You might not have noticed, but in the last two weeks Google has fixed the thing you hate most about Android. The biggest news out of this year’s I/O Googlepalooza didn’t have anything to do with Jelly Bean or Google Glass. It wasn’t a killer app or a self-driving car. It was, in fact, the Galaxy S4, a two-month old phone with one minor modification: You could buy it with a pure, clean Android install.
Today, the HTC One followed suit; the Google Edition of the phone will come loaded with stock Android instead of HTC Sense. And with those two low-key announcements, Google has signalled a future for its mobile operating system that can final live up to its glorious potential.
To this point, it’s been remarkably easy to count the number of phones released each year that combined top-flight hardware and an ironclad promise of future Android updates: one. Google’s Nexus line, which comprises only four devices, has been the only safe harbour for Android purists who don’t want to fuss with rooting their phones.
Every other Android phone worth buying has suffered from the plague of manufacturer skins, the layers of software and UI that Samsung and HTC and the like place between users and Android’s platonic ideal. Skins aren’t inherently bad, but they almost inevitably make phones slower, more cluttered and far less likely to receive important platform updates. They’re a weak grab at differentiation. You buy phones in spite of them, not for them.
Now, though? The two best Android phones in the world fulfil the promise of the Nexus line without being annual one-offs. You don’t have to sacrifice your Android experience for top hardware or vice versa. Most of all, you have a choice. If bloat is your thing, more power to you. If you prefer your OS distilled, all the better.
It’s not a perfect scenario, because nothing ever is. You can’t get the vanilla Android Galaxy S4 or HTC One with a contract subsidy, and they don’t come cheap ($US650 and $US600, respectively) without one. And it’s also true that manufacturer skins aren’t totally useless; the HTC One’s photo-editing software is something you’ll genuinely miss in Jelly Bean. Google’s also made clear that it’s continuing with the Nexus line, and those devices will presumably have unforeseen advantages over unlocked outsiders.
Those compromises are small though, given the movement these free and clear devices portend. They speak to a more unified Android, one where you get what you pay for on both the hardware and software side. They give a glimpse at a world where you can opt in to a skin instead of being held hostage by it. It’s not hard to imagine a future where every phone gets a vanilla Android option. Or at least, every phone worth owning does.
The future of Android was never in doubt; it’s ubiquitous, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. But, today, Google showed commitment to matching that prevalence with uniform excellence, with platform-wide consistency. Let’s hope it’s only just getting started.