In the final part of our 8-part History of Android series (for now), we see how Google transformed into Alphabet, Android pushed forth mobile photography, and how a flurry of upstarts changed the game in the mid-range.
As we conclude our Android History series, we look back on the past twelve months -- a time of big changes for Google and the smartphone industry, as we set the stage for the Android of 2016.
The first age of Android saw Google's OS attain popularity on smartphones in its early days. The second age took that approach to the next level, with a coherent design language and a move into tablets. Now, as we approach the end of 2015, it is the dawn of the third age of Android.
In the final installment of our Android History series -- for now -- we'll dive deep into Android's third age. As smartphone hardware starts to plateau, we'll see how important new mid-range devices stole the show, and how Android cameras at the high end proved the potential of mobile photography. And in a transformative year for Google, we'll look at the company's journey towards being a mobile operator with Project Fi, as well as its re-organization under the "Alphabet" conglomerate and new Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Read on to find out where it's all headed...
In the grand scheme of its 87-year history, Motorola wasn't "a Google company" for very long. Just a couple of years after it was gobbled up by Mountain View, Motorola Mobility joined Chinese computer maker Lenovo as part of a $2.91 billion deal -- a deal which saw Google retain much of Moto's vital smartphone patent portfolio.
For Google, offloading the loss-making manufacturer in this way allowed it to retain its patent defense against Apple and others, while no longer directly competing with its many Android hardware partners. Lenovo effectively bought Western (specifically, U.S.) market share and brand awareness, which saw it hop a few places up to the spot of third-largest smartphone maker in the world.
Google kept its patents, Lenovo bought its way to a place as number-three global smartphone manufacturer.
It always takes at least a couple of years for the dust to settle on deals like this, and for high-level changes to become reflected in brands and their products. Nevertheless, the early signs are that Lenovo doesn't want to mess with Motorola's generally well-received device portfolio.
As Motorola design chief Jim Wicks told Android Central in an interview for this series:
"I think what has been nice of Lenovo is in these initial stages that they've said "keep doing that, keep doing that." That's why we've seen the mobile business [of Lenovo] basically come under Moto as a whole. There's an embracing of the Moto brand and how we drive that, and have a real clear kinda dual-brand strategy between Moto and then the Lenovo by-products. So I think that's been a really nice evolution."
"And I think the thing that is also really refreshing is that Lenovo is a product company, it's a hardware company. There's an amazing cloud business in China, there's a server business in Asia... but they live products, they're about products. And so there's a common language there that is proving to be very effective in terms of how we come together."
For its part, Lenovo has told us the same. During group meeting sessions at the company's first TechWorld event in Beijing in May 2015, Lenovo executives repeatedly stated their enthusiasm for "pure Android" as a differentiator for the Moto brand.
There've been some hiccups this year with software updates for some phones, but the overall strategy for Moto appears much the same as under Google. Just how will that change over time, especially with Motorola now taking a lead role in the development of Lenovo smartphones? That remains to be seen.
64-bit lights a fire under Qualcomm
Apple's introduction of a 64-bit processor in the iPhone 5s caused something of a knee-jerk reaction from Qualcomm, which responded by accelerating its own 64-bit chip development. The Snapdragon 810 was sold as something superior to the (32-bit) Snapdragon 805 processor that powered the previous generation of flagship phones, but the rush job led to some serious issues with phones running early versions of the chip. Heat-related throttling dealt nearly irreparable damage to the chip's reputation in the eyes of many fans, who opted to shy away from the HTC One M9 and LG G Flex 2 due to reports of sluggish behavior and a damning heat test video conducted on pre-production HTC software.
Heat-related throttling dealt nearly irreparable damage to the 810's reputation in the eyes of many fans.
Over the next couple of months, every manufacturer using Snapdragon 810 worked double-time to convince would-be customers that these early issues were sorted out and that there were no performance problems. But at the same time competing manufacturers like LG and Motorola shifted to the hexa-core Snapdragon 808 instead, a chip that had suffered none of the heat-related negativity and seemed to offer the same performance as was originally promised with the Snapdragon 810.
