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Google makes two different versions of Android and they're both equally important

Android 9 gestures
Android 9 gestures (Image credit: Android Central)

Did you know Android P uses a trackball for navigation? A trackball! The hardware thing that died with the Nexus One and HTC Hero because everyone hated it.

Well, it does. It also uses a joystick, a keyboard, a gyroscope, gestures, and a back button. And probably anything a developer can dream up that will hook into the user input APIs that are part of Android P. But none of that means your next phone will have a trackball or a keyboard, or that you won't have a back button in your navigation bar. It only means that you could.

We see this on the Android P beta builds that have been made available for various phones. The back button on the home screen is gone most of the time and new native gestures have picked up the slack. And there are other changes as well, like weird quick settings and a colorful mess look to the interface all-round. And collectively, we're not connecting with Android P because of those changes. Well, most of us anyway.

But that's not Android. At least not Android the way it will look on your next Samsung phone or your next LG phone or your next ASUS phone or ...

We get to see how Google wants Android to look before any other company because it's their baby.

We go through this every time a new version comes to Google's own phones while we wait for it to come to the rest. And the outcome is always the same — Pixel phones (and previous Nexus phones) look the way Google wants them to look and the rest of the phones look however the company that made them want them to look. That's because you can't see Android — it's simply software that supports the things you're looking at.

It's confusing. And tech bloggers (myself included) don't help ease the confusion very well when we write about the things we see on a software update for the Pixel. It's too difficult to try and break everything down every time we write something, and while we are good at a lot of things, we tend to shy away from "difficult". To compound it all, when we do try to break "Android" down, we usually make it worse. I'm going to try here because I'm feeling courageous and want to face "difficult" head on today. If I don't come back, tell my wife I love her.

The difficult stuff

Android is a name that's used for several different things. We call the operating system on our phones, no matter which company makes them, Android. The operating system doesn't have to look, act, or even feel the same between devices to carry the name. We all know what we mean when we say Android.

Android also supports ˂˃˄˅ keyboard navigation because Chromebooks!

That operating system on your phone uses two different things we all call Android to create the final package. There's Android as in the open source software that anyone can use, and it's what Samsung builds its operating system from. It's freely available and easy to customize so you can use gesture navigation like OnePlus does or a joystick like the new Lenovo Mirage Solo VR headset from Lenovo, or even a trackball if you wanted to try and revive an old Nexus One.

Samsung can also change the colors, the layout, the battery stats screen, the quick settings, the home launcher, the app drawer and almost everything else to look and feel the way Samsung thinks is best. That's why Android is great — there are so many different choices that spring from it.

Android with a trademark

Your next Android phone won't need a joystick but your next Android VR headset will.

Your next Android phone won't need a joystick but your next Android VR headset will.

The second Android that Samsung uses is Android™. Notice the little trademark symbol. Google owns Android™ when you're talking about software, but they license it to other companies as long as they meet a set of rules governing its usage. That's why Samsung has to include Chrome along with its own web browser — that's one of the rules.

Without Google's licensed Android package there is no app store. Nobody will buy a smartphone without an app store in 2018.

This Android™ is what every company that makes phones wants to use because it ties your username and password to a Google account. Without that Android, you wouldn't have Gmail or Google Photos integration or have access to Google Play. And Google takes ownership of Android very seriously when it comes to other companies using it.

The LG G4 taught us that a navigation bar can be anything and still be Android.

The LG G4 taught us that a navigation bar can be anything and still be Android.

The most important "rule" that a company like Samsung has to follow to use Android™ is to make sure none of the changes it made to the open source Android cause apps in the Play Store not to work. That means Samsung can't stop an app that uses a joystick to navigate from working as intended. And with Android P, Samsung can't stop an app from using the native gestures. But Samsung doesn't have to use a joystick over Bluetooth to navigate the phone or those gestures if it doesn't want to. It just can't break things.

Google wants Samsung to use licensed Android software because Samsung sells gazillions of phones. Google just wants to make sure a few rules are followed.

All of this applies to every company that makes phones that use Google's services built for Android. Even Google's own Pixel phones have to follow these same rules, but they also can freely customize the same things that Samsung can. And they do. Google wants the Pixel to be its vision of an Android-powered phone, just like Samsung does with its Galaxy products. The Pixel isn't an absolute reference that every company has to follow. That's a good thing. That lets us have a choice of phones that connect us to the things we need and use, but every model can be different. Just like we're all different.

