Since the release of Lollipop about 6 months ago, Google has been on a slow and methodical march with the apps that are included in the release. While we have always had stand alone apps like Google Maps and YouTube, increasingly even the most basic of apps found in Lollipop are being released into the Google Play Store for everyone to download, regardless if they are running Android 5.x or not. Apps like Google Messages (for SMS), Google Calendar, Inbox, Chrome and the latest, Google Clock are no longer confined to just the latest release of Android. Anyone can download them and get a Lollipop-like experience with these apps but also get the latest-and-greatest offerings from Google.
This migration to standalone apps is not being highly touted by Google but in my opinion it is a sign of things to come and a step in the right direction when it comes to base Android versus apps. By making this move it also helps solidify the future of Android by potentially speeding up releases of Android core updates. It is a win for everyone.
Let me start out by saying that what Google is doing by migrating to stand alone apps is not necessarily a new concept although they are the first to really embrace it. Microsoft has been clear that with Windows 10 Mobile that they will be moving many apps like Microsoft Edge (their new browser), Outlook and Office from baked in apps to stand alone apps. In the case of Google and Microsoft, it gives them distinct advantages. First, they can offer the apps to a wider range of consumers and enterprises without the burden of a full OS upgrade. For consumers, it gives them the latest builds of a particular app but for the enterprise, it gives them far greater control over which apps are installed on their devices.
Secondly, and perhaps more important, it makes upgrading these apps far easier. By building the apps to work with a wide range of published APIs that are in the base OS, they can much more
quickly add new features or fix issues that arise. We all know that there is no such thing as 100% bug free software. Separate apps gives Google the ability to address specific issues in specific apps without the burden of an OS upgrade. It seems simple and frankly it is. It means that consumers can get better, more secure and better performing/behaving software quicker.
Equally as important, it removes the burden of having to couple these apps with a particular OS update or build. The apps are on their own development cycle while Android remains on its own cycle and while they certainly touch, they are not necessarily intertwined. Let’s use Chrome as an example. If Google were to bake the browser into Android 5.x, any updates to that app would require an update to Android itself. That is a process that is fraught with challenges, a key one being the upgrade cycle times it takes for a OS update to get to consumers. As I pointed out in a post last month, the Android upgrade process is broken because of the amount of time it takes for carriers to decide when or even if an update will come to a particular device. Microsoft has suffered for years from this with Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8 and Windows Phone 8.1 and Google was facing the same challenges.
Take Chrome out of the base OS and have it as a stand alone app, a lot of these challenges get minimized if not go away altogether. Now Google doesn’t have to wait for a carrier to approve an update for their devices. Now they can simply push the update out through the Google Play Store and anyone running Chrome can get the update with the new features and fixes. In theory this should lighten the load for carriers to more quickly approve OS updates for their devices which, in turn, means that consumers will get the new features of that OS quicker.
Carriers, particularly here in the United States, remain the single biggest log jam when it comes to OS updates. Apple is the only exception to this where they completely control the OS upgrades (although they certainly consult the carriers). Google and Microsoft are still subject to carrier approval for OS updates but without so many apps in the mix, it should speed things up.
I for one applaud Google and Microsoft both for moving in this direction. For both companies, it will allow them to upgrade their core apps without having to upgrade to core OS, saving them significant development time behind-the-scenes while also putting the pressure on carriers to get the OS upgrades out faster. Only time will tell if it really works out the way I have it envisioned in my head but it is certainly better than how it has been in the past.