The latest dead Google project is Android Things, a version of Android meant for the Internet of Things. Google announced that it had abandoned the project as a general-purpose IoT operating system in 2019, but now there’s an official closing date thanks to a new FAQ page about the operating system’s demise.
The Android Things Dashboard, which is used for managing devices, will stop accepting new devices and projects in just three weeks – on January 5, 2021. Developers can continue to update existing deployments until January 5, 2022, at which time Google says “the console will be completely disabled and all project data will be permanently deleted, including build configurations and factory images.”
Android Things was a stripped-down version of Google Phone OS intended for the Internet of Things, a network of small, low-cost devices such as sensors and smart home devices. The idea was that Android would bring broad hardware compatibility, an established app SDK, and easy access to Google’s cloud platform for IoT, along with regular security updates, which are currently unheard of in the fire-and-forget IoT firmware space. Android has been criticized for its inability to quickly update any smartphone, but that’s based on smartphone standards. In IoT, where your device is likely to never getting a firmware update, Android’s typical three to six month update cycle would be an incredible upgrade to the nightmarish security world of IoT.
For Android Things, Google actually took the Apple-style update strategy that many would like the company to take for Phone Android. Modifying the operating system was banned, and Google said updates would be distributed centrally by Google to each device for three years. IoT administrators just had to click the ‘send update’ button on the Android Things dashboard, which Google created specifically for managing Android Things devices remotely and sending OS and app updates.
The problem with Android Things was that Android is very heavy, and while a smartphone operating system can be extended to cars and TVs quite easily, Android Things devices have always been larger, more power-hungry, and more expensive than the typical IoT form factors. Google tried to strip the OS by removing things like the system’s UI, settings, widgets, telephony, USB support, NFC, biometrics, and more, but it never got to a small, cheap form factor. I think the smallest test form factor was a 2-inch square board with a low-end smartphone chip (a Snapdragon 212) that you’d normally find on a $100 smartphone.
The failure of Android Things in the IoT space led to a turnaround towards smart speakers and smart screens built by OEMs. As far as we know, Google has never built a device based on Android Things. Its own smart displays and speakers use a modified version of the Google Cast platform, which may be due to Google’s ability to consistently undercut its Android Things-based competition, such as the Lenovo Smart Display.
“Android for everything” has some winners and some losers
Android Things was part of what we’ll call the “Android for Everything” strategy, with Google trying to extend the Android-for-phones model to other form factors. The company is pushing a free operating system into a market segment, giving device manufacturers an easy, low-cost way to get started with a solid, updateable operating system with a strong developer and app ecosystem. The best example of this is, of course, the regular Android for smartphones—of course, you could build your own OS, partner with hardware vendors for support, and build your own SDK, and you could try to continue development after launch and send security updates and hope app ecosystem emerges. But Google is giving all that away for free! Building all that yourself would cost money, while adopting Android will not. You have to sign a few contracts with Google and follow a few rules, but would you rather have your next quarterly report include heavy line items for long-term OS development, or would you rather start selling stuff with Android now?
After phones, Google’s next most successful market with this approach is probably TVs, where several smart TV vendors can deliver Android TV and access all the major streaming services, great hardware support, and even access to a few games. There’s a lot of TV competition from Roku, Samsung’s Tizen, LG’s WebOS and others, but Android TV does a good job. Google’s market with the greatest potential is probably car infotainment systems, where carmakers typically struggle to keep up with the smartphone experience, and a sales pitch like “get Google Maps and tons of media apps in your car!” is pretty good. Android Automotive just hit the market on the Polestar 2.
In the “losers” category, we have Android-for-watches, or Wear OS, that never got off the ground due to a lack of chips. Qualcomm finally made a semi-modern smartwatch chip this year, but it seems too little, too late. Android for tablets, which is basically just Android phone, never succeeded because Google didn’t bother to maintain the operating system’s tablet interface or a suite of Google tablet apps. Google’s “Daydream VR” group started cooking up Android-for-VR headsets — they’re both headsets with phone and one or two standalone models. Android’s app ecosystem and touchscreen never really translated to VR, so it’s not clear why you’d want an Android headset. The phone-based headset is officially dead and Google removed the VR features from the Android codebase with version 10.
When Android Things launched in May 2018, Google promised “free stability fixes and security patches” for every Android Things device for three years, telling developers the hardware was “certified for production use with guaranteed long-term support for three years”. This put Google on the hook until May 2021, but based on both the FAQ and the official Android Things release page, it sounds like Google hasn’t lived up to that promise. The last mentioned release of Android Things was August 2019, bringing Google’s actual update support to one year and three months. Android Things will stop supporting new devices two years and eight months after launch, and will be discontinued altogether three years and eight months after launch.
Go to discussion…