The last few years in the world of Android news have been kind of a snooze fest. Sure, we had the usual barrage of software updates and gadget releases, but nothing seemed truly worth a standing ovation. What’s worse: it felt like Android was no longer in Google’s control, and that companies like Samsung were actually the ones that were ruling the pack. It was hard to tell who to root for.
But this year Android underwent a metamorphosis of sorts—one that was long overdue. To commemorate this event-filled year, we rounded up some of the year’s biggest news stories that helped contribute to the transformed Android ecosystem we see today.
64-bit mobile processors
Nvidia delivered a big bang at the beginning of the year when it announced the Tegra K1. A 32-bit variant eventually showed up in the Shield Tablet and Project Tango, but the 64-bit version didn’t hit until the launch of the HTC-made Nexus 9. Qualcomm began shipping 64-bit processors this year as well, but it started at the low-performance end of the stack, where it matters least. High-end 64-bit Snapdragon processors are coming early in 2015.
But 64-bit chips aren't all that's required; you need a 64-bit operating system as well, and Google delivered that with Android Lollipop, which features optimizations for the new ARMv8 64-bit standard.
The potential benefit of 64-bit in mobile processors is still unrealized, but with the processor shipping with the Nexus 9, we should start seeing more Android developers rewriting their apps to advantage of the new ARMv8 instructions.
Lenovo buys Motorola
No one saw this one coming. Lenovo, one of the top PC manufacturers in the world—and the fourth biggest smartphone maker—announced in late January that it was acquiring Motorola Mobility for $2.91 billion. The acquisition wasn’t finalized until late October, however, and we still don’t know what’s going to change for Motorola, or whether the two companies will begin to consolidate business plans. It’s likely we’ll see more evidence of this merger next year when the smartphone release cycle starts up all over again.
Google reins in Samsung and other OEMs
Around the same time as Lenovo’s Motorola acquisition, Recode reported that Google was pressuring Samsung to scale back on its Android tweaks and app bloatware. We saw the results of this apparently covert agreement later on the year when Samsung debuted a slightly pared down version of its TouchWiz Nature UX on the Galaxy S5, with the option to download all those extra apps and features that usually came already installed on its new phones. Other OEMs followed suit, like LG and HTC, and every new Android phone you buy now starts up with a more prominent “Powered by Android” logo. It’ll be interesting to see if this continues on in the new year.
Android’s side projects
Project Tango and Project Ara are both “projects” that run Android, but exist for entirely different reasons: Tango is essentially a spatially-aware device that can create a 3D map of its environment, while Ara is a modular smartphone with hot-swappable components. Both also serve as clues to where Android is headed in the future.
We’ve already seen NASA do some really neat things with Project Tango, and we’ll hear more about how Google's coming along with Project Ara at its second annual developers conference in January of next year.
BlackPhone, Cyanogen, and all those other forks
Not only was this a big year for Google’s Android, but it was also the dawn of some new Android forks. Cyanogen, BlackPhone, and even Nokia pushed forth with their own versions of the operating system based on the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) in hopes that it would capture a special subset of the market who were in search for something completely different.
But despite the prevalence of forks, there’s still a lot of work to do before they’re considered mainstream, and the bad press isn’t helping. For instance, OnePlus had a particularly rough year because of its weird sales strategy, not to mention the extremely offensive marketing campaign it tried out a few months back. As for Microsoft, it quietly put the kibosh on Nokia’s Android strategy by announcing it would shift its future plans away from products like the Nokia X. So much for that.
Whether this forking trend ever manages to become mainstream in the U.S. will depend entirely on whether the companies hawking them will be able to compete against Android’s main acts. One thing is for sure: we’ll likely see plenty more of these forks crop up in the new year.
It turns out that Google Glass wasn’t the extent of Google’s wearables strategy. Android Wear’s debut in March proved that Google had more plans up its sleeve.
The best part of Android Wear is that, like the Android operating system for phones, it’s open to manufacturers to build all kinds of different watches. That’s why you can now buy smartwatches from the likes of Samsung, Sony, LG, Motorola, and even Asus.
