April 20, 2024

The Android ecosystem is fracturing and losing a key strength to Apple

In the long debate between Android and iOS, Google’s operating system has time and again earned the name of being the most open option. While Apple is known for its walled garden whose walls only rise day by day, Google has been the “better” alternative. But in the name of creating an interoperable ecosystem, Android is gradually becoming a closed system that keeps others out, including other Android brands. It’s almost as if multiple versions of Android have existed simultaneously instead of one cohesive system, which is not only worse than Apple’s approach but is breaking a lot of things for users.


When you pick up an Android phone, you expect it to work with all Google services and devices that are part of its software ecosystem viz. Use watches and headphones with an operating system. But it turns out that’s not the case in real life. For example, Android Police founder Artem Russakovskii discovered that Google’s Pixel Watch 2 can sync DND mode and bedtime settings only with a Pixel phone, which is also true for syncing your alarms. So if you’re looking to pair the Pixel Watch with, say, a Samsung phone, you’re going to have a broken experience with these features.

Google Pixel Watch 2 with a third-party watch band showing three forty-eight

Vice versa, if you pair a Galaxy Watch with an Android phone that isn’t made by Samsung, you’ll have to jump through several hoops to get features like cellular connectivity and Samsung Pay up and running. And that’s exactly where the problem lies. Instead of Android becoming an ecosystem unto itself, individual brands are creating their own ecosystems, leading to a less than ideal experience for end users who assume Android products work better together, in part thanks to the Google’s own marketing. And a broken product that often leaves you frustrated can’t compete with the perfect handshake that Apple promises and delivers most of the time.

A broken product that often leaves you frustrated cannot compete with the perfect handshake that Apple promises and delivers.


Fragmentation within fragmentation

Multiple versions of Android have begun to exist simultaneously

The term fragmentation has long been associated with Android. There are tons of smartphone manufacturers across the board, and each of them has a different software skin that runs on top of Android. Samsung has One UI, OnePlus has OxygenOS, Motorola maintains a clean interface, and Google Pixels has its own experience like no other.

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In Google’s defense, it is certainly not an easy task to bring them all together under the same umbrella, while respecting their differences and individuality. The company successfully ensures that the basics work seamlessly across brands for a reliable experience by taking control of the underlying Google Play services, which is responsible for cleaning up and enabling features like Google Pay, Google Cast, device backups and Quick Share. (née Near Share), etc.

However, at a time when Android is fighting a losing war with iOS in the US, with the latter’s ecosystem advantage being a strong selling point, Google needs to do more to create a richer ecosystem of its own. One in which more functions beyond the basics work on all devices, and Google is the only link in the chain that can guarantee proper interoperability between brands.

Other smartphone makers saw the void left by Google and seized the opportunity with their own solutions, which of course only work within their own portfolio of devices. There are many things you can do if you have a Samsung phone and a Samsung tablet, such as syncing notifications and sharing accessories; The same is true for OnePlus and other brands. While these brands cannot (and should not) be prevented from creating their own ecosystems, Google must ensure that a baseline is maintained so that at least the basics are not broken, as in the case of Artem.

And since it is said that charity begins at home, Google should fix its own products first and lead the way.

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The Pixel difference, but how far can it go?

What is more important to Google, Pixel or Android?

Google had to start competing with other Android phone makers to set the bar and show its vision for the future of Android, and it started that project with its Nexus line. Later, with the Pixel phones, the company doubled its smartphone offering. So Google now serves two purposes that somewhat contradict each other. It has its smartphone brand with a distinctive hardware and software identity, but on the other hand, it also makes AOSP (Android Open Source Project) and its proprietary Google services available to other brands to build Android devices.

By doing this, Google is competing with itself. While that’s philosophically a good thing, it’s starting to go against the idea of ​​Google being the central custodian of software for all Android phones.

While competing with yourself is philosophically a good thing, it’s starting to go against the idea of ​​Google being the central custodian of software for all Android phones.

The Pixels hardware and software identity is consolidated with each new generation. While recent models have defined the look of Google phones (and look pretty cool with a unique design), the software is what keeps them apart. There are plenty of features exclusive to Pixel phones that never come to other phones, like Call Screening and Now Playing, to name just two, while others come to other Android phones a year or two after being exclusive to Pixels.

The Google-Nexus 5 on top of a Pixel 4a and the Pixel 8 Pro

There are also a class of features that are free for Pixel users that require a Google One subscription on other Android phones, such as various Google Photos features. At CES 2024, Google also announced a new way to “cast” music playing on your UWB-enabled Pixel phone to the Pixel tablet, similar to what you can do with an iPhone and HomePod. This feature is again exclusive to Pixel phones and there is no confirmation if it will come to other Android phones with UWB radio. While Google itself is creating this chasm, many brands are already contemplating taking it a few steps further.

More splits are occurring, with companies like Amazon abandoning Android entirely. After using AOSP-based Fire OS (without Google apps) for years, Amazon will supposedly replace it with its own Linux-based operating system to power all of its smart devices. Similarly, Huawei is also looking to end support for Android apps on its HarmonyOS, cutting the last thread that unites the two. With these changes implemented, you will no longer be able to download the Google Play Store or any Android apps on Amazon and Huawei devices. Additionally, Amazon has partnered with Matter to offer its own Google Cast alternative to Fire and Echo devices for its music and video streaming services.

Serving it to Apple on a silver platter

All this confusion makes the Apple ecosystem look better

This fragmentation goes against the very spirit of Android, and only Google has the magic solution to bring it all together.

The lack of harmony within the Android family has begun to make Apple’s alternative seem simple and more desirable in comparison. You don’t have to constantly think about whether one Apple product will work with another: it just works the way it always has. On the contrary, Android is on the path to becoming even more fragmented, forcing it to fully invest in the Google or Samsung ecosystem to get the most out of its devices. It goes against the very spirit of Android, and only Google has the magic solution to bring it all together.

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At CES 2024, Google took some solid steps in that direction with the integration of Nearby Share with Samsung’s Quick Share, Chromecast built-in for LG TVs, and Fast Pair for Google TV. However, Google still has a long way to go to make Android a tight-knit system instead of looking like a broken and dysfunctional family.

Thank you: Eduardo

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