2015 in review: The year in Android

From Android Auto, to Stagefright, to BlackBerry entering the fold, we look back at the year in Android.

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Credit: Rob Schultz

It’s been a long and eventful year in the Android world. We may not have experienced a major interface overhaul like we did with Lollipop, but with all the constant device releases, it’s been a particularly busy year.

Google also spent the year with a renewed focus on reclaiming Android. Companies like Samsung, LG, and Motorola still drive Android’s sales numbers around the globe, but it’s still Google that drives the direction of the platform. Here’s a look back at the events and releases that shaped Android in 2015.

Android Wear comes of age

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Android Wear watches have gotten real slick this last year.

Last year was slim pickings for Android Wear watches. We were limited to a bulky, masculine-looking smartwatch made for bigger wrists, or nothing at all. But this year Android Wear saw the introduction of more choice. Now, you can choose a stylish smartwatch that matches you taste from manufactures like LG, Huawei, Asus, and Fossil. Motorola also let you customize your second-generation Moto 360, and there’s even a size made for ladies.

Android Wear received a ton of software updates this year, too, making it the best it’s ever been. We’re still waiting to hear what the deal is with Android Wear’s standalone cellular abilities, however. The LG Urbane 2nd Edition LTE was supposed to be the first Android Device to sport its own LTE connection, but LG pulled it from the shelves because of hardware issues.

One thing’s for sure: if you wanna try on a smartwatch, Google has plenty of variety to choose from—and now they work with the iPhone, too.

The first batch of Android Auto cars come to dealerships

Like I said in my Android Auto review: I love Android and I love driving, so I was particularly excited when I had the chance to review one of the first batch of 2015 Hyundai Sonatas with Android Auto baked in.

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Cruisin’ in a Hyundai Sonata with Android Auto.

Android Auto is not perfect by any means—it still needs a bigger library of compatible apps, not to mention more functionality—but Google’s put enough work into it thus far that it’s one of the better in-car navigation systems available. You can check which of the car companies have signed on here, or check out one of Pioneer’s aftermarket units.

Android TV...exists?

We’re still sort of confused about Android TV. It exists, but not as prominently as Google’s other Android ventures. We tried to clear up some confusion this year on what Android TV actually is and how you can get it. It comes with some new televisions and set-top boxes, like the Nexus Player and the Nvidia Shield. But it’s still a bit of a mystery. Even our sister site wonders if Android TV is really headed anywhere.

Introducing Project Fi, the Google carrier

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Project Fi turned out to be a hit in some ways.

We weren’t expecting Google to launch its own carrier this year, but lo and behold, Project Fi exists. After months of rumors, Project Fi arrived with promises of fast data in more places, and better connections to Wi-Fi. Google teamed with Sprint and T-Mobile to offer the service as an MVNO, and basic plans start at $30 for 1GB of data. Google also just recently announced that you can share your Project Fi data on with a cellular-enabled tablet device, including Apple’s iPad. We’re not sure what Google’s up to with Project Fi in the long run, but for now there’s a cost-effective option from the same company that makes your smartphone. Unfortunately, it's only available for recent Nexus devices.

Mobile payments become more ubiquitous

I had quite the experience learning to use Android Pay and Samsung Pay this year. To recap, Android Pay uses the existing NFC chip in your phone, while Samsung Pay can use NFC and also Magnetic Secure Transmission (MST), which Samsung acquired when it bought LoopPay earlier this year.

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Android Pay works wherever NFC is accepted.

But even though retailers have come on board with mobile payments, it’s still not the utopian ideal it’s been made out to be. After my experience testing out both of these mobile payment services, I still find myself whipping out my wallet to complete the transaction. Regardless, both Google and Samsung are doing a lot of marketing to educate the public about each service, including offering incentives to pay with your smartphone.

Google imposes monthly security updates

You know how they say that, sometimes, bad things happen for a reason? The Stagefright vulnerability that plagued Android users over the summer was awful, but it ultimately lead to more cooperation and faster security updates from both Google and device manufacturers. Frequent updates doesn’t necessarily translate to less software fragmentation among Android devices, but at the very least you don’t have to live in fear of the next major security issue.

More executive shuffling

Google crowned Sundar Pichai, former head of Android and Chrome OS, as its CEO. The move was meant to help create “less of a bottleneck” for Pichai. His position was eventually filled by Hiroshi Lockheimer, who now presides as the Senior Vice President for Android, Chrome OS, and Chromecast. 

Soon after the news of Pichai’s promotion, Google announced a restructuring of its business as multiple companies under one umbrella corporation. Alphabet now serves as an umbrella brand for its subsidiaries, which include Google, Calico, GV, Google Capital, Google X, Google Fiber, and Nest Labs. 

