- Google just released the final version of Android 11, which can be installed on Pixel phones and a few select Android handsets from several Chinese smartphone makers.
- Google’s 2020 Android update seems to be less exciting than ever, even though the operating system is getting a few exciting features this year.
- It doesn’t help that the best Google phone that can run Android 11 this year will be a mid-range device with hardware that can’t match other Android handsets or the upcoming iPhone 12 generation.
Tuesday, September 8th, delivered three significant developments in the tech universe, but only two of them were really exciting. First of all, the $299 Xbox Series S leaked, and Microsoft confirmed it in all its glory. The cheap next-gen console offers tremendous value for the money and could be just what some gamers need going forward. It certainly puts extra pressure on Sony’s PS5 versions, which can’t possibly just as low. Secondly, Apple announced what appears to be its first press event of the fall, after a morning of speculation that said the Apple Watch 6 and iPad Air 4 would both be announced on Tuesday.
After all that Xbox and Apple excitement, came the Android 11 release news. Following months of betas, the final version of Google’s primary operating system is out right now. But, as always, you can’t get it unless you own a Google phone that’s Pixel 2 or newer. A bunch of other handsets from China are also going to get Android 11 right now or very soon. But there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of excitement around this Android update. When you factor in the upcoming Pixel 5 disappointment, it looks like Google may be getting tired of Android.
We’ll never know whether things would have been different for Android and the Pixel without the novel coronavirus pandemic that ruined everyday life.
What’s clear is that Google didn’t make a big deal out of Android so far this year. It quietly launched the Android 11 developer beta in the first months of the year, and then completely canceled the event where Android would be the main topic of conversation. There was no digital I/O event this year for Android 11. Compare that to Apple’s online-only WWDC press conference that felt just like a regular next-gen iOS launch. Because iOS is the star of Apple’s annual June show.
Google kept releasing Android 11 beta versions over the summer, but it’s iOS 14 that won that conversation over the summer, just as iPhone 12 rumors intensified.
Fast-forward to Tuesday, and Google’s Android 11 rollout seems quiet and boring. Again, it’s probably the coronavirus dominating the news cycle, but Android 11 completely skipped my tech radar. Amid the regular iOS 14 beta releases, I forgot that Android 11 has to come out sooner or later. It’s not that Google should have held any major press event for the release, but it just feels like Google isn’t as pumped about Android at this point.
The Pixel 5 might be the best example of that. This will be Google’s first-ever Pixel phone not to deliver a flagship performance. One has to wonder how Google developed Pixel-only features for a phone that’s never going to match the speed of other Android rivals. How do you build the next-gen software innovations for a phone that will feel last-gen rather than next-gen? How do you get people excited about Android 11, when they know the best Google phone to run the OS is a device that’s going to be marginally faster than the Pixel 4. If that’s even achievable. How do you develop Android 12 when your best development board is Pixel 5?
In fairness, Android did evolve significantly in the past few years, and most Android phones will deliver a decent experience, even mid-rangers. Especially if they run Android 10 or 11 out of the box. Maybe we’ve reached a point where Google is content with its Android market share, which gives it a massive advantage when it comes to its advertising business. It doesn’t matter what Android version runs on those phones, or whether they’ll ever be updated to anything newer.
But, as I explained in the past, the major security and privacy updates that come with Android 10 and Android 11 will not be available on old devices. And Google isn’t even telling us anymore how many of the Androids in use right now are on the latest Android release — that would be last year’s Android 10.
Google did say that Android 11 is rolling out on “select Pixel, OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Realme phones.” Those are likely high-end devices launched this year, so that’s excellent news for the customers of those companies. But how many of those phones are widely available in the US?
I will also note that the fragmentation problem has gotten significantly better in the past few years. Several companies are issuing Android updates faster than ever, and Samsung has committed to supporting three years of Android releases on a boatload of phones, even the cheaper ones. Those handsets will run Android 11 at some point in the coming months, which is still better than nothing.
On the other hand, let’s also not forget that Google is yet to deliver a meaningful Android update for tablets. Android needs an iPadOS alternative of its own. Not just for the tablets that rival the iPad and iPad Pro, but also for the increasing number of Androids that can be turned into tablets. The Galaxy Folds and Surface Duos of this world will need plenty of Google support to make foldable screen experiences happen.
With all that in mind, it sure feels like Google has grown tired of Android. The tempered excitement around Android 11, the disappointing Pixel 5 rumors, the continued absence of significant Android developments for bigger screens seem to be signs that Google is quietly moving towards the future of mobile. And Android might not be coming along for the ride. The COVID-19 health crisis might be distorting my view of things. But Apple is on course of delivering an exciting iOS 14 update on time. Even if it’s delayed, Apple’s most significant iPhone upgrade in years is still happening this year. And the iPhone 12 will obliterate the Pixel 5 and any reason to be excited about Android right now.
There are things to look forward to from Google, including Google’s Fuchsia OS that will probably replace Android down the road, and Google’s custom chip for the Pixel that might make the Pixel 5 forgotten. But there’s no telling when Fuchsia will replace Android, or whether the Pixel 6 will ship with a high-end chip that could rival Apple’s A-series processors.