Company / division: Android
At its Build developer conference earlier this year, Microsoft laid out a vision for an ecosystem that would bridge its first party Windows operating system running on PCs and a variety of software experiences running on the two major mobile platforms, iOS and Android. At the time, it wasn’t entirely clear how that would work, and on iOS in particular there are major barriers to third parties providing deep integration. But it was a novel concept, and intended to offer an alternative to Apple’s hardware-based ecosystem lock-in and Google’s software-and-services-layer lockin by combining some of the best of both while offering more neutrality and flexibility.
Today, Microsoft announced two new mobile products intended to further that vision: a version of its Edge browser for iOS and Android, and an Android launcher that builds on an earlier, subtler effort. The Edge browser offers integration with the PC version, in a manner very similar to what Chrome and Safari already offer when used across platforms. The launcher, meanwhile, takes advantage of Android’s flexibility to integrate third party experiences directly into the operating system and offers some clever integrations for hopping between Android and PC experiences. This is the closest Microsoft is going to come in the near term (or probably ever) to having its own platform on mobile again, though of course it’s absent on iOS. Although Apple obviously offers tight integration between Macs and iPhones, the vast majority of the iPhone base doesn’t own a Mac, and many use PCs for work, school, or in their personal lives, so there’s clearly a need here Apple itself hasn’t worked all that hard to meet. That opportunity is likely even larger on Android, where an even higher portion of the base uses a Windows PC. These are early steps, and they certainly don’t execute on the vision Microsoft laid out at Build in its entirety, but it’s a good start.
★ Google Announces Pixel 2 Smartphones (Oct 4, 2017)
I’m breaking up Google’s announcements today into several chunks, starting with the Pixel smartphones it revealed here. Much was already known about these new devices, starting with external images and some of the features, but there were some details such as pricing and availability, as well as one or two additional features which were more of a surprise, as well as the marketing and positioning, which is always one of the most important parts of these launches but which doesn’t leak ahead of time. What we got from Google was a pretty confident launch, building on last year’s decent start, and emphasizing even more than last year the software and AI capabilities behind what the phone can do, while de-emphasizing the hardware itself, which got fairly short shrift. That reflects Google’s relative strengths and weaknesses in this space, but it forces it to ignore the big hardware advancements being made in things like dual cameras, 3D depth perception, wireless charging, and so on, which have been themes in other flagship phone launches this year.
Last year’s Pixels suffered from four big challenges: firstly, the phones were competitive but not notably better than other phones on the market in any key ways; secondly, Google’s marketing was handicapped by targeting the iPhone whereas the most likely buyers are existing Android owners; thirdly, devices were in short supply; and lastly, distribution was limited, with just Verizon as a US carrier partner. This year’s phone looks a little stronger relative to the competition, but not enormously so given the big advances from the other major players. From a marketing perspective, we’ll have to wait and see what Google does as the time of launch approaches, but I’m not holding my breath for anything dramatically better or different relative to last year. There was at least one reference to short supply by Google hardware exec Rick Osterloh at today’s event and so I’m guessing it’ll fix that this year. But distribution remains limited to Verizon in the US, which is a baffling choice given how much Google is pouring into this hardware effort – why go to all that fuss and expense in making hardware that three quarters of US smartphone buyers won’t even consider?
All told, I’d expect this year’s phones to sell better than last year’s, but not nearly as much as if they’d launched on all four carriers as they should have. That should leave other premium Android OEMs breathing a big sigh of relief, because it means Pixel 2 won’t even be a consideration for most of their buyers. This marks two straight years of Google making somewhat puzzling strategic choices with regard to the Pixel launch, something I wrote in depth about last year.
