Why An­droid phones should run stock An­droid

Nokia gets it right and ev­ery­one else should fol­low its lead, ar­gues MICHAEL SI­MON

Android Advisor - - Contents -

Back in An­droid’s early days, the sys­tem’s open­source gen­eros­ity of­fered a huge ad­van­tage to phone man­u­fac­tur­ers. In the An­droid Eclair and Froyo eras, there was palat­able whimsy in in­ter­face de­sign. Own­ing an An­droid phone was fun, and man­u­fac­tur­ers de­vel­oped iden­tity by in­ter­pret­ing the sys­tem in their own spe­cial ways.

But the mod­ern An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence is a mess of un­nec­es­sary cus­tomiza­tions, ugly de­signs, and bloated app draw­ers. In short, An­droid’s big­gest prob­lem in 2018 may be An­droid it­self.

But it never had to be that way. For years, Google has been try­ing to show phone mak­ers that its pure vi­sion of An­droid is best), even go­ing so far as to demon­strate stock An­droid’s su­pe­ri­or­ity on its own Nexus and Pixel hand­sets. Yet still, nearly every An­droid phone uses a ver­sion of An­droid that is dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent than the one Google pro­vides in the An­droid Open Source Project. And for the most part, that means slow up­dates, wonky per­for­mance, and an over­all lousy ex­pe­ri­ence.

Google’s am­bi­tious An­droid One ex­pe­ri­ence was never sup­posed to solve that par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, but it just might. When the plat­form was un­veiled at I/O in 2014, it was squarely tar­geted at emerg­ing mar­kets. With a mis­sion to ‘bring high-qual­ity smart­phones to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble’, An­droid One was meant to bring a clean, unadul­ter­ated KitKit ex­pe­ri­ence (the cur­rent ver­sion at the time), to hand­sets short on specs and stor­age.

Nokia has taken a dif­fer­ent ap­proach with An­droid One. Ear­lier this year par­ent com­pany HMD made the bold de­ci­sion to switch to An­droid One for its en­tire fam­ily of phones, from the bud­get-minded Nokia 3.1 to the Snap­dragon 835-pow­ered Nokia 8 Sirocco. That means when you buy a Nokia phone you’re get­ting the peace of mind that you’ll get up­dates, and timely ones at that, for at least two years, and se­cu­rity patches for three years. Or, as Juho Sarvikas, chief

prod­uct of­fi­cer at par­ent com­pany HMD Global puts it, “pure and se­cure and up to date”. That’s some­thing that can’t be said for more than 90 per­cent of An­droid phones, based on the lat­est Oreo adop­tion num­bers. And it’s time the lead­ing An­droid phone mak­ers start clos­ing the gap.

Pre­mium feel in a bud­get phone

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, a phone like the Nokia 6 (£229 from fave.co/2Kw9Fi4) would be just an­other sub-£250 An­droid phone in a ver­i­ta­ble sea of them. With a Snap­dragon 630 pro­ces­sor, Full HD dis­play, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of stor­age, there’s noth­ing about it that’s par­tic­u­larly unique for its price, but An­droid One makes all the dif­fer­ence.

It’s not just the in­ter­face that’s clean and min­i­mal. Without the ex­tra layer of a skin or the in­trin­sic bloat of a fork, the Nokia 6 feels just as pre­mium as the LG G7. Bat­tery life is stel­lar, pages scroll smoothly, apps launch in an in­stant, and the ap­pli­ca­tion drawer is only filled with the apps you need. You won’t find a non­re­mov­able Face­book app, un­wanted no­ti­fi­ca­tions, or su­per­flu­ous set­tings to slow you down, and the launcher is purer An­droid than the Pixel (which uses a pro­pri­etary launcher on top of stock Oreo). If I didn’t know bet­ter, I’d think the Nokia 6 was a new Nexus phone. And that’s just the way HMD wants it.

