Google Play Services is the new Android platform

Google Play Services App
Google Play Services App (Image credit: Alex Dobie / Android Central)

Google brought one of Android 11's best privacy features to every Android phone the company still actively supports, and it did it through the magic of Google Play Services.

Soon, every phone running a version of Android 6 or later will be able to automatically revoke system permissions if you haven't used the app in a while. Android 6 is the cutoff because it's also the minimum version that supports the latest adaptation of the beast that is Google Play Services. It's also quite old, and you're going to find newer software on all of the best Android phones you can buy in 2021, as well as the not-so-great ones.

This move is more important for your privacy than it may appear at first glance. In an interview with Google's privacy team, I spoke with product manager and privacy specialist Charmaine D'Silva at length about this feature when it was new. Her explanation drives home why this is important:

"There are so many times we actually interact with apps and use them because at that moment, it's really important. As we move away from that situation, that app may not be something you use all the time, so we use the same type of thinking for permission revocation. Say you visit a new city, and you need to use an app for ride-sharing or visit local attractions. When you leave, people usually don't go back and delete these apps very frequently if they have a phone with a lot of storage. That app may still have access to all the permissions you granted, which were completely appropriate and relevant at the time. But if you aren't really using that app, it shouldn't have access to these permissions any longer."

Android Marshmallow

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

Her example in our interview was a hypothetical that many of us could relate to: You're in a new city for work and install a local delivery app to grab a bite to eat while you spend a night in being productive. You get your meal, you enjoy your meal, and once you head back home, you never use that app again. You shouldn't be OK with it staying alive in the background, pinging your location, or checking how long your screen has been on because you no longer benefit from using the app.

An app you don't use shouldn't be collecting your data.

Starting with Android 11, 39 days after you last used an app, any permissions you granted are automatically revoked. You get a notification, so you can choose to prevent it, but other than that, there's no input needed from you. Your data is also safer as a result.

This really drives home the power of Play Services and why Google has worked hard to turn it into what it is today. As someone who values privacy, personal responsibility, and user choice, I don't like the idea of an expanded Google Play Services "platform," but I see the reason why it's evolved so much. I just wish there were other alternatives than just Google's way.

A lot of us just want our phones to be safe and do cool things.

I also recognize that most users would rather know that their phone is more secure and their data is more protected against third parties by default because Google can do so. Play Services is equally powerful as the level of control the company that actually made your phone has over the software. Google makes exceptions for device admin apps like any that would be on a company-supplied phone, but other than that, everything is fair game, and Play Services has the final say.

It had to be this way, though. Google has done everything in its power to make Android easier to update, and we have seen how well this can work. Some companies are more willing to invest time and money (Samsung comes to mind), and we have seen quick security updates as well as a longer level of service, support, and platform updates because of changes to how Android works.

Play Services may give Google too much control, but someone has to take charge.

But not every company is invested in making sure you love your phone after you buy it like Samsung. There are still plenty of companies that do less than the bare minimum when it comes to keeping your phone's software secure and up to date. Google can't have this as it holds the entire platform back. So when holding hands and helping to make it easy didn't work, a new way to mitigate issues and support more unique features had to happen. So it did.

Is a closed component written in-house by Google and distributed to every Android phone with this level of control a good thing? Possibly not. I say it's not, but I also say it's necessary. I know that it's good for the Android ecosystem as a whole and allows you to use a device you love longer than you would be able to without. In the end, that's a positive for all of Android.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

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.

  • It's a good thing. It may not be perfect, but it's hugely net positive for end users.
  • Some of the concepts here are useful and interesting. They're right that people are lazy, but Google deciding "you're not responsible enough to assert your own control," while likely not holding itself to these standards (guessing they don't isolate their own apps/services with these controls) is a bit concerning, when it comes to how much control Google can assert on its users. Rather than trying to encourage users to care about their privacy and be aware of things, they're decided they'll play the role of "helicopter parent" and try to be in control of as much of your decision-making as they can. On its face, I think making an effort to protect privacy and helping the less tech-savvy is good. Given it's Google, a company that will obfuscate things like search results because they don't like what it shows, I'm less trusting of what they'll do and how.
  • Perhaps this is what's best to ensure that Android OS is secure - and stays that way with regards to Apps in the Google Play Store.
  • Frankly, I don't see it as a bad thing now. It's ultimately what keeps Android phones secure and up to date (to the extent that they can be with Google Play Services) long after they're sold.
  • Do you have to stick the: "best Android phones you can buy in 2021" advert in every review? :-/
  • So much of play services in any other setting would be in the os, not a separate layer. Google desperately wishes Android had never been as open as it is, and is actively shoving the genie back in the lamp.
  • Is it it bad???
    Everyone I none...uses a "smart" phone! However, very few of them are as technically inclined/educated/capable as they need to be to keep themselves safe in this modern tech world. Thus the proliferation of identity theft. Even the smartest technophiles get hacked! How many people out there load up apps all day long because they "need" them and click yes to everything without a second thought? Even if they read the fine print most would have no clue what they were even reading. It's all lawyer speak! SO having Google pop up with a prompt as a reminder that certain services will be revoked from an unused app is a good thing. Maybe it will get the end user to wake up a little bit and think about what's going on in their extremely complex, hand held, computerized communications device that's storing their entire online life in many respects!
  • If anything I want Google to pull system level control into more "apps/services". If Android can be more modular, we could get updates longer independently from OEMs
  • I agree. This whole situation is only necessary because most Android device makers are recalcitrant, so Google had to take matters into their own hands. If more OS and security features could be offloaded to Play Services, then one could feel more comfortable with buying from brands that have otherwise excellent devices, but poor updates.
  • They also need to notify users when a dev sells out his app to another company, developer, whatever. Too often I've seen devs sell out and the new devs are crooked. Camscanner comes to mind. Weather apps are a merry-go-round of selling off to new devs who revoke purchases and charge paid users again.
  • Always love Jerry's insights. Helps that I typically agree with them.