It wasn't until Google's partnered with Qualcomm to put Snapdragon 810 in the Nexus 6P, promising noticeable performance improvements from prior 810 phones, that early adopters started taking this chipset seriously again. Perhaps the most unfortunate detail from all of this controversy was the way concern that phones would become physically hot from normal use plagued every conversation surrounding this chip, to say nothing of Qualcomm's inability to demonstrate actual performance benefits over the Snapdragon 805 in a vast majority of phones released 2015.
With more efficient manufacturing processes and custom-designed 64-bit cores from Qualcomm coming in 2016, the chip giant will be hoping that Snapdragon 820 will draw a line under a tumultuous year in the high-end space.
Project Fi: Google becomes a carrier
After years of rumors and speculation, Google finally decided to enter the mobile carrier game in the U.S., and did so in a unique and characteristically Google way with the launch of Project Fi in April 2015. But there was no big launch event or fanfare -- Google launched the product with a simple blog post and set of YouTube videos.
Google's much-hyped mobile network actually ran on capacity leased from T-Mobile and Sprint.
This wasn't quite a realization of a longheld Google fanboy fantasy — the dream of Google actually buying up cell towers around the country to operate a full network on its own around. Instead, Project Fi took a much more pragmatic route to market — it basically operated as an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) by leasing capacity from T-Mobile and Sprint.
This enables your phone to switch between both for the best coverage and data speeds, while Google kept things under a single phone number using Google Voice and Hangouts.
The "Fi" in Project Fi hints at one of the biggest features of the carrier — its ability to lean on Wi-Fi whenever possible. A new system app called "Wi-Fi Assistant" could (with your permission) automatically connect to any completely open Wi-Fi network, saving your precious mobile data. While on any Wi-Fi network you could call and text using that connection, including the ability to seamlessly hand off between Wi-Fi and cellular networks.
Not revolutionary, but simple and affordable.
The pricing wasn't completely revolutionary, but it was dead simple and generally affordable. $20 per month for calls, texts and account services, plus $10 per gigabyte of data no matter how much you use. Any data you paid for but didn't use was always refunded the next month, and there were no situations in which you could incur overage charges. The same went for international data, which was simply charged at the same $10 per gigabyte rate. A simple way to think about using your phone, plus the added victory of no longer going to one of the big carriers every month.
At launch, Fi only worked on Google's Nexus 6, which at the time of launch was its most recent Nexus phone. The Nexus 6 wasn't a phone with universal appeal, but things got really interesting when the Nexus 5X and 6P launched later in the year with Project Fi compatibility out of the box. Now we had three Nexus phones to choose from, along with a really compelling and affordable carrier choice directly from Google.
Even as 2015 came to a close, eight months after the launch of Project Fi, the service still required an invite to join. (It's still a "Project," after all.) Though invites had opened up considerably and were easier to come by on certain open enrollment days, Google seems content to grow Fi at a metered pace.
In the long term things are sure to open up, as Google moves from simply dipping its toe into the U.S. carrier space to making a full-on play to steal customers from the big incumbents.
Samsung is reborn in metal and glass
In late 2014, we got a glimpse of the future direction of Samsung's Galaxy smartphones, breaking away from cheap plastic with a metal-trimmed Galaxy Note 4. It seemed like a great step forward for Samsung at the time — but little did we know that we'd see a full revamp of its product strategy with the launch of the Galaxy S6 in March of 2015.
After three years of iterative updates with the Galaxy S line, Samsung blew the doors off of with a completely revamped device, launching the Galaxy S6 at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. The new phone resembled previous Galaxy S phones in rough shape and size, but that's about where the similarities ended.
Samsung finally ditched the plastic — completely.
