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The genius of Google Play Services: Tackling Android fragmentation, malware and forking in one fell swoop

If you pay close enough attention to these things, you've probably seen Google Play Services updating from time to time on your Android devices. If you follow the more technical side of Android, you'll know it was announced a couple of years ago to introduce new APIs and features in a way that doesn't require a firmware update. You could be forgiven for dismissing it as a dry and technical part of the OS, but in reality it's a crucially important part of the way modern Android works.

Developers get important APIs which work across the vast majority of the active Android user base. Users in turn benefit from this, through new features and security fixes even if they're not running the latest OS version. And for Google, Play Services acts as insurance against the rise of "forked" Android.

Read on to see how Google Play Services is a formidable weapon against some of Android's (and Google's) greatest foes, and how any discussion of Android security or "fragmentation" is flawed without an understanding of it.

A Play Services primer

First things first — what is Google Play Services? From the user's perspective it's an app, controlled by Google which updates automatically in the background through the Google Play Store. There's not really any user-facing part of the app, unless you count the "Google Settings" icon on phones running Lollipop and earlier versions. But Play Services' various tendrils are spread throughout Android, especially in newer versions of the OS.

As a system-level "app," Play Services can run with elevated permissions and supersede anything and everything in the OS if it needs to, so Google can easily modify it do more in the future.

Play Services is the gatekeeper for Google services on your Android device.

To put it simply: if an Android app interacts with a Google service, chances are it's doing so through Google Play Services.

During the Google I/O 2014 keynote, Google VP Sundar Pichai said that new versions of Play Services were rolling out every six weeks, adding that 93 percent of the active Android install base was running the latest version at the time.

Sundar Pichai at Google IO

Tools for developers

The Google Play Services client library gives developers APIs to make apps work with Google services on devices with the Play Services app installed. This includes Cloud Messaging, Drive, Location, Play Games, Android Wear and Google Fit, to name just a few. And because the Play Services app updates automatically in the background, and works on all versions of Android back to 2.3 Gingerbread, Google can roll out changes, improvements and new features in Android's integration with these services without a firmware update.

That's a pretty big deal in a world where Jelly Bean and KitKat — Android 4.1-4.4 — continue to dominate the active install base, with Lollipop making up just 12.4 percent of active installs at the last count. (Contrast that against the 93 percent figure given by Sundar Pichai at last year's I/O.) Because Play Services exists, a lot more people have access to up-to-date versions of features like Play Games and Android Wear than would otherwise be the case. It's this which allows for the insane pace of Android even as many OEMs continue to drag their feet on platform upgrades.

This is good for developers and users for a whole bunch of reasons, most of which are obvious. Rather than devs having to worry about targeting each of these Google features differently across OS versions, the heavy lifting is done by Play Services. What's more, users aren't left in the lurch if they're not running the latest version of Android.

Chrome Android statue

Features and security for users

Through Play Services, many things thought to be Android features — like Lollipop's Smart Lock, Google location services and Play Games — have been decoupled from the core OS. That's another reason why directly comparing iOS and Android version distribution doesn't tell the whole story. A very significant part of the Google Android experience is kept up-to-date, automatically, in the background.

That's aside from the fact that most of Google's own Android apps can be updated independently through Google Play — a collection which, as of Android 5.0 also includes the WebView component used to render web pages inside apps. The same is true of many manufacturer-bundled apps — HTC, for instance, now pushes out updates to many of its Sense apps through the Play Store.

It's true that some changes, fixes and improvements still require a firmware update. But in the Android ecosystem of 2015, there's a lot of really important stuff that no longer does.

The role of Play Services in Android security is so often ignored by the doomsayers.

By the same token, it's inaccurate to say that being on an older version of Android leaves users users wide open to malware. Google Play Services has an enormous role to play in securing older Android phones against bad apps, which generally come from app stores other than Google Play.

The main weapon in Google's arsenal is the "verify apps" feature, which is turned on by default in Android 4.2 and above. When you're installing an app from a third-party location, it's scanned by this constantly-updated feature to identify malicious tendencies. This is exactly what happened when the Android "fake ID" security scare happened last year, and thanks to Play Services the vast majority of Android devices were never exposed to this. (The Google Play Store was updated in a similar way to block apps using this particular exploit.)

You might think of this as a stopgap solution, and in a way it is. But as we pointed out at the time, it's a pretty effective one. Either way, the malware's not getting through, and users are protected — even if they're on an old version of Android. This is the point that Microsoft misses when it takes a shot at Google's record on mobile security.

