Ah, early January. It’s a time when hopes are fresh, promises are grand, and hype is about as hyperbolic as it gets.
As we mark the start of CES and the beginning of a new year of ambition and anticipation, it’s more important than ever to maintain perspective. In a realm where practically everything includes a superlative, after all, a good old-fashioned reality check is the best chance we’ve got to keep ourselves grounded.
And in the realm of Android, specifically, some of the same grandiose narratives seem to pop up time and time again — so much that they’re basically just empty words at this point.
Will this be the year some of these things actually come true? Maybe. But given the context and history we have in front of us, anyone would be well-advised to take the following now-standard Android narratives with a healthy grain of salt in 2018:
1. This is the year Google will finally get its hardware act together!
I know, I know: Google really is stepping up its efforts to become a full-fledged hardware manufacturer and to exert greater control over its users’ experiences. We saw significant steps in that progression in 2017, with the full embracing of software as a differentiator in the Pixel 2 phone and the ongoing shift in focus toward Google — not Android or Chrome OS — as a primary ecosystem and unifying thread.
And to be sure, Google has made significant strides over these past several months. From the Pixel to the Pixelbook and the ever-expanding line of Google Home devices, the company has wholeheartedly stepped out as its own self-contained device-maker. That’s huge. And it’s bound to continue picking up pace in the months ahead.
At the same time, though, Google’s attempts to claim a meaningful piece of the Android phone market have always been hampered by one consistent problem: It hasn’t yet figured out how to effectively market and distribute its devices. Most normal non-tech-obsessed smartphone users still don’t know what the Pixel is or why they should care — and even enthusiasts who are well aware of the phone often have to jump through hoops to get their hands on it.
From the limited carrier availability in the U.S. (“Verizon exclusive,” anyone?) to the long-limited availability of devices from Google’s own online storefront — not to mention the limited range of countries in which the phones are sold — actually getting one of Google’s self-made smartphones can frequently be an exercise in frustration, especially in the first few months after a launch. And that’s assuming you’re even seeking the phone out in the first place. It’s the real elephant in the room with Google’s hardware efforts, and the company’s recent HTC deal does little to address it.
We’re still in early days for Google as a hardware manufacturer, and maybe one of these years, it’ll figure out those critical next steps of marketing and distribution. After years of seeing exceptional devices get relegated to niche status, though, there’s every reason to remain skeptical that this will be that year.
2. This is the year LG will make a phone that matters!
It’s like clockwork: Every year, we hear endless hype about some phenomenal new LG phone. Every year, the phone has some crazy new concept or technology that generates endless buzz and headlines. And every year, the phone fails to deliver any sort of exceptional experience — and fails to make any sort of significant splash in the greater Android ecosystem.
I summed it up way back in 2015 when talking about the G4:
Despite its progress from year to year, LG hasn’t figured out how to pull together individual pieces into something that feels cohesive and special.
That’s LG in a nutshell: lots of scattered ideas without a cohesive vision. It’s a company characterized “by a great deal of effort and very little effect,” as The Verge put it in 2015. Time and time again, year after year, it’s the same ol’ story. Once the initial excitement fades, the phones end up being of little real-world consequence — and the sales end up reflecting that.
But the next year, damn it, everything’s gonna change! Back to the drawing board! This time, we’ve figured it out! And so the cycle begins again.
Will this be the year LG finally breaks out of its déjà-vu-inducing pattern and delivers a genuinely impactful phone? Hey, anything’s possible. But as we start hearing the hype about the company’s latest course-correcting effort, a healthy grain of salt seems sensible.
3. This is the year Xiaomi and/or Huawei will shake up the U.S. smartphone ecosystem!
Xiaomi and Huawei are huge names outside of the U.S., especially in their native nation of China. And year after year, we hear talk about how their assault on the U.S. mobile market is right around the corner.
The current 2018 buzz is aided by a recent Bloomberg report saying both manufacturers are “in talks” with U.S. carriers to sell their devices sometime this year. And who knows? Maybe those talks are moving along swimmingly (though signs suggest that, for Huawei, at least, they aren’t).
But regardless, breaking into the U.S. phone market is anything but easy, as countless companies can confirm. And reports of “talks” can be as much about internal politics (“Hey, Verizon, look! We’re talking to your competition! Want to negotiate some more?!”) as actual progress.
Besides, the cold, hard truth is that even having a product sold by a carrier or two usually isn’t enough to make a dent in this domain. It takes massive marketing and near-ubiquitous availability to get on the U.S. smartphone radar and even have a shot at competing with the likes of Samsung or Apple for mainstream success.
I don’t doubt we’ll see continued pushes from companies like Xiaomi and Huawei to get a piece of the U.S. smartphone pie, but I’d keep my skepticism guard high about any claims that those efforts will have a significant impact anytime soon.
4. This is the year VR/AR will go mainstream and change everything!
Every year: endless hype in this arena.
Every year: a resulting fizzle and collective sigh.
Just sayin’. Some form of these technologies may well be the future — eventually, maybe — but the forces behind them have been crying wolf for a while now. All things considered, it sure doesn’t seem like that future is here yet.
