Last week, Google rolled out a new version of Android to very little fanfare and quite a lot of boredom. There's a reason for that: Google Play Services.
Back in September 2012, Google released a new app to the Play Store. It allowed the company to roll out new features to Android users running 2.2 and up without needing a complete OS upgrade. This app, Google Play Services, was the focus of the last Google I/O. And, as Android 4.3 demonstrated, it's a powerful tool for bringing new features to users of old operating systems.
So, how does this new platform work, and how does it differ from Android itself?
Just What Is Android?
To understand why Google Play Services matters, we have to understand what Android is. Most people assume that "Android" means "a phone running Google software". This is not always the case. Technically speaking, Android is an operating system for mobile devices. Because it's open source, a company can use it, modify it and make it their own without involving Google at all.
The Kindle Fire is the most obvious example of this. While it runs Android, it lacks the Play Store, any built-in Google services, or even any mention of Google at all. Instead, Amazon built its own app store, content services and hardware. This is what Android is. A platform for any company to build on.
The reason that Google and Android have been so intertwined thus far is because, in order to get access to the Play Store, device manufacturers had to adhere to a certain set of rules and include certain Google apps or features. This kept Google at the centre of the OS in its early stages. However, Google began the process of separating itself from Android a long time ago.
Most Google Apps Are Already Separate
When Google released Android 2.0, the worries were already beginning to mount. An amazing new turn-by-turn Navigation feature was about to ship on the brand new Motorola Droid. However, it was also released to the Android Market the following month. This began a trend of Google releasing new features via app updates instead of operating system upgrades.
Over the years, Gmail, Search (including Google Now and Voice Actions), Hangouts (formerly Talk), Chrome (formerly the stock browser), YouTube, Calendar, and even the stock Android keyboard were unbundled from Android and updated directly. This brought the wait time for new features down from a rough minimum of six months to a paltry few days, as long as your device could handle it.
The problem with this plan is that it didn't allow Google to update Android features. Each new version of Android would bring new APIs that developers could plug into. This is why some apps require 4.0 while others can work on Android versions as low as 2.2. The apps in the former category needed the new APIs. This is a problem for Google, and it's the reason that "fragmentation" is such a bad word. Hence the new plan.
Google Play Is The New Platform
This year at Google I/O, the company announced a host of new features that were coming to Android devices. They include but are not limited to:
- Play Games achievements, leaderboards, and game sync
- Synced notifications across devices (where supported by apps)
- Activity recognition (apps can detect walking, driving, etc.)
- Single sign-on
There was one neat thing that all of these features had in common: they didn't require a new version of Android to implement. In fact, no one on stage even talked about an Android upgrade during the entire three-hour I/O keynote. Instead, these features were added to Google Play Services, which is supported on Android 2.2 and up. For the first time in years, users with an old device that had been abandoned by the manufacturers got to enjoy brand new features that were just announced at I/O.
In contrast, Android 4.3 introduced the following features:
- Restricted profiles on tablets
- Autocomplete on the dial pad
- Location tracking via Wi-Fi without leaving Wi-Fi enabled
- Low energy Bluetooth support
Most of the new features aren't unimportant, but they're also not quite as large in scope. Notification sync, for example, will affect apps across the entire platform, while dialer autocomplete will probably only be seen by a minority of users anyway. Most manufacturers tend to replace the dialer app with their own version and the big ones already have this feature.
Google Play Services gives Google a stage to launch new features that are critical to Google's presence on smartphones and tablets. This means that 98.5 per cent of Android devices can utilise the new stuff (including the entirely new Play Games app and related features). This effectively solves the problem of fragmentation, at least for features that roll out via Google Play Services instead of Android updates.
The Future Is Still Uncertain, But A Little Brighter
Does all of this mean that we'll never get any critical new features via actual Android updates? Certainly not. For starters, as we saw at I/O, existing APIs are still being rolled into Play Services, so the work isn't done yet. We also can't know what Google is planning down the road. The company hasn't made any official announcements about its intentions for future updates. We can simply see the effects of its plans. When Android 5.0 eventually rolls out, there will probably introduce some new problems.
What is clear is that Google is increasingly bringing new features to existing devices without users having to worry about what OS version they're on. No more waiting six months or a year for a new dessert to roll through the manufacturer and carrier. No more devices being abandoned after 18 months because it's too old to be worth it. Most of all, it means much fewer petitions begging companies to keep updating mid-range devices.
This is the point of Google Play Services. It sits on your phone, silently bringing awesome new stuff. For example, at some point in the last few months, Google moved its app verification service out of Android 4.2 and into Play Services. Your phone is now slightly more secure than it was before, and no carriers or manufacturers had to be involved in any way.
The more updates that can be performed this way, the better.