Why Google I/O Worries Me

Google I/O 2014 is scheduled to start in a couple of days from today. The event schedule is available here and you can see what sessions are in store. Unlike Apple’s WWDC 2014 event, the session titles are clear and none are secretive like “Shhhh, Can’t Tell You Yet”.

Since I have not looked at previous Google I/O events in detail, I have not idea whether or not the session titles give any indication of Google’s strategy. Having said that, the list of Google I/O sessions seems to have little to do with new Android APIs (or Google Play Service APIs for that matter). What I notice is that there is stuff for web developers, cloud management, wearables and cross development. There are sections devoted to Android, but they seem to be about how to leverage the current APIs, not about new ones.

I am very concerned about this because I am sensing that Android development is being deemphasized within Google. I sense that Google is not interested anymore in expanding the technical horizon of Android smartphones, and is only interested in gaining access to developing nations by making Google smooth on low-powered devices.

The basis of my concern is that Google used the “Jelly Bean” codename for three iterations starting with 4.1 in July 2012 till the introduction of 4.4 in October 2013. More significantly, Android versions have been on 4.* since “Ice Cream Sandwich” in October 2011 till the current “KitKat”. Furthermore, the main improvement in “KitKat” was not new features or new APIs; it was the fact that the new Android OS was designed to run on low-end devices with as low as 512MB of RAM. Even with “Jelly Bean”, the main attraction was “project Butter”; an attempt to make the UI as smooth and responsive as iOS. You can almost say that Google has not added significant new features or design changes to Android since October 2011 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”). A rundown of Android version history is available from Wikipedia so you can verify for yourself whether or not Android has been making large improvements recently.

At first glance, the list of Google I/O sessions seem to confirm my worry that Android is not aggressively moving forward. It seems to me that in the mid-term, Google is more interested in Android as an OS for wearables, not for smartphone. It could well be that Google considers its work on Android to be already “good enough” and therefore Google is reallocating resources to wearables.

We will learn more about this as Google I/O unfolds so it’s rather meaningless to guess Google’s intentions until we at least hear the keynote speech.

I’ll end this article by saying that if Google is indeed deemphasizing the role of Android as a leading (in functionality) platform for smartphones, the profitability of hardware OEMs will look more precarious than ever because high-end devices will lose their appeal and the replacement cycle will lengthen. I’ll also link to a post by Benedict Evans that notes a similar concern on the future stability of the Android platform.

For me, this is by far the most important thing that I want to learn from Google I/O.

As a footnote, keep in mind that iOS 8 has introduced a huge number of APIs and is arguably the largest iOS update ever. Android advocates may comment that iOS 8 is simply copying features that Android has had for years, but that is totally irrelevant. The fact is that iOS 8 is evolving faster than ever and developers are tremendously excited. Whether Android (on smartphones) decides to keep running alongside iOS or rather decides to slow down will have large future consequences.