Samsung finally ditched the plastic. The Galaxy S6 was constructed from a solid metal frame that ran around the entire exterior and through the center of the phone, sandwiched between two solid panels of Gorilla Glass 4 and punctuated by a handful of great color choices. The trademark Samsung home button remained, but it now contained a great one-touch fingerprint sensor. And what looked to be similar TouchWiz software of old at first glance turned out to be a scaled-back and simplified version of the operating system. Samsung used the Galaxy S6 to firmly plant its flag at the top of the heap in display quality, with a gorgeous 5.1-inch Quad HD Super AMOLED display. The camera was a fresh 16MP unit that turned out to be one of the best phone cameras, Android or otherwise, of the year.
Somewhat curiously Samsung also decided to launch the Galaxy S6 edge simultaneously, which was identical in every way to the "standard" GS6, but with a screen that curved sharply off of the left and right sides. Breaking away from the poor response to the original Galaxy Note Edge, the GS6 edge was sold as a more stylish and aspirational model of the GS6 with just a few neat software features and some extra visual appeal for those who wanted something different. And as we saw later in the year with the Galaxy S6 edge+, it turned out to be popular enough to warrant a sequel.
The completely fresh direction in design was welcomed by most, but it also necessitated two big changes — the loss of a removable battery and expandable SD card storage. These were major tentpole features of Samsung's earlier devices, loved and bragged about amongst Android enthusiasts — and now Samsung put its foot down to claim they weren't important enough to warrant the engineering compromises they demanded.
The changes weren't just skin deep. The GS6 brought wireless charging as standard, along with Exynos processors running the show.
More than just fresh takes on hardware and software design, the Galaxy S6 marked a few major changes to Samsung's overall strategy. The Galaxy S6 and S6 edge included both leading wireless charging standards — Qi and Powermat — after years of requiring extra accessories for wireless charging. The phones were also powered by Samsung's own Exynos processor in every model worldwide, breaking away from the use of Qualcomm's chips in many previous generations.
And when it came time for a new device in the Note line toward the end of the year, it came as no surprise that Samsung simply leveraged this new design strategy for the Galaxy Note 5 (and upscaled GS6 edge+). Both phones took the full DNA of the Galaxy S6 and simply scaled up to a 5.7-inch screen, adding some extra capabilities by way of more RAM, an S Pen stylus and a few subtle design flourishes. With all four new flagship phones out in the world, 2015 ended up being the year that Samsung turned in a completely new direction from its past products.
The golden age of Android photography
Until relatively recently, it's been hard to nail down an Android phone with a really great camera. Some might perform well in daylight, others in low light. Some might excel in macro shots, others at high-speed captures of kids and pets. Overall, Sony Mobile's 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS sensor, first used in the Xperia Z1, was among the best available for the longest time. But Sony's phones were largely an afterthought in the U.S., which was dominated by Samsung and Apple.
Towards the end of 2014, the state of Android cameras started to change, largely thanks to a couple of important releases from the two big Korean phone makers. LG shipped the G3 in mid-2014 with an optically stabilized 13-megapixel camera, backed up by a new laser autofocus system. A few months later, Samsung gave us the best Android camera of 2014 in the Note 4 -- a beastly new 16-megapixel Sony sensor was combined with OIS and Qualcomm's image processing capabilities.
While both companies had done a good enough job with phone cameras in the past, the G3 and Note 4 represented a turning point for Android cameras. They were the first to produce not only passable images most of the time, but really great photos almost all of the time.
When you put a fully-fledged digital imaging solution in a smartphone, the main constraint is size.
When you're putting a fully-fledged digital imaging solution in something as small as a smartphone, the main constraint is size. That means pixels on image sensors -- the hardware that detects light and turns it into a digital image -- have to be pretty small. The only problem with doing that is small pixels absorb less light, so low-light performance can suffer.