Sci­ence fric­tion

In an in­sanely com­pet­i­tive land­scape, I un­der­stand the de­sire to want to stand out, but to­day’s phones aren’t do­ing them­selves any favours by tweak­ing and

skin­ning the in­ter­face. On its own, An­droid Oreo is on par with iOS 11 when it comes to speed, per­for­mance, and longevity, but once LG, Sam­sung, HTC, and Huawei get a hold of it, the re­sults are ar­guably worse. Ex­tra apps, funky ges­tures, and ugly UIs don’t just muck up the ex­pe­ri­ence, they tend to de­grade much quicker than stock An­droid. Case in point: My LG V30 feels much slower than the Pixel 2 XL, de­spite both about eight months old.

“We don’t need to force pre­loaded ap­pli­ca­tions, ser­vices, or, quite frankly in some cases bloat­ware or mal­ware for our own mon­e­ti­za­tion scheme,” Sarvikas said. “We want to give our users a com­pletely fric­tion-free An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence where you have com­plete con­trol.”

The key word here is fric­tion. It’s the same thing what makes the Pixel such a great phone de­spite

hav­ing a de­sign that pales in com­par­i­son to the Galaxy S8 and a cam­era app out of 2015. There are no hoops to jump through, no con­fu­sion, and no bat­terydrain­ing pro­cesses go­ing on in the back­ground. An­droid phones have a rep­u­ta­tion among iPhone users as be­ing slow, laggy, and jit­tery, but none of that is the fault of the core OS. It’s the lay­ers that are added on top of it that be­gin to af­fect the ex­pe­ri­ence, start­ing with the four most es­sen­tial apps to any phone: the phone di­aller, con­tacts, mes­sages, and pho­tos.

Most An­droid phones go out of their way to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the UX in un­nec­es­sary ways. Take the worst of­fender, Sam­sung. While its Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence in­ter­face (pre­vi­ously TouchWiz) has got bet­ter with per­for­mance and bloat­ware over the years, it’s still a far cry from what Google of­fers the Pixel. Turn on a brand-new Galaxy S9 and you’ll get a Sam­sung-styled browser, app store, photo gallery, di­aller, and ad­dress book, as well as mes­sag­ing, mail, and files apps. Few of them of­fer any­thing that Google’s doesn’t, and in many cases, the ex­pe­ri­ences and fea­tures are worse, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to pho­tos and mail. And that’s pre­cisely what the new it­er­a­tion of An­droid One is try­ing to elim­i­nate.

“El­e­ments like Google As­sis­tant will be tied to all of these ap­pli­ca­tions,” Sarvikas said. “Without them, you don’t get the lat­est greatest An­droid ex­pe­ri­ence or Google ser­vice in­no­va­tion. This tight in­te­gra­tion of core ex­pe­ri­ence im­pacted our de­ci­sion greatly.”

A re­fresh­ing prom­ise

As much as speed and fric­tion are im­por­tant, the

big­gest ben­e­fit of Nokia’s An­droid One phones over their forked and skinned peers builds down to one thing: up­dates. Its two-thirds of Nokia’s ‘pure and se­cure and up-to-date’ mantra, and the main rea­son why Google started the pro­gram in the first place.

“When it comes to se­cu­rity up­dates or plat­form up­grades, it’s sig­nif­i­cantly eas­ier for us to roll those out,” Sarvikas said. “We didn’t fork or do any deep cus­tomiza­tion that we would need to val­i­date with every plat­form up­date.” It’s some­thing that Google is des­per­ately try­ing to solve, with Project Tre­ble bring­ing some real hope for timely up­dates for the first time and most OEMs du­ti­fully de­liv­er­ing monthly se­cu­rity patches rel­a­tively quickly. But on An­droid One phones, cus­tomers are get­ting some­thing they won’t get on other phones: a years-long guar­an­tee.

Like Google’s Pixel phones, Nokia prom­ises two years of let­ter up­dates and three years of

se­cu­rity up­dates with every new phone. And since Nokia works di­rectly with Google on its An­droid One phones, it can also en­sure that the up­dates are pushed out as fast as pos­si­ble with rock-solid sta­bil­ity and per-de­vice op­ti­miza­tion.

