker! Open source! Customization! Swype!

Today, people don’t ask why I use Android; they ask whether they can try mine. Android has become a legitimate mobile platform, and in this look back over the past year we’ll see how it got there.


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Introduction

At the start of 2012, all the pieces were already in place.

The recently-released Galaxy Nexus wasn’t just an excellent Android phone, but an excellent smartphone all round. Meanwhile, the Galaxy S II was still a very popular alternative, and the Galaxy Note was getting a lot of attention for pushing the boundaries of how large a smartphone could be.

Google+ gave Android a cross-platform video messaging service that easily rivalled FaceTime, alongside better contact management, the ability to automatically upload photos (and to share them with selected friends), and another messaging app. Oh, and a social network.

Matias Duarte and his team had laid the foundations of a consistent framework for Android’s interface and presentation that not only looked and felt good (countering a long-held criticism of the platform), but that was also uniquely Android – you could tell at a glance when an app was designed for Google’s devices rather than ported from iOS, Windows Phone, or a college student’s Java exercises.

New Hardware

The rumours of five new Nexus devices from different manufacturers did not pan out exactly as expected – although, looking back, they were technically true.

Nexus 7

Android struggled in the tablet market for a long time. Froyo tablets were mainly an embarrassing, lazy attempt by manufacturers to cash in on the supposed tablet craze they thought the iPad was starting. Google’s quick solution – to release a tablet-optimised (and tablet-only) version of Android in Honeycomb – was a step in the right direction, but still a long way off perfection.

But with Android 4.0 and the new design guidelines, Google finally had a decent tablet OS and interface. In June, they released an actual tablet to go with it: the Nexus 7.

The launch of the Nexus 7

Amazon’s seven-inch Kindle Fire had been a big hit the year before, becoming the second-best selling tablet after the iPad, but it was only available in the US and crticial reviews had largely painted it as a budget device best used for consumption alone.

The Nexus 7 is a budget device, too – but having a low price tag doesn’t mean it’s cheap. Although it’s missing an SD card slot (like all Nexus devices) and a rear camera, the build quality and specs are great, making it a very attractive device. It competed with the iPad in the tablet market by carving out its own niche, rather than trying to be another iPad as so many previous tablets did.

Nexus 4

Another year, another new Nexus phone. Hardware-wise, the Nexus 4 isn’t much different from the Galaxy Nexus: it’s got a better camera, a more powerful processor, and the ability to charge wirelessly, but that’s offset by the non-removeable battery, glass back, and limited storage space (8/16GB, down from 16/32GB).

The Nexus 4

What’s notable about the Nexus 4 is the price: $299 for the 8GB model, SIM-free. For reference, the cheapest SIM-free Galaxy Nexus (16GB) cost $680 last year, and the cheapest SIM-free iPhone 5 (16GB) costs $649 this year.

This seems to be another attempt at a strategy Google tried with the launch of the Nexus One – the goal then was to reduce carriers’ control over pricing and access, by selling phones directly to customers through their web store. It didn’t work out; Andy Rubin put this down to customers wanting a “hands-on experience before buying a phone”.

This time around, it seems to have worked rather well. The Nexus 4 has received glowing reviews all around, and is apparently in much higher demand than the Galaxy Nexus was. One problem: Google hasn’t been able to keep up. Its online store had big problems on launch day; phones have taken weeks to arrive after ordering; and the device has been sold out almost continuously.

Others

Google released a larger tablet, the Nexus 10, too – but this feels more like an also-ran; it’s fine, but not as notable as the other new Nexuses.

Likewise, Samsung released the Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note 2 – both great devices, both very popular, but neither really seeming revolutionary in the same way as the Nexus 4 or 7, so forgive me for skimming past them.

HTC, once the king of Android smartphones, took a good hard look at themselves after their massive drop in status, and decided to reduce their massive, fragmented product range to three main devices: the HTC One V, HTC One S, and HTC One X. Although the wide choice of smartphones is one of the great things about Android, I think we can all agree that this is a good thing.

Google announced the Nexus Q, a rather expensive social streaming media player, but withdrew it before it even hit retail based on disappointing initial feedback. However, the idea of an Android-powered box that sits in your living room proved popular to some people: OUYA, a proposed indie console, raised a huge amount of money on Kickstarter, and helped raise people’s awareness of Android as more than just an OS for tablets and smartphones.

Jelly Bean

Two major updates hit (stock) Android this year: 4.1 (alongside the Nexus 7) and 4.2 (alongside the Nexus 4 and Nexus 10). Both were named Jelly Bean, as 4.2 was not a huge advance over 4.1.

Google Now was the big new feature, despite still not quite feeling complete. I see this as Google’s answer to Siri, even though the new Google Voice Search is more similar in function, because Google Now is an original new feature that no-one else offers, just as Siri was (and still is, to a great extent). It’s a genuinely useful service, as well as a cool gimmick that you can show off to friends.

Project Butter went a long way towards fixing a problem that felt huge if you were previously used to iDevices and possibly non-existent if you hadn’t: interface lag. New keyboard improvements took cues from SwiftKey and Swype, adding word prediction and gesture typing. The camera got an upgrade, with a thumb-friendly UI and new “PhotoSphere” feature.

On top of all that, there were a ton of little improvements to the interface and presentation of Android, and updates to the Android Developer Guidelines to help developers follow suit. As a result, the OS is starting to match Duarte’s vision, and the number of Holo apps is steadily inreasing. There’s still a way to go, but the current situation is a huge improvement compared to mid-2011.