There are a few ways around this. First you can put bigger pixels on your sensor -- that's what HTC has done with its Ultrapixel cameras, and why Google's 2015 flagship, the Nexus 6P, is so good at taking photos in the dark. The other solution is to use a standard high-resolution sensor but add optical stabilization (OIS). OIS lets you keep the shutter open for longer, capturing a brighter image. This won't help you shoot moving subjects in the dark, but for relatively still scenes, it works well. That's what LG and Samsung were able to reliably achieve in 2014. And the result, particularly in the case of the Note 4, was a camera that was able to outperform Apple's iPhone in many scenarios.
In 2015, Samsung stepped things up further, putting the same Sony IMX240 sensor from the Note 4 behind a brighter f/1.9 lens, allowing for better low-light performance still (and fancy bokeh effects in macro shots.) And LG arguably leapfrogged the Galaxy S6's low-light capabilities with a similar sensor behind an f/1.8 lens.
A great camera was suddenly a requirement for phones demanding 'flagship' level prices.
All this lead to greater competition, and a great camera suddenly became a requirement for phones demanding 'flagship' level prices. And with ever more capable sensors from imaging giant Sony, a broader push behind OIS and brighter lenses all round, more Android phone makers were able to ship devices that served as reliable digital cameras. Google's 2015 Nexus phones reversed that brand's history of including mediocre camera experience. And Motorola, another historically weak performer in that area, did a pretty good job with the Moto X Pure.
As for Sony Mobile, the electronics giant's smartphone arm, it seemingly passed up the technology created for Samsung, Google and Apple, using a new 23-megapixel IMX300 sensor in its Xperia Z5 series.
With so many manufacturers pushing for improved image quality through different technological means, the future's bright for Android photography.
Android photography: A few recent highlights from the AC team
Rise of the Chinese brands
China has long been at the heart of the technology industry, especially mobile tech. Most smartphones are made or at least assembled in China, as are many of the components that make up the devices we use. In the past year, however, Chinese smartphone brands have started to make headway into Western markets. And in particular, 2015 has been a big year for Huawei. The telecommunications giant, once an obscure infrastructure-focused brand that made the news due to its alleged ties to the Chinese government as much as its consumer products, Huawei has become much more visible in the Android world in the past year.
That's thanks in part to its growing partnership with Google. Huawei was chosen by Mountain View to build the Nexus 6P, the high-end, metal-bodied Nexus flagship. And Huawei also turned heads with its first Android Wear smartwatch, the Huawei Watch. Both elevated Huawei to a place above rival Chinese brands like ZTE and Xiaomi in the eyes of Western consumers -- in particular the U.S., where Huawei's efforts have largely been limited to a small direct-to-consumer storefront.
It's clear Huawei sees the prestige involved with joining the Nexus club, as well as its potential effects on Huawei's global standing. Speaking to Android Central in Beijing in November 2015, Huawei VP of R&D Eric Fang made his thoughts known through an interpreter.
"We're looking to have the best quality and most exquisite product of Nexus in history."
"We make no compromises in the terms of the quality and the consumer experience from the very beginning when we designed this product," Fang said. "And we're looking to have the best quality and most exquisite product of Nexus in history. I think Google actually quite appreciates Huawei's visibility and influence in the Android world. And I think Google also recognizes Huawei's increasing market share in the global market."
Elsewhere, Huawei's answer to the army of low-cost, relatively high-quality Android phones has been the Honor sub-brand, a strong market presence in China and a growing force in Europe. For Huawei, Honor is its outlet for competitively priced mid and entry-level hardware in Europe (like the Honor 7 and Honor Holly), as well as more exotic products in other markets based around standout hardware features (like the Honor 6 Plus and Honor 7i).
Huawei's local rival Xiaomi is a major force in China, as well as the growing Indian smartphone market. The company hired former VP of Android product management, Hugo Barra, in late 2013, suggesting it has wider global ambitions. And Xiaomi has dropped hints about plans to enter the U.S. market, though its bare-faced copycatting of Apple may present a barrier.