5. This is the year some new smartphone form will come along and change everything!
Whether it’s the “foldable” phone, the “flexible” and “self-healing” phone, or any number of dual-screen/ticker-screen devices we’ve seen over the years, there’s never a shortage of fancy new takes on the smartphone form.
And you know what? By and large, such creative devices prove to be interesting engineering feats that are heavy on compromise and with little to no actual real-world value.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s awesome to see manufacturers taking risks and experimenting with new types of technology. But assuming each radical new notion is going to upend everything just because the company and/or echo chamber says so is setting yourself up for disappointment.
The approach-with-skepticism meter is high on this one, gang.
6. This is the year Google will kill off Android or merge Android with Chrome OS!
We’ve been down this road before, right? When it comes to Android and Chrome OS, convergence is the trend to watch for in 2018. Google’s made it clear time and time again that for now, at least, its game plan is to align its two operating systems and allow them to work together in increasingly harmonious ways. And even with 2017’s immense progress in this area, all signs suggest the effort is just getting started.
And yes, I’m well aware that Google is working on a mysterious new operating system known as “Fuschia” — and that some clairvoyants are jumping to the conclusion that it’s meant to be an all-purpose replacement for both Android and Chrome OS. That could very well be. Few people outside of Google have any idea what’s cooking when it comes to these types of secrecy-shrouded endeavors.
But we’ve seen plenty such speculation surrounding conspicuous internal efforts before. We know that Google frequently works on multiple overlapping ideas, both internally and as an actual product strategy, and that many of the projects never amount to much of anything. And even assuming a project will be seen to fruition, its seeds rarely reveal the full scope of what it’ll turn out to be.
With as much market share, manufacturer support, and consumer and enterprise awareness as Google has built up with both Android and Chromebooks, it’d be shocking to see the company suddenly kill either of them off — especially now, in 2018, given all of the momentum and the active efforts to bring the platforms together and highlight their collective utility.
7. This is the year [insert Android manufacturer name here] will start killing it with its own A.I. assistant!
Everyone and their mother wants to be the company to develop the A.I. assistant that becomes a universal standard. But guess what? Within the realm of Android, pretty much every A.I. assistant outside of Google’s is laughably bad (I’m lookin’ at you, Bixby, Sense Companion, and, uh, whatever LG’s virtual assistant was called).
The reason is really pretty obvious: No other company has the reach, the ecosystem, or the associated level of data to be able to compete with Google when it comes to finding and providing useful information — personal or otherwise. And so every other attempt at creating an A.I. assistant feels like a watered-down, less powerful, and generally pointless version of Google’s own Assistant.
We’re bound to hear about a bunch more silly stuff in this department over the coming months — like the upcoming “Bixby 2.0” revamp that Samsung swears, among other things, will mark “the next paradigm shift in devices,” a “fundamental leap forward for digital assistants,” and an “important milestone to transform our digital lives” — but…c’mon.
For the most part, artificial intelligence has just become meaningless marketing jargon. The more adjectives a manufacturer uses to describe its breathtakingly revolutionary new system, the more skeptical you should become.
8. This is the year Android manufacturers will start taking upgrades seriously!
Every year, we see some new effort by Google to make it easier for third-party manufacturers to process and send out Android OS updates. In 2014, Google launched a preview program to give device-makers early access to each major update. In 2015 and then again in 2016, it bumped up that preview even earlier to give the companies even more time with the software ahead of its launch.
And yet, the results remain dismal. Upgrade performance with 2016’s Android Nougat release was downright dreadful, with most manufacturers taking meaningfully longer to get the software into users’ hands than they did the year before. (It’s still too early to conduct an analysis on Oreo performance, but stay tuned.)
As I wrote in my analysis of that letdown, the underlying problem with Android upgrades isn’t anything technical. It’s the fact that the companies making and selling Android phones have no real motivation to care about high-quality post-sales support and to make timely, ongoing upgrades a priority. Google is the sole exception.
So, yes, some Android enthusiasts are hoping Google’s next big upgrade fix — dubbed “Project Treble” — will be the saving grace we’ve been waiting for. In short, Project Treble creates a “modular base” for Android that takes some of the legwork out of the device-updating process.
But — well, a couple big buts, actually (you’re welcome): First, Treble focuses on a phone’s lower-level software, which doesn’t include all the user-facing interface changes and feature additions so many manufacturers bake into Android before shipping the software to consumers. That means those companies will still have to take the time to incorporate such custom changes into the OS code before rolling out a new release — something that’ll continue to require a fair amount of effort and resources.
And that brings us to the broader point, as I noted last May:
Plain and simple, all signs suggest the lackluster update performance we’re seeing from Android manufacturers is less about logistics and more about incentive. And admirable as Project Treble effort is in concept and in engineering, it — much like the various update-improving efforts before it — doesn’t appear to address that underlying issue.
Project Treble most certainly will have some positive effects on the ecosystem and could in theory shorten upgrade processing times for some Android manufacturers. But seeing it as an end-all fix for companies that just don’t care seems more than a little naive.
Ultimately, of course, only time will tell. But just like with the other items in this list, I’d rather approach with informed skepticism and end up pleasantly surprised than blindly buy into the hype and be disappointed.