There is some indication that Google is pulling the Google Now Launcher from the Play Store sometime before the end of March 2017 (Q1). Besides trying to find out more details about this one, we're also left wondering why?
Let's start at the beginning. The Google Now Launcher is a home screen manager that Google made using the Android launcher code as a base. Originally only for the Nexus 5, it later expanded to include all Nexus and Google Play edition phones. Eventually, every phone that has Android 4.1 or later could go to Google Play and install it like any other launcher. It is also the launcher that comes with recent Nexus phones, including the Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X.
The Google Now part of the Google Now Launcher is still here and can be used by the people who made your phone.
It's not an open source Android thing — it's an app made by Google that might come with your phone but isn't part of Android the same way Google Keep is. It's exactly like ASUS' Zen Launcher in this respect — built using the Android code as a base, part of the out-of-the-box software on some phones and available for everybody in the Play Store.
It's a two-piece system
But there is a big difference in how it works because the Google Now Launcher is made of two parts. The "launcher" part — the screen where you can put icons and folders or widgets — and the Google Now part, where you can swipe to the right and see all your Google Now cards.
The launcher portion was pretty basic as far as Android launchers go. You could have more than one screen and fill them with widgets and shortcuts to your apps, but the only additional feature was access to Google Now. The basic look is what appealed to some of us and what turned some of us off because other launchers can do so much more. Having access to Google Now cards was also a reason folks installed it, along with the hot word detection so you could activate the voice assistant without pushing or tapping any buttons. If you never tried it, it's worth having a look before it goes the way of Google Reader and flies off into the sunset.
Only half is going away
Without getting too technical, let's try to sort out what's happening. If the app is pulled from Google Play you'll not be able to go install it unless you installed it previously (so go install it right now). In that sense, the app is gone. But the best part of the app — the Google Now cards and voice integration — hasn't been killed off, it's been given away.
Google Now is already on your phone; the launcher was just a shortcut to get there.
That part of the Google Now Launcher is also part of the Google app. Every Android phone that has Play Store access has the Google app installed, and what you see when you slide right to look at your cards is part of what the Google app does. It's also the reason why people who root their phone can add the cards to Action Launcher — they are already there on every phone. The Google Now Launcher just gave a way to trigger it.
Alongside removing the launcher app, Google is now allowing access to those bits of the Google app through a new Search Launcher Services API. What that means is any company that's an official Android partner can include the Google Now panel on their own launcher. They can take the base Android code and the new API and have a basic home screen launcher that does the same things the Google Now Launcher did without changing anything. They also can change the base code to do a lot more things and still include the Google now bits and pieces. This makes for an easy fix for companies like Motorola who ship their phones using the Google Now Launcher.
What about my Nexus?
Your Nexus will still use the Google Now launcher, and there is no reason to think it will be any different. The launcher part — your home screens and widgets — is mostly made of a few visual changes put on top of the launcher code that's part of Android, and any changes to Android that affects it will be included in any updates.
The Google Now part is updated and maintained through the Google app. We haven't seen any update in the Play Store for Google Now Launcher since November 2015, because there's nothing to update on the home screen side. It's literally just the Android code with some tweaks to "beautify" the look.
There's zero indication that this means the next Nexus update will include the Pixel launcher. Until someone says differently, expect to see zero changes to what you have now and have had since you bought your Nexus.
I can't wait for Google Now integration with Nova Launcher!
That's not going to happen. At least not right now.
Only the people who are building Android phones and are official partners can build the Search Launcher Services into their home screen launchers. That means people like Samsung or LG can do it, but not the folks from TeslaCoil Software who build and distribute Nova Launcher. Or any other developer who doesn't work for an official Google partner.
The integration is done at the system level. That means apps and services that have elevated permissions and access to things apps from Google Play do not have. Only the people making the Android software that runs on your phone can install a system-level application. This is a good thing. You don't want an app you downloaded to be able to do anything outside of itself.
Not allowing apps you install to have more access to the system software is a good thing in general. Not having a program for trusted developers to submit an exception is not.
What's not such a good thing is that there is no path for trusted developers to join the ranks of Android manufacturers. The folks who make Nova Launcher, or Action Launcher or any of the very professional system tools need a way to integrate Google Now without asking their users to root their phones. These are some of the best Android apps available and can be a reason someone chooses an Android phone over an iPhone.
What happens with Android O?
Nobody knows anything except that the home screen launcher won't be called Google Now Launcher. There has to be a launcher app because that's how you get to every other app. Nobody knows what the next version of Android will have for its launcher, but it will have one.
I use Google Now Launcher on my phone, so what should I do?
Nothing. If you like Google Now Launcher, keep using it. Nobody is taking it away from your phone and it's still going to keep working the same way it always has. Remember, the actual launcher part hasn't been touched or updated in well over a year. Any improvements to Google Now, they way the shortcuts or hot word detection works or how it integrates with your phone will come from the Google app like they always have.
Everything will work the same way it always has if you use Google Now Launcher.
Google has taken things we love and killed them off before. It's understandable if your initial reaction to this is thinking that Google is just dropping all support for everything but the Pixel. But that's not really the case. It's more like spring cleaning, where things you don't use any longer are either taken to the curb or given to someone else who can use them. Google has given the Google Now part to all of its partners and doesn't use the rest, so it's tossing it.
The people who were told this information (it wasn't for the public to see) understand what's happening and why this is great news for them. What we need to know is that nothing's changing except that an icon and link in the Play Store are going to disappear, and the next phone we buy is going to be using a new way to do the same thing.