Meanwhile OnePlus, a Chinese startup with close ties to Oppo, has adopted a different strategy, with bold (often borderline obnoxious) marketing, aggressive pricing and a controversial sales system whereby customers must earn an invite before buying. The OnePlus One turned the heads of smartphone enthusiasts, being the first widely available phone to run software from Cyanogen, Inc., the commercial sibling of CyanogenMod.
"The OnePlus One nailed it with the price point. Also, nailed it at the right time, and everybody was obnoxious enough to get people to pay attention."
In an interview with Android Central, Cyanogen co-founder Steve Kondik
"[The OnePlus One] nailed it with the price point. Also, nailed it at the right time, and everybody was obnoxious enough to get people to pay attention. And whatever we shipped, it was good. It was really good."
But the relationship between Cyanogen and OnePlus didn't last, leading to the latter developing its own software for its phones, including the successor to the One, the OnePlus 2.
But OnePlus's didn't start with a competitive price point and work backwards. Speaking to Android Central ahead of the OnePlus 2 launch, co-founder Carl Pel said it was a natural result of selling direct to the consumer and avoiding extravagant advertising costs.
"We're not trying to make the OnePlus 2 cheap on purpose."
"I've seen a lot of users and the media say OnePlus makes really high value for money products, and that was never the goal," Pei said, "We just thought we could make a really good phone. Because of our motto, by selling directly to the consumer and not spending a lot on marketing, it's just a natural result."
"We're not trying to make the phone cheap on purpose. In fact, this phone probably costs more than a lot of others to manufacture, partly because the materials but also because our scale is very small compared to the big guys. It costs much more to procure each component."
Even ZTE has emulated OnePlus with its direct-to-consumer Axon brand in the U.S. So there are already a lot of Chinese brands eyeing mature markets like the North America and Europe. How will things play out as the scramble around the $400 price point continues? We'll have to wait and see.
As for Cyanogen, the software startup, having secured hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, now wants to bring top-notch user experiences to the super-cheap $75-level phones coming out of China.
"If we can make this work you're gonna get good software and it's not gonna be abandonware," Steve Kondik told AC, "Because all that shit is just abandonware right now."
"If you buy one of those low-end phones, it's basically like an OEM that doesn't have any engineering went to an ODM in China and said 'I want this, I want it at this price point'"
"If you buy one of those low-end phones, it's basically like an OEM that doesn't have any engineering went to an ODM in China and said 'I want this, I want it at this price point, here's my logo. Maybe here's some other phones that we like the design of.' And then they build it, and these guys handle fulfilment and support and all that's it, they're done."
If Cyanogen can tune performance to acceptable levels, handle future update support and establish a strong following on these cheap handsets, it could develop a strong foothold in emerging markets. The big challenge? Making that idea scale across the multitudes of device makers and handsets.
"We have some stuff in the works," Kondik says, "I think we have a pretty good strategy around it going forward, but there's still a lot of work to do."
Help This Company
Every good story has a dark period. The protagonist is lost. Stumbles. Fights through some sort of adversity before ultimately emerging victorious.
We don't yet know if there's light at the end of the tunnel for HTC, which continued to struggle financially as well as in market share following the relative success of the HTC One M7 in 2013 — critical, if not commercial — and the M8 in 2014. The HTC One M9 in the spring of 2015 was largely a nonstarter, with a lackluster camera, iterative design and concerns about its Snapdragon 810 processor, which was facing a bit of a PR crisis of its own.
The handset business is a tough one, a fact HTC knew (and still knows) all too well. There's the HTC One line, of course, which gets the headlines. But it's the less-heralded Desire line that perhaps is more important for HTC as a company. And in early October 2014 HTC unleashed a camera-heavy duo — the Desire Eye and the RE Camera, the latter the first in a new direction for the company.