Now con­sider that Sam­sung’s Galaxy S7, which cost £569 when it launched two years ago, only just got its first Oreo up­date in June this year, nearly 10 months after An­droid 8 ar­rived. The Es­sen­tial Phone is touted as a de­vice that ‘evolves with you’, but its first Oreo up­date also ar­rived many months after the Pix­els got theirs. And even if Project Tre­ble suc­ceeds in help­ing An­droid P up­dates ar­rive more quickly, they still won’t be as fast as the ones that ap­pear on Nokia’s An­droid One phones. The ex­tra apps and lay­ers on top of An­droid on other phones make it that much harder to push out up­dates, and con­sumers end up suf­fer­ing for it.

One is the loneli­est num­ber

Slowly but surely, An­droid phone mak­ers are start­ing to see the light. The lat­est An­droid P beta isn’t only avail­able on Pixel de­vices any­more. You can also get it on the Es­sen­tial Phone, Nokia 7 Plus, OnePlus 6, Oppo R15 Pro, Sony Xpe­ria XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, and Vivo X21 and X21 UD.

But that’s still a piti­fully small list and you’ll no­tice that the big­gest names in An­droid – Sam­sung, Huawei, LG, HTC, and so on – are miss­ing from it. Many of the Oreo phones ship­ping right now are still run­ning ver­sion 8.0 rather than the newer 8.1. And se­cu­rity up­dates still trickle in weeks and some­times months

late. The so­lu­tion to what ails An­droid is right there for the tak­ing, but so far only Nokia and a hand­ful of other phones have taken Google up on the of­fer.

There’s an un­der­ly­ing be­lief among An­droid phone mak­ers that skins and forks make their phones stand out among the field, but I’m will­ing to bet that most cus­tomers are buy­ing phones based on fea­tures and phys­i­cal looks rather than the in­ter­face. And I’m down­right cer­tain that nearly all of them would pick pure An­droid over their phone’s UI in a face­off. An­droid’s hard­ware mak­ers needn’t be dif­fer­ent than PCs. You can buy a lap­top from HP, Acer, Asus, or Mi­crosoft and get the same Win­dows 10 soft­ware, but the ex­pe­ri­ence on each of them is vastly dif­fer­ent.

And cus­tomers still have a choice. Like Win­dows, An­droid One isn’t about ho­mo­gene­ity, it’s about putting An­droid’s best foot for­ward for both the plat­form and the con­sumer. Google al­lows plenty of lat­i­tude for orig­i­nal­ity, such as Nokia’s ex­cel­lent cam­era app or the HTC U11 Life’s Edge Sense squeeze and USonic au­dio fea­tures. When mar­ket­ing their new­est phones, LG, Sony, HTC, and Huawei in­vari­ably dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves via hard­ware de­sign and valu­able fea­tures, with nary a men­tion of soft­ware skins. An­droid One might limit the amount of cus­tomiza­tion a com­pany such as Sam­sung can add to their phone, but is that re­ally a prob­lem? No one is buy­ing a Galaxy S9 be­cause of the Sam­sung Ex­pe­ri­ence UI. They’re buy­ing it be­cause it’s a gor­geous phone with a great cam­era.

You don’t need to be a data sci­en­tist to see that if given the choice, most cus­tomers will choose the purest, clean­est ver­sion of An­droid you can get. While I’ll ad­mit it’s un­likely that phone mak­ers who have spent years craft­ing their own unique ex­pe­ri­ence will dump them for An­droid One, Nokia has clearly hit on a for­mula for suc­cess with its own phones. As Sarvikas said, “It felt like ev­ery­thing matched and clicked, and it was the ab­so­lute right thing for us to do as a com­pany and a brand.”

And if that re­quires re­mov­ing some of the brand­ing along the way, so be it.

You won’t find a sin­gle piece of bloat­ware on the Nokia 6

Up to date means very dif­fer­ent things de­pend­ing on your An­droid phone

The cam­era app on the Nokia 6.1 comes with a ro­bust set of pro­fes­sional con­trols

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