MORE: Android security Q&A with Google's Adrian Ludwig

Fork

Insurance for Google

Google Play Services is packed with proprietary Google stuff, and as such isn't included in the Android Open-Source Project (AOSP). Like other Google apps, it's closed-source. Any "fork" of open-source Android released without Google's bits is on its own.

The lack of Play Services in Android forks creates a ton of extra work for anyone serious about taking Android away from Google.

There's nothing stopping a manufacturer wanting to build an Android device without getting GMS (Google Mobile Services) approval from building their own service layer atop the open-source OS. But so far the most important features of Play Services haven't been recreated by these players, even those who talk openly about commandeering Android and "putting a bullet through Google's head."

Just as Play Services is a solution to some of Android's inherent weaknesses — the slow pace of firmware updates, due to the number of moving parts involved, and the app development and security implications of this — the lack of Play Services in Android forks creates significant engineering work for anyone serious about taking Android away from Google.

MORE: What the fork is a 'fork?'

We're not suggesting this is part of some diabolical Google master plan, yet this is the situation that exists. An operating system like Android can only gobble up market share with the help of device (and carrier) diversity. Diversity inevitably leads to fragmentation, and to combat that you need a service and security layer that exists outside the OS.

That's the challenge that any convincing fork of Android needs to solve. In the meantime, those in the Google Android world have Play Services to thank for enabling the growth of the platform, and helping keep devices secure.

Alex was with Android Central for over a decade, producing written and video content for the site, and served as global Executive Editor from 2016 to 2022.