Alongside this week’s big Amazon hardware announcements, it’s apparently made a quieter announcement too: the launch of Fire OS 6, the latest version of the company’s fork of the Android operating system, which is used on Fire TV and Fire tablets. This new version is based on Android 7.1.2, which was the last version of Android 7 to be released before this year’s launch of Android 8 / Oreo a few weeks back. So although it definitely brings Fire OS more up to date than the previous Lollipop/Marshmallow-based version, it’s still about a year behind in terms of core Android features. It’s not yet clear when Fire OS 6 might come to Amazon’s tablet lineup, or which Android features it might bring with it, but it’s a good reminder that Amazon still bases some of its most important products on a proprietary flavor of Android, yet another front in the coopetition between Google and Amazon.
via Android Police
If there are two big recent trends in voice assistants, they’re control of music and control of TVs. Every major company in this space is making announcements about these two areas, with Amazon adding voice control to its music apps and then Alexa to its new Fire TV box, Apple preparing the music-centric HomePod for launch, and Sonos prepping an event next week which is also likely to be music-oriented. In that context, then, it’s no surprise that the latest set of devices to get Google Assistant support are those running Android TV, of which there are currently very few, notably the gaming-centric Nvidia Shield and Sony’s Bravia TV sets. The Nvidia Shield support was actually announced way back at CES in January if I recall correctly, but support is only rolling out now. More broadly, Apple TV and Amazon’s Fire TV already support voice control, while there’s also an Alexa integration with DISH’s satellite service, and Comcast offers its own native voice control through its remotes, so this is becoming table stakes for a TV interface. The specific voice functions Android TV supports seem roughly on par with those offered on other platforms, though perhaps a bit more limited.
Moto X4 Brings Android One to the US and Google’s Project Fi (Sep 20, 2017)
I noted a couple of weeks back with the launch of Xiaomi’s first Android One device that the project appeared to have morphed from a low-tier emerging markets play to one focused more on the mid market, and today’s news reinforces that perception. Motorola is launching its Moto X4 device into the US market as part of the Android One project, and this $400 phone will be available on Google’s own Project Fi service as an alternative to the Nexus and Pixel phones it’s offered until now. (The Nexus phones Google has offered are, by the way, currently showing as out of stock on the Project Fi site, suggesting they’re likely to get phased out with the launch of new Pixel devices in a couple of weeks.) The Android One version isn’t the only one Motorola offers – as I noted when it was announced, the main version actually comes with Alexa baked in, something the Google version certainly won’t do. All of this is indicative of Motorola’s falling leverage with carriers, and its need to do deals with other market players to parcel up its phones in different ways to find attractive niches.
Google’s Android One project for emerging markets was launched in 2014, and focused on countries in the Indian subcontinent and other parts of Asia. But it’s appeared to be struggling, with little recent positive news from vendors supporting it in those countries. In addition, at its I/O developer conference this year Google announced a project internally called Android Go, which is focused on optimizing Android for low-cost devices and therefore seemed to be in somewhat the same vein. But the funny thing about Android One is that’s it’s been morphing somewhat from a project for the low end of the Android market to one more targeted at the mid market. There have been several Android One phones through Sharp in Japan since mid-2016, and now Xiaomi is announcing a device. which seems at least in part targeted at India.
The most interesting thing about Xiaomi as a partner is the fact that it’s always majored on its proprietary UI – MIUI – as a differentiator for its devices, and it’s arguably that the fairly locked-down Android One was intended at least in part as a response to Android OEMs’ customizations, so this is certainly a departure for Xiaomi. As with the Japanese phones, though, this one is also targeted at the mid-market, selling for a little over $200, with 80% of handsets sold in India below $200. So it’s a poor fit for the original focus of the Android One project, which is arguably now being taken over by the Android Go initiative, but indicative of what Android One is evolving into. The big question is whether the device will actually sell, given that a Xiaomi phone without MIUI is a tougher sell and there are plenty of other cheaper Android phones in the countries the companies are targeting with this one. There’s certainly no guarantee Android One does any better in India at $200 plus than it did at $100.