Google I/O 2014
June was a big month for Android. Google made a gaggle of announcements during the annual Google I/O keynote. Including:
Android One: Android One was announced as Sundar Pichai’s vision for Android in emerging markets. Rather than let all the OEMs distribute less-than-stellar custom versions of Android based on AOSP, Google would work with partners to release inexpensive phones running stock Android, complete with all the usual Google services. A variety of manufacturers, including Asus, HTC, and Lenovo, have all opted into Android One program, which also guarantees consistent software updates for up to two years.
Android 5.0 Lollipop: We didn’t learn its full name until its launch in October, but Lollipop is turning out to be one of the biggest—and best—Android version releases ever. Of special note is the dramatic interface overhaul that reimagines the dark "Holo" interface into something bright and colorful. Our review of the software walks through some of its new, ambitious features.
Android Auto: We weren’t exaggerating when we said Google I/O was the biggest thing to happen to Android this year. Google also announced Android Auto during the conference to get automakers on board with its new “Android on everything” strategy.
It’s exceptionally easy to use: all you have to do is literally plug your phone into a compatible car entertainment system. More than 25 car brands have signed on to include Android Auto in the future, with more likely to come. Thus far, we’ve only seen it in action inside a Honda Civic and a Hyundai Sonata, though Android Auto is still in beta.
Android TV: Android TV was a bit of a surprise, since Google’s all but abandoned whatever its plans were for Google TV. Android TV was announced as its replacement and the company hopes it’ll not only help bring Google’s apps and services to your living room, but that it’ll also make it easier for developers to make apps for the TV screen. It will eventually be found built in to TVs and set top boxes, but you can try Android TV right now by bringing home a Nexus Player.
Material Design is Android’s new design standard and I like to call it “Android all grown up.” Google’s suite of apps now all have matching interfaces and bold color palettes, while other third-party Android apps are slowly following suit. And while it debuted at Google I/O, Material Design deserves its own section precisely because it was such a big part of Android’s transformation this year.
We covered much of Material Design’s changes in our Lollipop review. Google is still tweaking its apps to adhere to these new standards, and it seems like every other week is now devoted to interface and feature tweaks for apps like Hangouts and Google+. Other developers are starting to roll out updates to make their apps look and act in a fashion that fits the Material Design standards, and as a result, our Android phones are starting to look, feel, and behave in a more logical and consistent fashion.
Executive shuffling all around
Google did some major executive shuffling this year, though not all who departed were directly affiliated with the Android team.
Let’s start with Sundar Pichai: he started this year as the head honcho of both the Chrome OS and Android divisions, and now he’s the Head of Product at Google, in charge of Android, Chrome, and Google Apps. The move was a result of Google’s fear that its spectrum of products will feel less innovative over time. With Pichai at the helm it’ll be interesting to see how Google grows both its software and product ecosystem.
The next big shakeup was Andy Rubin’s departure. Rubin was originally a co-founder and former leader of Google’s Android division, though he migrated over to the Google X robotics team later on in his career with the company. His departure was a bit of a surprise, though Google promised that it would continue on with its robotics division despite the staffing change.
Lastly, Vic Gundotra left the Google+ team for new horizons. His departure had many of us wondering what the future holds for Google+. We’re still waiting to hear on that as—let’s be honest here—Google hasn’t really done much with the social network since his departure.
Android is still king
Despite the major changes and shakeups, Android is still on top of the charts worldwide. More than a billion Android handsets are expected to ship by the end of this year, according to IDC analysts. That’s about 82.3 percent of the smartphone market—an amazing percentage.
2014 could be labeled as the year that Google shifted its Android strategy. It’s still about spraying the market with devices, and accommodating its developers with all the tools they need, but it’s also about presenting a unified front.
We’re still curious to see how all the third-party OEMs will deal with the changes and whether the multitude of forked devices will gain any traction in the new year. Be sure to follow along with us in 2015.