When Android P comes to phones from companies which choose to modify the open bits, like Samsung, they will support the new gestures. But Samsung won't have to incorporate them into their Android version unless it wants to, and it will make darn sure those gestures work in a way that makes the next Galaxy phone better.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

44 Comments
  • I agree with this article though I'm firmly into Google's vision of an Android powered phone.
  • Did u manage to get ur pixel 2 xl yet?
  • Not yet but I will definitely be getting it within the next 8 weeks, I'm currently using an Alcatel A7 which is a huge step up from my Leagoo M9 Chinese phone.
  • This is a good explanation. It sort of explains why many OEMs are slow to update the OS and how Android differs from iOS. Since each OEM adds their own skin and features, comparing annual Android updates to iOS is not really apples to apples since the new Android updates are likely to contain features that have already been on another OEM's phone, where iOS is more uniform. On that point, when I had an iPhone, I noticed that after the first year or two the annual iOS updates didn't really include many of the new features, but did get much slower.
  • I agree and this is just
    one of the things I love
    about Android, the choice, the freedom, flexibility and customisation that iPhone users can only dream about and I'm a former iPhone user who's never going back to Apple as they are a despicable company who deliberately slow down older iPhones to force people to buy the latest overpriced, iGarbage and it's one of the reasons why I finally switched back to Android for good this time.
  • Beno51079 your knowledge and understanding of the issue with older iPhone slowdown is quite lacking. Apple is not despicable, not really. Yes, on older iPhones with deteriorating batteries they did slow down some older phones. Those older batteries were losing their impedence thus may not provide on demand power fast enough; weak batteries may just shutdown. Apple took the course of adding power management, slowing the phone, rather than having the phone suddenly completely shut down. To me that was a much better choice. However, Apple should have explained it sooner and better to their users, that is what they did not do. You are compelely incorrect that the reason for the slowdown was to force users to purchase a new phone. On your part that is either an ignorant or stupid statement. Remember ignorance can be fixed, however stupidity is far more facinating than intellegence, intelligence has its limits. Android phones, some a year year old not getting OS updates. The manufactures and sellers blatantly saying “if you want the latest OS purchase a new phone”. You prefer Android more than Apple, truly that is good for you, you found what you like congratulations. Do not pass on nor repeat the unsubstantiated rumors that you cannot back up and lack complete knowledge on, It does not bode well for you and your credibility. There are many blog sites (Apple centric and not Apple centric), business blogs, stating the same as I have stated about the Apple batteries and cause for why the slowdowns. Sugggestion, educate yourself; please.
  • Ah another iSheep Apple defender. I used to be like you but then I wised up. Apple has been slowing down older iPhones for years and it's definitely to get you to buy a new overpriced and inferior iPhone every year. Android OEMs don't do this and that's just another reason why Android is better than Apple.
  • It shouldn't take manufacturers long to add their skins to Android.
    Custom ROMS are available for many phones within weeks of a OS release.
    Keep the skins light and offer other features as downloads and even Samsung could offer updates quickly.
  • I really wish the term "skin" would just die. It is very misleading since it gives the impression that the changes are on the surface (only "skin deep"). That is not the case. Phone makers make changes at Android at all levels of the OS. To use the same human body analogy("skin") phone makers make changes all the way down to the bones, muscles, nervous system, etc.
  • Yes, but Google has made it easier for OEMs to do their thing without heavily modifying the /system partition for at least a couple years now. It's just that OEMs aren't willing to take advantage of the /vendor partition to help separate their changes from the rest of the system at large. If they would follow the recommendations set out by Google, they would be in a position to do essentially the same thing that Project Treble does for the hardware at a software level. The whole idea of implementing a /vendor partition was to streamline this process so that OEMs could build their "skin", or whatever you want to call their modifications to the /system partition, separate from their official Android version updates. Instead, OEMs still take ages building directly into the /system partition and push off creating OTAs for and major Android releases unless it's for a device they're still actively marketing...
  • This is why I wish/hope that tech publications will stop using the term "stock Android." There is no such thing. Back in the day when Google basically just threw AOSP with the minimum requirements to geta phone working (drivers, etc) onto a Nexus phone, we had stock Android on phones. Nowadays, "Stock" Android is a lie. The UI/UX of a Pixel phone is just a skin on top of Android in the exact same way that the UI/UX of a Galaxy S9 is a skin on top of Android. Now, the people most likely to read Android Central are more likely to think that the Google skin on Android is better than Samsung's, but that doesn't change the fact that it's still a skin.
  • >stock Android
    >skin
    that's the most top kek thing I've read in all of 2018. I wonder why none of my stock Android phones lag at much as my Samsung s8+does...
  • Just because the S8's skin is slower than a Pixel's doesn't mean that the Pixel's isn't a skin on top of AOSP. It just mean's that google's is lighter weight and does less than Samsung's.
  • You can say skin but I'll continue to call it stock Android
  • The term "stock" has changed since the Nexus phones.
    It is now generally accepted as the version of Android used by Google on their phones.