57 Comments
  • That's strange, I've been told by many on here those things did not exist on the platform and were all made up. Those same folks denied the "lag" issues also, before google introduced "project butter." I see a pattern here for sure.
  • Careful now, you might break a leg in your attempts to twist things around too much while trolling...
  • I'll comment on the lag issue. My wife has been an iPhone user since the 3G (the 2nd iPhone). At the time I was using Symbian and Windows Mobile. My first Android was the HTC Droid Incredible running Android 2.1. If you compared these two phones in their release state, the iPhone was a smoother and more responsive device. She received the update to iPhone OS 4 (before it was called iOS, I believe) when the iPhone 4 was released. Within 1-2 months of that I got the update to Android 2.2 My phone was now smoother. In every Android phone I've ever had, the phone gets more responsive and smoother with updates. The iPhone? They go backwards. This is because Apple does an amazing job of tailoring the latest OS to the latest hardware, far better than Google ever could. But when the new iOS comes out, it's tailored to a new phone, while the older phones get a port that isn't designed with that hardware in mind. Google, however, has always been behind in the smoothness/responsiveness area, so with each update, they catch up a little more. At the day of release, the latest iPhone will be smoother and more responsive than any currently available Android phone. I don't think this is debatable, and I witness it in my own household every release cycle. But what I also witness is that first annual update, when the new iPhone comes out, my wife's phone is usually a mess (iOS 7 was an exception). She always has the urge to upgrade far sooner than me. Currently, I'm running a 2013 Moto X (released August 2013), and she has an iPhone 5s (released October 2013). She's wanted to upgrade since iOS 8 came out and slowed down her device and destroyed her battery, but she doesn't like the size of the iPhone 6. This isn't the lust or a new phone. I, on the other hand, have no inclination to upgrade. My phone is currently as smooth as hers or smoother in the majority of operations since the 5.1 update.
  • Well said, you're dead on Nexus 5 (AT&T)
  • My Nexus 5 is (finally) as smooth on Lollipop as it was on KitKat. Battery life, on the other hand, is another story entirely. It could also be that my phone is over 1.5 years old. Maybe it's time to get a new battery!
  • Definitely have the battery replaced! They wear out and do not hold the same charge as they did from day one. The same thing happened to my Galaxy Nexus and as soon as I ordered a replacement battery from Amazon and popped it in, my battery life noticeably improved again. This is also what influenced my decision in getting the LG G4, since it has a removable battery.
  • Jay: I too have the 2013 Moto X, and am afraid to update to Lolipop 5.1, for fear that I'll have all sorts of problems I've heard others complain about. What's so great about Lolipop that it wouldn't be better just to stick with Kitkat?
  • Well troll, the argument wasn't that fragmentation didn't exist. The position was that: 1. It was a natural consequence of the Android architecture and distribution strategy
    2. It wasn't that big of a deal Nobody has denied that fragmentation existed. Nice try though.
  • Just proves Android has a better adoption rate than Apple.
  • Honestly, don't even try to make a case that Android's updates have anything on Apple. They don't. Not even close.
  • They're completely different. They are literally apples to oranges (androids?). Apple does EVERYTHING in their update process. Google has a three stage update process that's broken down into firmware, applications, and play services. They are all updated independently from another. Want a new update for Safari? Wait until the next iOS platform release. Want a new update to Chrome? They come out roughly every 6 weeks. Google's process allows for quicker innovation, but despite what anyone says, it's still fragmented. For example, Chrome requires Google Play Services + Android 4.0 or higher. Android Wear requires Google Play Services + Android 4.3 or higher. Google Play Services helps, but it's no silver bullet and doesn't unify the platform in the way that many would hope. It just helps to "backport" some features/compatibility to older versions of the firmware. This support currently extends all the way back to Gingerbread, but it's not complete. You won't have a GB phone running the same apps as a phone with Lollipop. But the same could be said for iOS. While the Apple Watch is compatible with iOS 8, which runs all the way back to the iPhone 4, the Watch is not compatible with the iPhone 4 or 4S. So in the end, Apple's process is simpler and easier to understand. Google's allows for faster updates. The oldest phone running the latest iOS was released in June 2010. The oldest phone running Google Play Services that I am aware of on an official software release is the Sony Xperia X10 which was released November 2009. Google's updates support older phone's than Apple's ,and they're quicker and more consistent. You're right in that one update process has nothing on the other. You simply got them reversed.
  • Adoption rate =\= update % Posted via Android Central App
  • "And because the Play Services app updates automatically in the background, and works on all versions of Android back to 2.2 Froyo" Android 2.3 is now the minimum for current versions of Google Play services. This was changed in October 2013. Source: http://android-developers.blogspot.com/2013/10/google-play-services-40.html "With over 97% of devices now running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or newer platform versions, we’re dropping support for Froyo from this release of the Google Play services SDK in order to make it possible to offer more powerful APIs in the future. That means you will not be able to utilize these new APIs on devices running Android 2.2 (Froyo)."
  • Yup. Fixed — thanks!
  • Now if only you'd fix your error in the Moto 360 article, where you claimed the watch was made of plastic :p (only the back is plastic)
  • They did the same in there article for the best Android Wear devices in referring to the G Watch R, they said that was plastic as well.
  • I understand the confusion. If you hold both the silver and black Moto 360s, because of the "paint" or whatever they use, the black one feels like plastic. Both both use 316L stainless steal as per both Motorola and iFixit (and other sources). The ability to make human mistakes, receive corrected info, and actually make the correction without letting your pride get in the way is one thing separates a real journalist from a blogger. Most of AC's writers are REALLY good about this, better than most sites. Alex is just one that keeps doing this. In any article about the Moto 360 he'll harp about the "plastic casing," and so long as he spreads FUD, people will call him out on it. AC is an awesome site. No writer is perfect. But you have to let the facts talk, not your pride. And to be fair, it's why I would fail as a writer as well. (glass stones and all)
  • "...it's scanned by this constantly-updated feature to identify malicious tendencies." Bitdefender just notified me on SS S5 that: "Your device is not safe
