Earlier this week, HTC officially announced its new One M8 handset,. One of the lesser-touted but potentially more significant features of the handset is the new HTC Service Pack. This background app allows HTC to distribute its Sense applications independent of over-the-air (OTA) updates. HTC is now the third company to follow this very encouraging trend: unbundling of apps and services.
We've talked about Google Play Services before. Motorola embraced the trend of creating a separate services APK with Motorola Contextual Services. HTC's new Service Pack is a continuation of what Google and Motorola started. The company is now the third to begin moving many of its Android modifications to the Play Store, instead of building them into firmware updates that have to be tested by carriers before being distributed.
Unbundling Circumvents The Complicated Update Process
The process of releasing Android updates is already long and complicated because it involves getting the new version of Android from Google, dealing with chipset manufacturers, negotiating carrier modifications to the platform, and submitting the potential update for testing and certification. Frankly, the fact that this can all occur in only a few months for some phones is astounding.
One of the big roadblocks, however, is manufacturer skins. Love 'em or leave 'em, skins are the biggest way manufacturers compete with each other and without them, there's a lot less incentive for companies to invest in amazing new phones. The trouble is that skins hold up Android updates (and themselves) by being lumped into the rigorous and complicated vetting process described above. If HTC adds a feature in Sense, and a bug is discovered, the whole update gets delayed. That KitKat update you wanted has to go back to the digital assembly line because BlinkFeed is misbehaving.
By unbundling its apps and services from firmware updates and distributing them via the Play Store, HTC makes it easier to get new versions of Android or maintenance releases out to its devices faster. How much faster is unclear — remember, skins are only one part of the very complicated puzzle — but it's certainly less complex. Not only that, but it means that updating the apps themselves is faster.
This is something both HTC and Motorola have started doing. Most if not all of the apps that Motorola made for its Moto line of phones are distributed via the Play Store and updated when new features become available, rather than waiting for the next firmware update. While HTC has only just released its new apps to the Play Store, it will be doing the same thing. This whole process goes beyond mere updates, though.
Unbundling Frees Your Phone To Have New Experiences
The big problem with manufacturer skins is that, contrary to what we'd like to believe, they're not skin deep. There's a reason they were built in to the phone to begin with. They sometimes require new interface elements, shared features between apps, and new APIs that aren't part of the standard Android experience.
In the early days, some of these were critical features that Android has since included. Now that Android covers most of the basics, though, Google, HTC and Motorola are able to release their own pack of services and APIs via the Play Store that enable their other apps to function.
These service packs act as a toolkit for other apps. Much of the functionality that would be built into the firmware of a phone can be distributed this way, which is what allows bundled apps to be distributed separately. For example, here's a list of just a few of the things that Google Play Services includes:
- Game achievements and multiplayer functions.
- Account authentication.
- Maps and location services.
- Notification sync services.
- Cloud sync of app data.
If this list doesn't make sense to you, that's OK. These services are for developers! What it means for you is that when you see Google Maps data inside an app, when you clear a notification on your tablet and it disappears from your phone, or when you get an achievement in Play Games, the developer used Play Services to get it done. Shared functions that would otherwise have to be built into your phone's firmware can be placed in service packs.
The result is that now, experiences are portable. Just about any device can get pretty close to stock Android just by installing a few apps. Not only that, but HTC has said that it plans to bring its trademark BlinkFeed launcher to other devices. In short, your HTC One can run stock Google apps, and your Nexus 5 could potentially run HTC-branded services. It's like a smartphone gift of the magi.
This isn't limited to manufacturers either. While the attempt was not very popular, Facebook tried to introduce its own launcher/user interface in a very similar fashion. Facebook Home replaced your home screen and lock screen, plus a modified notification system solely for Facebook pings. This was announced alongside a phone dedicated to the platform that didn't take off, but many more people were able to try it out because it was released to the Play Store.
Of course, it's a little hard to get excited about these alternative experiences if they're clunky or awkward. While Sense and Facebook Home had their fans, it's safe to say that stock Android is still the favourite. However, by unbundling these experiences from hardware, users can swap between them without having to root their device and flash a ROM, and everything from app updates to new firmware rollouts happen faster because they're not bogging each other down.
Lest we get ahead of ourselves and think that we've entered a glorious new era of skin-free devices and consumer choice, it's important to note that unbundling software from handsets doesn't fix everything. For starters, just because HTC separates its services out doesn't mean it won't come on your device. You'll just have the option of installing something different.
Additionally, hardware drivers, system-level APIs, and certain other software will still need to be distributed via OTA updates, which keeps things slow. Plus, having some apps available isn't the same as having an entire ROM with a particular skin. While Google is the best at making its software available on non-Google/Nexus devices, you still can't download apps like the stock camera or calculator to any old phone. And Samsung, the biggest Android manufacturer, is not pursuing this path right now.
Nonetheless, this is still better than the alternative. The more software distributed via the Play Store, the less it slows down updates. And the more of these apps and services that are distributed as separate entities, the more users can pick and choose which ones they like best without having to wed themselves to a single manufacturer. It's a long road to that golden utopia, but this is a good start.