The thing that’s given me greatest amusement at this year’s Google I/O has been the number of iPhone users raising an eyebrow at Google’s new focus on digital well-being and openly declaring that Android has leapfrogged iOS. As an avid Android acolyte, my reflexive response has been to say that Android has already been ahead of iOS in a number of important respects like its first-party apps, cloud services, and digital assistant. But then that got me thinking: which Android? Is it the Android on your 2016 Samsung Galaxy A7, or the Android on the latest Huawei P20 Pro, or the Android on Google’s own Pixel devices? These are all different flavors of supposedly the same thing, but I’m not so sure.
I’m starting to believe we need a more nuanced, differentiated language to discuss developments within the Android ecosystem. The language of the past — the one where “Windows” broadly meant the same thing no matter the manufacturer of the PC, and “iOS” still means more or less the same experience across a majority of iPhones — is too narrow to cover the multiplicity of devices, businesses, and experiences “Android” represents.
Firstly, there’s the distinction between “new and expensive” Android and “old and neglected” Android. All of the Android P advantages exhibited by Google at I/O 2018 will be the exclusive preserve of two classes of devices: new ones bought after the release of Android P and slightly older ones that were too expensive for their manufacturers to get away with not updating. Phone reviewers like me tend to underestimate how big of a problem this still is, because we keep jumping from one latest-and-greatest device to the next. So to many of us, Android is represented by the best Google’s partners (or Google itself, via the latest release of its Pixel phone line) are able to produce at any one time.
But Android isn’t merely a marketing promise for the future, it’s a lived reality for more than two billion users. And their experience is often like mine was when I booted up a 2014 HTC One mini 2 last year: littered with app incompatibilities and left out of consideration for the latest updates. Let me tell you, the industrial design of that phone is still gorgeous, its ergonomics are lovely, and its display remains perfectly satisfactory — there’s no reason why I should be forced into buying a new device just to keep apps like YouTube running on it. And if you think three years is a long time to support a phone, ask your iPhone-owning friends about that.