It’s fair to say that much of Google’s recent commercial success is down to Android, the world’s most popular smartphone OS. Since the inception of the operating system over a decade ago, Android has found its way onto millions of devices, cementing Google’s position as one of the influential – and visible – tech companies on the entire planet. Whatever phone you have in your hand right now, there’s a fair chance it has some Google apps or services installed on it, and getting on board the smartphone revolution at the right time has allowed the company to turn things like Google Maps, Gmail, Google Drive, YouTube, Hangouts and the Google Play store into household names – and many of these apps generate untold millions for the firm each year.
However, longtime supporters of Android may have noticed something rather odd has been happening over the past few years. Not only have we seen certain core Android services getting name changes that remove the word ‘Android’ from their title, but Google itself has been uttering the famous brand name far less than usual. Take the announcement of the Pixel 3 not so long ago – the word ‘Android’ wasn’t even said once during the entire live presentation.
So what gives? Is Google quietly phasing out one of its most famous products? As ever, this a story that’s worth investigating a little more closely. At the heart of this apparent change is the Fuchsia OS. This is seen by many within the walls of Google as the true future of the company; a unified operating system which, it is said, will totally replace Android in the next few years. The Google Home Hub is apparently the first piece of hardware to use this new foundation, and it’s highly likely that we could see both Android and Chrome OS folded into Fushsia in the fullness of time.
Despite this, Google spent a lot of time at the same event where the Pixel 3 was announced talking about the (apparently) equally-doomed Chrome OS, and made it very clear to the assembled crowd that it still sees Chrome OS as a viable alternative to the likes of Mac OS and Windows. Chrome OS isn’t new by any means and Chromebooks have long been seen as a cheaper alternative to ‘proper’ computers, but with Fushsia around the corner – or so we’ve been lead to believe – why blank Android but gush about Chrome?
There’s perhaps a simple explanation for this – Google is embarrassed by Android.
Right from day one, Android has had a perception within the tech industry of cheapness; while Apple has maintained the sky-high pricing of its desirable iPhone range since the very beginning, Google’s licencing approach means that any hardware maker can jump on board, and as a result we’ve seen that familiar green robot appear on some cheap and nasty devices.
This is, of course, a strength as well as a weakness; Android would never have achieved the same market penetration if it had only been available on expensive phones. However, in the battle for the premium sector, Google has been found wanting many times over; in fact, the only company that can genuinely challenge Apple at the top-end of the market is Samsung, and the Korean firm covers Android beneath its own operating system and pushes its customers towards its own app stores and digital storefronts. Heck, Samsung even tried to create its own mobile OS in the form of Tizen not so long ago, perhaps hopeful that it would take off and it could sever its reliance on Android forever.
Google’s efforts to make headway in this sector of the market have often been critically acclaimed but rarely commercially successful. The Nexus line of phones started brightly with the Nexus One, but sales were hamstrung by Google’s foolish insistence that people could only buy the phone directly from its own store; initially, it was not offered to carriers and therefore missed out on their considerable distribution powers. The Nexus 4 and 5 were more successful and the recent Pixel phones have struck a chord with buyers, but compared to the iPhone, none of these have gained even a tiny fraction of the sales that Apple enjoys each time it launches a fresh device.
Could it be that Google has finally decided that the Android brand has too much baggage attached to it? ‘Android’ as a name is hardly the most welcoming brand; it sounds futuristic, sure, but it also has a robotic, unfriendly ring to it, too. Little wonder, then, that Google has been methodically removing the ‘Android’ name from popular core apps and has instead branded its recent devices under the ‘Pixel’ banner, a name that is still geeky enough to appeal to tech heads, but has a playful side which should, in theory, make it easier to sell to those who are undecided about Apple’s latest models and are looking for a handset which offers the same power, ease of use and premium build quality.
However, could this plan be missing the point somewhat? When people buy a Galaxy S phone, or a Xiaomi Mi phone or even an HTC device, they’re not always buying it because it runs Android. In fact, to many casual users, the name of the core OS might not even spring to mind; Android’s strength is that it can be taken by companies such as Samsung and Sony and bent to their will – this is what has allowed the OS to become the world’s most popular in the past decade. Isn’t this something that should be maintained at all costs, rather than discarded in favour of an entirely new unified OS that requires hardware makers, app developers and – most important of all – consumers to readjust? While we’re sure that Google will make any transition between Android / Chrome and Fuchsia as easy as possible, it seems ill-advised to take a name that has a decade of history behind it and throw it all away, even if we accept the need for widescale changes ‘under the hood’ to ensure Google’s software continues to evolve and adapt to the needs of its customers.
Whatever the grand plan is at Google, one thing is certain – Android is slowly but surely being phased out, and we’ll no doubt miss that little green droid when the time finally comes to close the door on what has been one of the most productive and successful periods in consumer tech history.
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Damien McFerran has been covering phones and mobile technology for well over a decade. An Android specialist, as well as an expert reviewer of phones, Damien is one of the best technology journalists working today. He is also editorial director over at the excellent Nintendo Life.