  • I've seen this interpretation a few places myself. The "Google version + Google hardware = Stock Android experience". While I'm still reserving my full opinion until it's more widely accepted as such, I can see this being the more modern interpretation going forward. Right now, I'd have to say "Stock = AOSP" and anything outside of that is a skin/interpretation. Thus, there is no true "stock" experience right now.
  • I think that is the correct interpretation. The fact that Samsung distribution is slower is probably due to their adding a lot of unnecessary fluff on top of AOSP, while some OEMs just add a launcher.
  • I hear you. Still, one has to wonder if the "new" stock is Google Software + Google Hardware = Pixel = Stock, then what is Essential and their interpretation?
  • yea, in many ways what a phones like Essential PH-1 and Moto's phones add are closer to AOSP android than Google's phones. So does that make those phones more "Stock" android than Google's? This is why I don't like the term "stock android"
  • Not true. The Pixel is Android as Google intended it. The changes that other companies make is far more than what could accurately be called a "skin".
  • But "Android as Google intended it" is still simply one interpretation of an Android UI/UX. That doesn't make it a default or stock setup, and doesn't make it the 'best" by default. A person likely to read AC and comment on a post here is probably more likely to prefer Google's take on Android over say, Samsung's, but that doesn't change the fact that Google's take is still just one take.
  • I gotta agree here. Regardless, Pixel is just one view from a baseline, not THE baseline. At least, IMHO. The term "stock" needs to reflect something specific. If Essential's interpretation is "stock" and Pixel is "stock", then what does "near stock" now mean.
  • I don't think that their use of the word 'stock' is wrong. The engineers and designers and whoever made the product decides what stock is. If they add a feature or a function to the OS and that becomes the baseline, then I consider that stock. Aside from that language is fluid and changes over time. If there is a consensus among the population then the that is how the word is used. After all, All words are just made up and are not an unchanging constant of the universe, so it can and does evolve and change over time.
  • Motorola adds moto specific apps, but doesn't mess with the interface much. It was the closest thing to nexus devices. Now a Pixel is too expensive and does the same things as a $200 moto, so no thanks Google, I'll use Android, but not on one of your devices.
  • Without Google's licensed Android package there is no app store. Nobody will buy a smartphone without an app store in 2018. What about CustomROMs + Gapps?
  • GApps are the app store and any device would not be able to use them if Google decided not to grant it authorization. Google still grants your device the right to use app Store, if they changed their policy, things would be different, for example OEMs need certain level of compliance before they can have GApps compared to a custom ROM which doesn't make money out users, once it's for profit, then things change.
  • Actually, GApps is no longer supported on most custom ROMs. Google blocks access.
  • No, they just require rommers to use a key system to have access to them, because some shifty companies were using unauthorized gapps packages to skirt Google's verifications. It's not that hard, and given that if you're romming you should already be familiar with technical processes, it's far from a problem
  • I loved the trackball on the Nexus One but not for navigation usage. I loved that it stuck out from the phone a bit and had the notification light behind it. It allowed you to see what kind of notification you had from across the room without having to look at the phone directly.
  • The trackball on the N1 was super dope for that reason. Was also nice to use it as a mouse cursor for non-mobile web pages which was something we had to deal with a lot back in those days.
  • I loved the trackball on it too. It was unique and perhaps that's why I liked it so much. Plus it always reminded me of a nipple!
  • I like extra features Touchwiz brings but there's so much junk as well. I think I may finally switch to a pixel or some phone close to stock. I wonder when the essential phone 2 will come out and if the rumored penta lens Nokia phone will ever surface.
  • You're absolutely right, but they are all Android as their respective hardware manufacturer intended. Pixel is Android as Google intended, Galaxy is Android as Samsung intended, G and V series are also Android as LG intended. Hopefully you're not insinuating that Google's take with the Pixel is what every OEM should follow. If you are, then Google shouldn't have created the Pixel, and should have just continued updating AOSP.
  • Talk for yourself. I loved the trackball. It is the fastest and most accurate way of positioning the cursor while typing. Every other mechanism fails in comparison.
  • First version of Android since donut I don't give a hoot about. Sounds like it's going to be bad
  • I'm not sure if Google's main intention to license Android is to make sure that "certain rules are allowed" more than the fact that it wants to capitalize on marketshare by keeping users in their ecosystem.
    Just saying.
    I mean that would be nice, but...
  • For argument's sake: What's wrong with the capitalisation? Don't you drool over [certain affairs] of capitalists, regardless of how even their family-history have been? Only reply if courageous enough to be honest.
  • I actually liked the track ball and keyboard on the HTC Dream
  • "The back button on the home screen is gone most of the time and new native gestures have picked up the slack." I'm running the beta and the back button is present most of the time. That's still the default way to navigate.
  • Thats awesome.
  • I would buy a phone with no Google **** including the app store tbh
  • There are ways to download that play store from a Google server
  • Good luck with having an insecure phone, I'd never buy an Android phone without Google apps and the Play Store.
  • Will they update Android 7.0 to android p?