Rewind a year or two ago and offering devices originally running TouchWiz, HTC Sense or Motoblur with “pure” Android instead made sense. Android was as fragmented as you could get and its Nexus line lacked awareness and market share. Even today, only four percent of users run the latest version of Jelly Bean (Android 4.2), with the majority running Gingerbread (36.5 percent), a two-year old version of Android. But unlike two-years ago, something has dramatically changed regarding how Google provides updates.
In the past, most of the functionality or meaningful changes were delivered through core OS updates to Android. But today, Google has found a way around its unpreventable fragmentation by providing core apps through Google Play instead. This way, Android can stay open-source, but still deliver updates.
A little more than two years ago, Google Play Music (Google Music Beta) didn’t exist – neither did Chrome, Hangouts or Google+. Go back even further, and even Gmail was a system app only receiving enhancements in-line with OS updates. For fragmented users, your browser, music, messaging service, calendar, email, and other apps all looked and operated differently. This left users stuck in a situation where they relied on manufacturers and carriers to push patch updates that usually never arrived.
This left Android devices orphaned with the same problems they shipped with, and waiting for a patch update sometimes meant waiting months or years. But currently, Google has detached system apps – usually tethered to the OS – and placed them on Google Play. This has allowed apps such as Android’s official calendar, music, browser, messaging, and keyboard apps to be installed on all devices meeting baseline criteria (usually Ice Cream Sandwich Android 4.0 and above) – regardless of OS fragmentation.
By removing features usually locked into Android’s OS versions, Google is now chipping away most of the incentive to switch to pure Android. Google is also using Google Play Services as well to provide back-end updates – making any Android device better automatically and independent of an official update. So it’s because of this recent move that spending unsubsidized pricing for Google Play edition devices such as the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 is probably unreasonable. Google is probably better off focusing on building a pure Android launcher – which might not be far away – that could fundamentally resolve most of its fragmentation issues instead of launching exclusive devices. Facebook found this out the hard way with the HTC First. Nonetheless, pure Android is still the best way to enjoy the OS, and if you’ve got the money to shell out for the HTC One or Samsung Galaxy S4 you’ve still got one of the best Android device money can buy.