Android Marshmallow goes transparent

Look, I’m not saying that Android 6.0 Marshmallow is particularly exemplary or anything like that, but it is a really significant update, and it finally brings to Android users what we’ve been clamoring for all along: transparency.

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Android Marshmallow brings with it more transparency to Android users.

Unlike Lollipop, which focused on delivering a new aesthetic and way of using Android, Marshmallow is more about giving you some control over what's going on under the hood. The software update allows you to tinker with the permissions for almost every application installed. Marshmallow also features the first iteration of Google’s Now on Tap, as well as Doze, which is a serious battery life saver.

Android N is up next on the horizon. We’ll probably hear about that at Google I/O in the spring time, though the Pixel C team has hinted that the next version of Android will have much better tablet optimization. (I certainly hope so.) 

A big year for Cardboard

I still get dizzy when I use virtual reality, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally indulge in some time with Cardboard, Google’s cheap and affordable virtual reality viewer.

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The cheap little thing is actually a lot of fun.

Google really wants it to catch on. At its developer conference earlier this year, the company announced a software kit that would bring Cardboard apps to more devices, like the iPhone. It also showed showed off a 360-degree camera with 16 GoPros rigged to it for filming videos specifically to be viewed with Cardboard. And, it introduced Google Expeditions, which gives school kids their own Cardboard so that they can take virtual field trips along with their classroom. The New York Times, Verizon, and Adult Swim have also all offered up their own versions of Cardboard, and now you can even make your own personal virtual reality video. There’s no doubt we’ll see plenty more apps and experiences for Cardboard coming in the new year.

Blackberry jumps ship to Android

Admittedly, when I heard that BlackBerry would be using Android as its operating system instead of its own BlackBerry 10, I laughed. Loudly, even. I didn’t believe it was possible for BlackBerry to make an Android device that was worthwhile.

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The BlackBerry Priv is actually not a bad Android device...

But I was proven wrong, and the BlackBerry Priv really is a solid smartphone. The Priv has even sold out on numerous occasions—though that’s more likely due to the fact that retailers were underestimating how it would perform, and thus didn’t order enough units to put on their shelves. Regardless, BlackBerry’s first entry into the Android sphere is an impressive, if somewhat expensive, phone. Let’s see if it can make an even better version two.

Android cameras grow up

This year, Android manufacturers made photography a priority. Companies like Samsung, LG, and even Motorola wised up by stuffing better, more capable rear-facing—and front-facing!—cameras into their phones, with better software to match. 

This wasn’t the case last year, or even the year before, where it seemed that photography was the last thing an Android phone maker paid mind to. But now, you can prop up a device like the LG V10 on a smartphone tripod and take long exposure shots that look fantastic, and the iPhone no longer holds the crown as the de facto best camera experience.

Android One is a let down

Android One, which was announced at Google I/O 2014, was meant to bring Android to the masses in emerging markets like India and South America. But despite optimistic sales numbers, the affordable Android program is struggling to gain much traction. 

Google isn’t giving up, however. It’s still investing time in developing software like offline modes for Google Maps and YouTube in an effort to line up with the needs of these sometimes data-poor countries. Sundar Pichai also continues to underline how important it is for Android to make it in countries like India. He is confident that “in 2016, there will be more Android users in India than in the US.” Whether that will translate to sales numbers is another thing entirely. Android One still faces stiff competition overseas.

Nexus devices rule everything around me

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Nexus 5X or Nexus 6P? It’s hard to choose between the two best Nexus devices ever made.

2015 was definitely the year of the Nexus device. Not only did Google announce two new Nexus smartphones this year—the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X—but they’re both the near-perfect embodiment of what a stock Android phone should be.

We’ve yet to see much from Google in terms of its tablet trajectory, however. The Pixel C has finally materialized, but we’re not entirely sure what it’s meant for. Is it for productivity, or is it just a really decent Android tablet? We’ll likely see more of that vision in the next year.

I’ve noticed Google putting more stock into marketing and advertising for its Nexus devices, and I don’t remember the company ever appealing to the common consumer this much. I constantly see commercials for Nexus phones on Hulu and on regular cable television. It’s great, and with Material Design and all the granularity of Marshmallow, Google can make a real case that a Nexus phone offers a great experience for the common consumer.

It’s no longer up to to the OEMs to drive the Android force. Google’s managed to take back the reins this year. Android’s software is the best it’s ever been. Android hardware is the best it’s ever been. I imagine that, in 2016, it’s just going to get better.

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