Stock Android

There's Nexus and Google Play editions and experiences ... Just what exactly is 'Stock Android' anymore? (And does it even matter?)

The term "Stock Android" gets thrown around quite a bit — particularly with the introduction of these Google Play edition devices — and has earned a level of reverence that's pretty unparalleled in the Android world. Even the words get a capital letter, so you know it's something that people care about. The (very vocal) minority of us have even forced HTC and Samsung's hand to release their latest and greatest with all their hard work removed and the mighty Stock Android in place. But Stock Android itself is a misnomer, and it's almost impossible to define.

Webster's tells us that "stock" is the original from which others derive. In that sense, it does describe Android as Google intended it. But we don't apply a direct definition to most things when they work their way into daily use, so Stock Android (with the capital S) needs some further explanation.

I'm not preaching from my virtual soapbox here; I'm every bit as guilty of muddling things as anyone else is. But that doesn't mean we can't discuss it, right? 

Let's do that, then.

What is Android?

Android

Since we're talking definitions here, let's start with the obvious: What is Android? For most of us, Android is an operating system that we use on mobile devices, and possibly our television or camera. But if we want to get technical (and we do), Android is a kernel mostly based on Linux, with its middleware, libraries and assorted APIs written in C, and uses an application framework that includes Java-compatible libraries. These libraries are based on Apache Harmony, and allow software to run inside the Dalvik virtual machine, using Dalvik dex-code that has been translated from Java bytecode. Technically, Android is not a Linux distribution because it doesn't natively support the full set of GNU tools and libraries, though many folks (guilty) feel differently about that point.

Confused yet? Don't be. All that tecnho-babble was designed to demonstrate that you can simply argue any point to death, and often the generally accepted definition isn't the best or right one. Nerds will argue what Android is, what it was designed to do, and what it will become forever, because as nerds we love to argue about this sort of thing.

To you, Android is what you think it is, and that's important.

I can hardly lay all this out without giving my own 2 cents worth, so here goes: To me, Android is an open-source computer operating system designed to be extensible and easy to write applications for. I consider it a Linux distro, but that's not really important. At it's core, Android is just a bunch of files that tick away under the user-facing software that we see when we turn our phone on. The user-facing software is the important part. That leads us to the real subject of this piece.

What is Stock Android?

Stock Android

Just like the nerds will never be able to agree what Android is, the users (that's you and me!) will probably never be able to agree what Stock Android is. I don't know Andy Rubin. I've never even had the pleasure of meeting him. But I'm pretty sure nobody is happier to see what most partners have done with his baby. Originally designed as the software and interface for digital cameras, Android has blossomed into an amazing family of software from vendors like Google, LG, HTC, Sony, Motorola and Samsung, to name but a few.

Grab the phone you have in front of you. Have you monkeyed around with the firmware, or is it still running the base system that it came with from the folks who built it? If it's the latter, it's running "stock." The OS it came with.

If you have dug in and flashed other ROMs, are you running "stock" CyanogenMod? Or maybe "stock" AOKP? Maybe you're even running a version of AOSP that you built yourself. Any of these scenarios are technically "stock." So why do we hold "Stock Android" (there's that capital S again) in such high regard?

There was a time when all of us here would tell users unhappy with their device to take things into their own hands and go "Stock." "Root your phone, Mickey!" was our standard answer, because at the time it was the best answer. If you had an older phone from HTC, Samsung or Motorola and got to use the Nexus One, you knew exactly what we were talking about. Google did it better, because it had more practice at it.

But things have changed.

Nexus user experience

Jelly Bean, the way Google creates it on the Nexus line, is beautiful. It's mostly bug-free, and with access to Google Play it's the perfect base to build your own set of those oh-so-important user-facing software features we talked about earlier. But you know what? So are the Galaxy S4 and HTC One. Vendors have gotten better at building Android, and their "stock" offerings are as good or better in many instances for many users. You can argue about button layout and placement, or perceived lag and smoothness, but across the board the Android partners are good at expanding on the Android code Google gives them, and "stock" Android-based phones can be as good as "Stock Android" phones. 

Those Google Play Edition phones that were released today sure are nice. They provide Google's version of Stock Android for those that don't want to dig in and void their warranties, and that's important -- we want people to be happy with their purchase, because we have a vested interested in Android and it's growth. But these phones aren't necessarily better than their original counterparts from HTC and Samsung, and are lacking some of the features that make either phone great while running their own "stock" software. They're not Nexus devices. Make no mistake about that.

I certainly want to get a crack at these Google Play edition phones. I'm curious how well Jelly Bean the way Google does it will run on newer hardware than what's inside the Nexus 4 or Nexus 10. But I'm also going to be very happy with my HTC One "stock" the way it came from HTC, because the features it offers are why I wanted it in the first place. Let's pull Stock Android off that pedestal, and realize that the choices we have when buying a new phone are what really makes Android great.