Google today announced ARCore, an equivalent to Apple’s ARKit tools for developers to create AR experiences on Android phones. Importantly, it’s not tied to the latest version of the Android operating system but rather is being implemented on a device-by-device basis, with Google’s own Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy S8 the first devices to support it, with the latter running Nougat rather than Oreo. There are two ways to look at this announcement, given the timing: on the one hand, it looks like a response to ARKit and the massive positive buzz that’s received since it was announced in June; on the other, it’s a natural outgrowth of the work Google’s done with its much higher end Tango AR framework in the last few years, and that’s certainly how Google’s pitching it. I think the reality given the speed with which this has been released is that this was something Google was working on pre-ARKit but has accelerated in light of the ARKit launch.
Its blog post headline is “Augmented reality at Android scale” and you can read that one of two ways: on the one hand, as a counterpoint to ARKit, which runs at the somewhat smaller iOS scale, but on the other as an acknowledgement that – interesting though Tango is as a platform – it was never going to achieve true Android scale. The rollout plans here are a little vague – Google hopes its “preview” of ARCore will hit 100 million devices sometime this winter, which is likely a fraction of the iOS devices that will support ARKit by that time, but there’s potential for broad rollout of this platform to most recent premium Android devices over the next couple of years. That’s likely short of true Android scale (2 billion plus phones) but would likely hit the devices where it’s most relevant, which are those that compete more directly with the iPhone, though Apple will enjoy a year or two of significantly greater adoption before Android starts to catch up.
At this point, it’s hard to see Tango as anything other than a time-consuming and expensive failure in its own right, but it’s clearly allowed Google to learn a lot which can now be applied to ARCore and therefore be much more useful and widely available. Between Apple and Google’s launches, it’s clearer than ever that smartphone AR will be by far the largest chunk of the overall AR/VR spectrum, and we should see some really interesting implementations over the next few months.
Android Police has a review of the Asus ZenFone AR, the second phone to carry Google’s Tango augmented reality technology. It sounds like it’s a big improvement over the clunky first phone from Lenovo, but it certainly doesn’t sound like it’ll be a big seller, while Tango itself doesn’t sound like it’s moved on much either. The review is worth noting because Google has been in AR for far longer than Apple, and yet Tango seems to have stalled at the experimental phase, with lots of effort from Google and yet very little to show for it. Two phones, neither of which will end up selling in large numbers, very few apps and essentially no meaningful position in AR just at a time when the space is about to take off thanks to Apple’s entry through ARKit in iOS. That’s something of an indictment of Google’s failure in this area, with its Daydream VR effort faring a little better but also not yet finding a sizable market niche to call its own. One other thing to note from the review here: it sounds like Tango absolutely hammers battery life on this device, and that’s something that will be well worth watching when ARKit-based apps launch on the iPhone in September. Pokemon Go has already taught us that apps featuring AR (and location-based elements) can be hard on batteries and still be popular, but it will detract from AR’s popularity on the iPhone if ARKit apps show a comparable tradeoff in battery life.
via Android Police
The Verge seems to have secured the first of two exclusive looks at Android founder Andy Rubin’s new phone, from his company Essential (Recode’s Code Conference will have an interview with Rubin tonight where I’d expect him to share more). So far, there’s nothing about the software, beyond the assumption that it’ll run Android. So the focus is entirely on the hardware design, including the materials, connectors, and a theoretical ecosystem of modular add-ons (for now, there’s just one: a 360° camera). The reporting on this is all a little breathless – Andy Rubin has quite a reputation and anything he launches will be accorded a fair measure of respect. But the pitch here feels so much like almost every other new entrant in the market, a mix of straw man arguments about the current state of the market, grandiose claims about how all that will change, ambitions to build an ecosystem without any evidence that any other player is interested, and nothing at all about distribution, which continues to be the key question in the US smartphone market. We’ll hopefully know a little more by tonight, but I’m extremely skeptical that this phone will do any better than any other recent attempt to change the smartphone market. In the meantime, that won’t stop this project from getting tons of positive media attention in the run-up to an actual launch sometime later this year. It’s worth noting that beyond the phone there are some other bits and pieces too, including a smart home OS and speaker with a screen, but again the details are so short and claims so grand that I’m inclined to ignore them until we actually know something specific about them.
via The Verge