Competitors (Well, Apple)

Surface, Nokia, Mozilla OS, and Windows Phone 8 seem like they could have a big effect on Android in 2013, but I don’t feel that they’ve had much of a direct influence on Android this year – so let’s talk about Apple.

After years of criticising Android’s hardware fragmentation, claiming that a 3.5″ touchscreen was the optimal size for the human hand and so on, Apple released a 4″, 16:9 iPhone. I was looking forward to seeing how the Cupertino developers tackled the issue of supporting two screen sizes, given their talent for solving tricky UI problems – and then they went with letterboxing. Similarly, the 7.9″ iPad mini displays apps at the same resolution as the original iPad, just at a reduced physical size, so all the buttons and menus and so on are a bit smaller.

The new iPad and the iPad mini

Now, I’ve never really found the differing screen sizes a problem on Android, so I’m not criticising Apple for taking the same approach. But I have to assume that this destroys the old “Android supports multiple screen sizes, and that’s bad” argument in the eyes of the public – you can’t have it both ways.

Apple seemed to be a step behind Android in a few respects this year: the Kindle Fire and Nexus 7 beat the iPad mini as popular tablets in that particular form factor; iOS 6 highlighted its new stock Panorama feature while Android 4.2 highlighted its new Photo Sphere feature to completment 4.0′s Panoramas; and a few weeks after Apple showed off the iPhone 5′s new propietery connector that could be plugged in upside-down, Google showed off the Nexus 4′s new inductive charger that didn’t need plugging in at all.

All kidding aside, Apple has done some cool stuff this year. The retina iPad is amazing, and Passbook seems already to be doing the kind of thing Google Wallet aims to do better than Google Wallet is actually doing. But there was no “Siri” this year – nothing brand new and original that left me, as an Android fan, feeling that Google and friends are going to have to work hard to keep up.

It feels to me that iOS is maturing in terms of features and technology while Android matures in terms of UI and UX. And that would be all I had to say about Apple, except…

Apple Maps

Earlier this year, it was rumoured that Apple would announce a new, non-Google Maps app alongside iOS6 at WWDC – apparently Google wanted more of their own branding and account integration, and Apple didn’t want to give it to them. The week before WWDC, Google seemed worried – they announced their own improvements to Google Maps for Android.

Funny to imagine that now.

You might have seen a few concerned tweets about the state of Apple Maps when the developer-only prerelease version of iOS 6 was released. But you can’t have missed the huge outcry about the state of Apple Maps when the public version of iOS6 launched.

Google eventually released a new version of Google Maps for iOS; it was downloaded ten million times within the first two days. It feels very much like a Google app: lots of clean whitespace and gesture controls. It is, by most accounts, a great app – in some respects even better than the current Android app – which helps to boost Google’s mobile reputation.

Segmentation

Have you noticed that this year’s new Nexus devices don’t feature the Google logo on the back?

One serious issue, in my experience, is that people see “Android” as one big thing, so a bad experience with a mid-range Motorola makes them assume that Android devices suck in general. Focusing on Nexus as a brand can help prevent this confusion: customers can mentally separate Nexus (running Google’s Android) from HTC (running HTC’s Android aka Sense) from Samsung Galaxy (running Samsung’s Android aka TouchWiz), and so on.

In March, we saw the Android Market rebranded as Google Play, and I think this has the same sort of “intentional fragmentation” strategy behind it. If the Kindle Fires run Amazon’s Android, but don’t come with the Android Market, then that’s confusing – but if they run Amazon’s Android rather than Google’s Android, and come with the Amazon Appstore rather than Google Play, then that makes a lot of sense.

Google Play

These decisions help to reduce the power that any manufacturer has to harm the Android brand as a whole. Based on the aforementioned embarrassing tablets debacle, I think that’s a smart move.

Next Year

There’s a lot of Android news that I haven’t even touched on: the Humble Android Bundles, Google Music going global and getting Scan and Search, the Samsung Galaxy Camera, Google’s new AR game Ingress, the launch of Google Drive…

I also wrote a whole section on the ongoing patent wars, but deleted it. I know some Android fans revel in the drama, but honestly I’m just sick of the whole thing.

But I think I’ve covered the most important events of the year. So what can we expect to see over the next twelve months?

I expect we’ll see Android 4 and the Holo guidelines continue to be refined and polished; I’d be surprised if Android 5 was released, as there doesn’t seem to be a need for a major jump like that right now – especially with the time it takes for anything new to spread due to fragmentation.

Given the success of the low-priced Nexus devices, there’s a good chance we’ll see Eric Schmidt’s MWC 2012 goal fulfilled: for smartphones to get as cheap as feature phones.

I’m keeping an eye on Mozilla’s new mobile OS, as well; for some people, Android’s appeal lies in being open source, and it looks like Firefox OS might take that even further. Maybe we’ll see Android shift to compete along the same lines, or maybe Android will just stop aiming at that audience.

There’s always been some confusion over the fact that Google has two operating systems: Android and Chrome OS (as found on Chromebooks). Perhaps the version of Chrome that’s on Android will be upgraded to be able to run Chrome Web Store apps, essentially allowing any powerful Android tablet to double as a Chromebook.

Most of all, now that the OS is more or less all fleshed out, I’m hoping to see more apps along the lines of Ingress and Google Now, and for Google Now and Voice Actions to be improved and internationalised; they are great proofs-of-concept right now, but are still a little lacking.

Oh, and I’d like Google Glass to be released with the same budget pricing strategy as the Nexus line… but I don’t see that happening in 2013.


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