The Desire Eye was at least interesting on paper — a 5.2-inch smartphone done in the excellent polycarbonate design HTC uses for that line, with a 13-megapixel camera on the back, and another 13-megapixel shooter on the front, for the ultimate selfie experience. It gave the phone a very distinctive look, too, with a large lens front and center — a cyclops of a phone if there ever was one. Performance wasn't all that impressive, though. (It certainly didn't hold a candle to the just-released iPhone 5 front camera.)
We don't yet know if there's light at the end of the tunnel for HTC
The RE Camera, however, was (and still is) an intriguing product. Celebrated as the start of a new direction for HTC — but in addition to the handset business, not in place of it — the RE Camera was a little plastic action camera that looked like an asthma inhaler, but done in typical HTC fashion, with bold colors and some solid glossy plastic. The important part, of course, was the camera itself. And for that HTC went with a 16-megapixel Sony sensor.
The obvious comparison was with industry leader GoPro. Plenty of companies have "action cams," but there was something different about the RE Camera. (Never mind the odd name.) The shape made it clear that you were meant to hold it and not just mount it — though there were several accessories to make that happen. The lack of a display meant that you'd be taking a lot of pictures on spec. But the end result could be impressive. While the RE Camera wasn't anywhere near as robust as the GoPro, it also became apparent that I really was in a different sort of category. More of a causal action camera, if you will. Good still images. Video, time lapse and slow-motion, all available via a decent mobile application — and on Android and the iPhone. Plus it tied into HTC's fledgling (though ultimately short-lived) Zoe service, automatically compiling highlight videos from your best shots.
So the RE Camera represented a cross-platform start to a new brand of accessories. And we were told from the start that it was just the first product in this new direction.
The following February gave us a glimpse at two other products.
The lesser of the two was the RE Grip — the first product from a new partnership with fitness brand Under Armour (and another example of HTC's struggle with branding products). We got a brief look at the fitness band ahead of its release at Mobile World Congress in early 2015 and found it to be a mostly uninspired fitness band. It was supposed to be released by the holidays but was shelved for a larger effort between the two companies in 2016.
The more exciting announcement from Barcelona was HTC's virtual reality collaboration with Steam — the HTC Vive. (Don't call it the RE Vive, whatever you do. Again, branding is hard.) It's a PC-driven VR experience that's far more immersive than the Google Cardboard experience, as well as what Samsung and Oculus had done with the Gear VR visor. Vive was not a mobile product, though it was planned to be a viable commercial VR system. Tethered to a PC with a couple of wireless handheld controllers, Vive is a movable (though limited) experience. You weren't meant to stand in one place, and that (along with the resolution) is what set it apart from the likes of Gear VR and even the full Oculus experience.
Vive had its own hurdles, though, especially from a commercial standpoint. It needs a decent amount of space, wall-mounted sensors and a significant (a couple thousand dollars, by most accounts, given the computer aspect) monetary investment. While few have walked out of a demonstration unimpressed, we reckon, just who might buy Vive remains to be seen.
But Vive — and to a lesser extent the RE Camera — remain impressive products. And it's not like HTC's forgotten how to make smartphones, even if it stumbled for a good bit of 2015 in that department. Diversity makes sense for a lot of companies for a lot of reasons, particularly if they don't have the vertical integration that Samsung and LG do.
HTC is very much in the midst of a pivotal rebirth. Or perhaps a sort of division on a cellular level. And we're all waiting to see what comes of it.
How HTC Vive reset everything I knew about VR
Android Central editor Russell Holly thought he'd already seen the best of what virtual reality had to offer. But 20 minutes with the HTC Vive changed all that. It changed everything. Read his full report on HTC Vive for a glimpse of the future of virtual reality.
Android gets serious about security
It seems like not a week can go by without someone, somewhere saying your Android phone is vulnerable to a new attack that will steal your data. In the past year we've heard about exploits light "Stagefright" and "Fake ID" -- vulnerabilities pushed forth with their own brands and logos. We shouldn't be too surprised, because being the most-used operating system on the planet means more people are looking for ways to exploit users, and talking about it makes for a good headline.
