Android is a mess.
Don’t get me wrong — there are definitely wonderful and beautiful things about Google’s mobile operating system. However, the amount of fragmentation between stock Android and OEM skins has gotten out of hand. Depending on whether you use a phone from Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, Lenovo, ZTE, or OnePlus, you’re guaranteed to get a massive difference in user experience – and that’s not always a good thing. Besides the obvious discrepancies in user interfaces, the availability of software updates, security patches, and major version upgrades varies immensely manufacturer to manufacturer.
It’s not uncommon to see a company put out a phone, keep it up-to-date for a couple months, and put it on the back-burner in favor of the “next big thing.” Take the Moto E (2015), for instance. It launched with Lollipop, and it hasn’t been updated to Marshmallow or newer since. The OnePlus 2 was touted as a “flagship killer” in 2015, but it never tasted Nougat. Lenovo’s Moto X, which was also released in 2015, was abandoned a few short months later, much to the dismay of customers. Worst case scenario, OEMs feel that major updates are “optional” — Lenovo saw no reason to update the Moto G4, for example, despite the fact that its hardware supports newer versions of Android.
The heavy skins that some OEMs slap on their phones undoubtedly slow things down. It’s how they differentiate their devices from every other Android smartphone out there. And to be fair, some are pretty darn useful — Samsung’s TouchWiz, Xiaomi’s MIUI, Huawei’s Emotion UI, and others have their advantages. But they often come at the cost of battery life, performance, and storage space. Back in the early days, Android may have needed a bit of help from OEMs to fill in the feature and functionality gaps, but now it’s matured to the point where it can stand on its own.
Sometimes, manufacturers aren’t the ones to blame. Carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint sometimes get in the way of updates. They often take their time certifying new software for their respective network. The Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge, for example, was updated on Verizon before it was updated on AT&T, and Sprint’s historically taken twice as long as AT&T with updates.
So we’ve established that Android devices don’t offer a consistent experience, aren’t always supported by the manufacturer, and are subject to the whims of carriers. What can be done to get them back on track?
AndromedaOS, a Top-Down Redesign of Android
I propose what I call “AndromedaOS”, a complete redesign of the way Android and Google Mobile Services — the collection of Google applications and APIs that support functionality across smartphones — is handled. (Editor’s note: Despite the name, AndromedaOS idea has nothing to do with Chrome OS and Android’s rumored merger, nor is it related to Andromeda of rootless Substratum fame.)
Many things about Android would stay the same. Google would announce new versions of Android early in the year, as it does now, and release the source code to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) in the fall. And Google’s Commercial Test Suite — the tools that ensure smartphones and tablets adhere to Android’s hardware guidelines — would remain mostly the same. Finally, Android Go, Google’s optimised OS for lower-cost phones in emerging markets, would be renamed AndromedaGo for the sake of consistency.
But some things would change. The distribution of Android with Google Play Services — that is to say, any firmware preloaded with Google Maps, Gmail, and Google’s Android application framework — would be renamed AndromedaOS, and Google would handle it much the same way it handles ChromeOS. Releasing software updates, both minor and major, would be Google’s responsibility. No longer would you have to wait for an OEM to get its act together and release a new version of Android for your smartphone — you could update as soon as Google rolled out the new version
If you prefer skins like TouchWiz and MIUI to stock Android, though, AndromedaOS would have you covered, too. Thanks to Android Oreo’s built-in theming engine, OEMs and users could customize the look and feel of their devices to their liking. But every phone no matter the skin would be required to offer a “stock” alternative, and in order to address UI changes in newer versions of Android, Google would allow OEMs plenty of time to update their themes as part of an “AndromedaOS OEM Preview” period (think Android Developer Previews, but for OEMs).
For OEM-level changes to Android more than skin deep, there’d be the Andromeda Module System, a well-documented and extensive set of application programming interfaces (APIs) that would make it extremely easy for OEMs to safely customize their devices. It’d work sort of like Project Treble: Apps, themes, and system frameworks would be updated via the Google Play Store.
TL;DR: AndromedaOS would hand the Android update reigns to Google. It’d be much faster and more predictable than the current system, but wouldn’t force OEMs to do away with in-house customizations.
AndromedaOS might sound like a pipe dream, and it’s certainly easier said than done. But look at ChromeOS devices: They’re made by a bevy of third-party partners but get automatic, coordinated updates from Google. That begs the question: Why can’t Android be like that?
Featured image credit: Lumiq Creative.