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GUEST BLOG: Rethinking the Android ecosystem

JR Raphael | Aug. 23, 2012
It's hard to believe it was a mere three years ago that the original Droid phone burst into the world and made Android a household name.

That's why we need to rethink how we view the Android ecosystem. We can't change manufacturers' approaches or behaviors, but we can change how we look at their efforts.

A multipronged Android ecosystem

Consider this: Ubuntu isn't the same thing as Linux; rather, it's an operating system based on the open source Linux software. The same goes for Google's Chrome OS. With the extent that manufacturer modifications of Android have evolved -- and the level of difference in user experience they now provide compared to the pure Android OS -- it's time we take a similar approach in the way we view Android devices.

Is the Galaxy S III an Android phone, for example? Not exactly. It's a Samsung TouchWiz phone based on Google's Android 4.0 release. The One X, similarly, runs custom HTC software based on the Android 4.0 OS. It may sound like a subtle distinction, but it's an important one to make.

Why? Simple: People read or hear things about all the progress being made in Android these days, then they go out and buy a phone and get something else entirely. Having that type of choice is perfectly fine, but people need to know what they're getting. From the interface to the upgrades, the experience you get with a Google Nexus device is a night and day difference from what you get with a Samsung TouchWiz (or other manufacturer-modified) alternative.

It's a distinction I've been trying to make in my own reviews for a while. Google Engineering VP Vic Gundotra made a similar distinction recently when he referred to his Galaxy S III phone as an "Android-based" device during a discussion on Google+.

As Android continues to grow, that distinction is going to become even more relevant. Rumors are heating up about Google's reported plan to release a series of pure Android Nexus devices later this year, and Google engineers are even toying with the idea of creating Nexus-like software support for non-Nexus devices. With an entire army of pure Android devices on store shelves -- and with the type of newfound marketing intent Google is showing with its Nexus 7 tablet -- the days of Nexus-like devices being viewed solely as tools for enthusiasts may soon be behind us.

Now, if you legitimately like a manufacturer-modified interface and don't mind the upgrade situation -- or if you're planning to hack your device and install third-party ROMs on your own -- hey, more power to you. That kind of choice and flexibility is a huge part of what makes Android what it is. But remember: The vast majority of phone owners aren't going to mess with rooting and ROM'ing. And while many of those users may not spend much time worrying about geeky stuff like UI and upgrades, I can assure you I hear from plenty of people who bought non-pure Android devices and later -- usually when the next OS release rolled around -- discovered they weren't getting what they expected.


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