    Malicious apps
    Google Play services - Trogan.AndroRat.A" Anybody have any ideas how, what and where this originated?
    I've never heard of it, any input would be appreciated...
  • proves these apps are crap. play service has a build in malware scanner for keep you safe
  • Just uninstall BitDefender and you'll be fine! Posted via the Android Central App
  • I don't know, I'm kinda partial to BitDefender, for at least another 3 days. ;-)
  • Play Services kinda does operate as malware :)
    Hate that battery hog
    Android needs a big fix - it's overdue
    If not , Google has to command OEMs to install 3000+ mAh on all phones that have 1080p screens :)
    Android stand by is just horrible Posted via the Android Central App
  • look like u have no idea what Android M is bringing
  • And what Lollipop promised and yet never achieved... Posted via the Android Central App for Sailfish OS on my iPad 7
  • I didn't refer to M but in general. It's just too big of a draw.
    I do hope they deliver what's promised. Posted via the Android Central App
  • It's referred to as a false positive, something that can happen with any anti-malware scanner. Unless you enabled the option to install from untrusted sources (it's disabled by default) and installed a questionable version of Google Play Services off some website, you're fine.
  • Unfortunately bugs are still possible by the OS and unfix-able by Google Play services. For those of us with Android 5.0 and bugs, we are doomed to wait 3-6 months (or maybe even forever) before getting fixes in 5.1
  • That's correct. And for those with MicroSD cards and KitKat, with no update to 5.x coming, you're stuck with borked MicroSD support.
  • Google should make Android Application framework and ART auto updatable just like how they did it with initial setup.
    That could fix a lot of fragmentation problem related to api's Dont know if OEM's modify the framework
  • yea Google Play Services is so good especially version 7 it can destroy my batter in 6 hours with phone being idle
  • What phone do you have? Posted via the Android Central App
  • Galaxy S Duos running Cyanogenmod 11
  • "I'm running a custom ROM, why isn't my phone running the way that it should be?" Proof that people shouldn't run custom ROMs until they know what they're doing.
  • What if he has this rom long before the update of the play-services?
    It has lower chance that this is because of the rom.
  • Right... Custom ROM and custom Kernel but THIS is what's shitting your battery.. BTW, Cyano is terrible. You need to realize that TW ROMs contain the proper drivers for your device and Cyano are custom made ( like windows generic drivers) Did you even check for wakelocks? If your phone dies when idle, you sir, have a wakelock......
  • Samsung S5 .
  • Right
  • You might want to check out the Ravpower model RP-PB11,
    Li-polymer
    15,000mAh Helps with my issues...
  • What percent of your battery is play services using? Mine is consistently around 2 percent. That means that if my phone is active for ten hours, then play services would use about 15 minutes. That doesn't seem egregious at all to me. I'm using the Google Nexus 6 on stock Android. Posted via the Android Central App
  • When a new apk of Google Play Services is arrived at apkmirrors, I install it immediately. Don't know how to explain it, but it makes me calm. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Insurance for Google, also known as "blackmail". It's the way Google ensures compliance of their fiefdom, and anyone who strays out of line gets blacklisted.
  • Didn't they do that with Adblock last fall? I adored that app.
  • Or could be insurance to ensure Google doesn't spend hundreds of millions of £/$'s on creating an ecosystem/software where another big company (eg Amazon) can come and suck it dry and keep all the profits for themselves...?
  • Could in theory, Play Services shut down a pirated app?
  • yes
  • Again, you should say software update, not firmware update. You update the firmware of the image sensor of the camera or the WiFi chipset on the phone. When you update the OS, that's a software update.
  • Actually, it is device firmware. Unlike desktop Windows, which is an operating system with support for millions upon millions of configurations, Android has to be adapted to each specific device. It is in fact firmware and is labeled as such by Google and OEMs. So, when I see:
    Google - "We call it firmware."
    Every Android OEM - "We call it firmware."
    Brandogg - "It's not firmware." Guess who I'm siding with?
  • Perfect response.. and extremely accurate. I did lol though, love the terminology breakdown.
  • Thank you for the correct terminology. Exactly why I joined this site - to learn, so as to correctly express myself in language that is coherent, precise and to the point.
  • You have much to learn. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Any programming code is software. Firmware is a subset of software. The distinction is that firmware is intrinsic to the basic functioning of a piece of hardware. So, in the PC world the computer's BIOS software is firmware and Windows is operating system software. Another analogy is your brain. The firmware is the parts that perform basic function necessary to like; breathing, heartbeat etc. The parts that perform higher functions such as reasoning and logic is the software.
  • Not sure if it cures the fragmentation issue. I can install MS Word etc on my Nexus 5 on lollipop and my Moto E on kitkat, but not on my Samsung Tab 2 7.0 tablet on Jellybean. I can screencast from my Nexus 5 but not the other 2 devices. These to me are fragmentation issues. Posted via the Android Central App
  • Then it's time to buy some newer stuff bruh
  • Google Play Services offers you the best services you are looking and wanting for your phone. They have the complete package of entertainment. http://www.crittermap.com/app/blue-carbon-analog-watch-face/
  • ok so I'm not a dev, but as a consumer play services make me mad. keep getting notifications on my watch " an app needs services to update " or something to that effect. can't find it in my play store. when I look in settings, the uninstall update button is grayed out( most forum say to uninstall update and re- install to fix problems) and to afraid to hit the clear data button. what eva this thing is, I wish Google wud just fix it so my watch stops disconnecting Posted via AC app on my X 14
  • Good article. Learned more about Play Services and the purposes it serves.
  • Thanks for this article. I remember when the announcement for Play Services was made and I thought then it was a game changer. Until Google decoupled play services updates from OS updates, the carriers were the gatekeepers for unrooted, locked down devices. And shoddy gatekeepers they were, too. To use the Play Store to deliver updates and security features without having to say "mother, may I" to the carriers has been a godsend. That's why I roll my eyes whenever I see yet another CNET or BGR article bemoaning the "fragmentation" in Android. These articles rarely account for delivery of enhancements outside of OS updates, and even when they do, they often still miss important information. It's one of the many reasons why I continue to happily drive an HTC One m8 phone and a Nexus 7 2013 tablet. Posted via Android Central App