In recent years, this has become big business. Companies who specialize in computer security have focused on Android, and are willing to spend a lot of time and money looking for ways to break it. Bounties from Google can be substantial, and it's an easy way to get people to use the security software you're selling when you show them how it can protect you from the latest worm or trojan. A good presentation at something like the BlackHat security conference can be great for the bottom line.
From Stagefright to Fake ID, Android vulns are now being marketed with brands and logos.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. These are bugs and exploits that need to be patched, and getting them out of the shadows and onto the blogs is a good way to do just that. But this can make us desensitized, and where a legitimate cause for concern arises we don't pay as much attention as we should. We hear about so many wolves that we aren't worried enough about the ones that are real.
While some of these issues are cause for legitimate concern for us, most times they require that you turn off the built-in security on your phone, either by allowing apps from unknown sources be installed or enabling usb communications with a computer, and download something sketchy from a website somewhere. If you unlock the doors or leave the keys in place, bad things can happen if you're not careful.
Google and the people who make the phones we buy are pretty pro-active when it comes to security. In the past, this meant random updates that offered bug fixes and security enhancements, but in 2015 we saw a move to a monthly security update model. Google compiles a set of fixes for Android, and helps the manufacturers implement them. The manufacturers themselves also audit their own custom versions of Android and are doing the same. Of course, not all phones are going to get the critical patches and updates they need, and carriers are more than happy to get in the way and make it difficult for you and I to stay up-to-date. These are things you should keep in mind when you're buying your next Android phone.
Marshmallow: Android 6.0 feels more like a 5.2
Google's shift to Material Design in Android 5.0 introduced a lot of fantastic ideas and beautiful animations, but it couldn't be more clear that Lollipop wasn't a complete thought. Things needed to be tidied up, ideas that didn't pan out needed to be fixed, and Material Design needed to complete its takeover of Google's overall design language. Rather than introduce a series of massive sweeping changes in 2015, Android 6.0 needed to be all about polishing the changes everyone had come to appreciate.
Alongside the release of two Nexus phones, a first for Google, Marshmallow introduced flexibility with sharing directly to friends you regularly communicate with, more granular context grabs with Google Now on Tap, and a massive overhaul of the open source bits that make all of the wireless networking equipment work in order to better support the budding Project Fi service. The Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P exists as an acknowledgment from Google that there was more than one type of Nexus user out there, and Marshmallow a reminder that Google is always tweaking and adjusting ideas to create what it believes is the best possible interface.
Welcoming the new mid-range -- and the redefined high-end
It used to be that if you wanted a good Android phone, you'd have to fork out $500 or more to get the latest and greatest from Samsung, HTC or some other major manufacturer. Anything below that price level -- especially if it was a current release -- was basically crap. In 2015 that started to change.
Suddenly, all the really interesting stuff in the world of Android phones was starting to happen around the $400 level.
Suddenly, all the really interesting stuff in the world of Android phones was starting to happen around the $400 level, unlocked, and sold directly to consumers. This is a the price point courted by Google with its affordable Nexus phones, the Nexus 4 and 5, in 2012 and 2013. Two years later, this space was becoming a lot more crowded.
Chinese upstart OnePlus had brought its phones to market well below this price point -- a side-effect of its direct-to-consumer approach, co-founder Carl Pei tells us. But the company's controversial invite system meant that actually being able to buy a OnePlus One or OnePlus 2 at its attractive SIM-free price was a challenge in itself.
"What Moto X is is the phone of the people, right?"
Enter Motorola, the company now built on the success of the Moto G in India and Brazil. In 2015, Motorola adopted aggressive pricing and a direct-to-consumer sales approach with its third-generation Moto X phones. Moto design chief Jim Wicks says that bringing some of the ethos of the Moto G into the Moto X line helped.
"What Moto X is is the phone of the people, right?", Wicks told Android Central in a recent interview, "I think it cuts through the crap of advertising... it just gets to the core of being the best possible product it can be."
"And so I think it naturally happened because we truly believed what we started to see in Moto G. Which is the fact that you can create a tremendously fantastic product that consumers love, and they can actually take part in it by designing it themselves in many cases, and still do it at a reasonable price."
Nextbit is another startup targeting the $400 price point with a unique phone focused on cloud storage and a head-turning design language.
"We're not in this just to become another phone in the sea of other phones," Nextbit CEO Tom Moss told AC, "We're in this to really push things forward. We think nothing really amazing has happened at the operating system level in the past four-to-five years."
Moss, a former business development and partnerships lead for Android at Google, believes his company can stand apart from the crowds of "yet another Android phone" through software and design.
"We think technology exists to allow us to do things that are a lot more interesting."
Exactly who will prevail in this scrum of direct-to-consumer, $400-level smartphones is unclear. But increased competition can only be a good thing, and as smartphone hardware continues to plateau, the quality of experiences available at the $400 level is going to come closer than ever to rivaling those of traditional flagship handsets.
Watch our Nextbit executive interview
Nextbit is one of the many smartphone startups aiming to make a splash at the $400 price point. But the strategy is a little different: First, a unique, authentic and eye-catching design, and secondly an integrated cloud solution for apps and storage. We sat down with three leading execs from the company to find out what they're doing differently.
G is for Google, S is for Sundar
Google is nothing if not unpredictable. Or, rather, your can predict that at some point Google will do something unpredictable. Count on it, if you dare.
And Google has never been shy about blowing up the status quo. Popular services get killed if they're just not popular enough in the global sense. Org charts change all the time. What once was a top priority might be back-burnered if it turns out — gasp — someone misjudged a strategy. (Looking at you, Google+.)
Google is nothing if not flexible, which is sort of amazing for a company of its size.
In August 2015, Google co-founder Larry Page announced a huge shakeup that created a sort of umbrella organization over Google and all its other ventures. And so Alphabet was born.
Larry Page announced a huge shakeup that created a sort of umbrella organization over Google and all its other ventures. And so Alphabet was born.
Here's how Google co-founder Larry Page — now the CEO of Alphabet, alongside president Sergey Brin — put things in his announcement letter:
"What is Alphabet? Alphabet is mostly a collection of companies. The largest of which, of course, is Google. This newer Google is a bit slimmed down, with the companies that are pretty far afield of our main internet products contained in Alphabet instead. What do we mean by far afield? Good examples are our health efforts: Life Sciences (that works on the glucose-sensing contact lens), and Calico (focused on longevity). Fundamentally, we believe this allows us more management scale, as we can run things independently that aren't very related."
And that very much made sense from an organizational level, allowing important (but somewhat unrelated) businesses to move out from under the core Google shadow. This made sense for investors as well, who frequently showed concern for advertising-based financials being influenced by the expenditures of Google's more experimental efforts. Wall Street wants a sure thing, while Google — now Alphabet — wants to try things. This move helps satisfy both.
Closer to Android, the split meant Google (the separate business) needed a new CEO. The obvious choice was Sundar Pichai, who had steadily become more visible over the years. Rising from the Chrome team he took over for Android after Andy Rubin left in 2013. In October 2014 he was handed responsibility for many of Google's core products.
And in August 2015, with the Alphabet split, it became official. Pichai became the CEO of the new Google.
Awaiting the next chapter in the History of Android
No-one knows how Android will grow and develop in 2016. But stay tuned to Android Central for coverage of everything in the Android world in the coming year. It's going to be a wild ride!
Words: Phil Nickinson, Alex Dobie, Jerry Hildenbrand, Andrew Martonik and Russell Holly
Design: Derek Kessler and Jose Negron
Series Editor: Alex Dobie