Why would Google pull the Google Now Launcher from the Play Store?

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 (opens in new tab) 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.

Download: Google Now Launcher (free) (opens in new tab)

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 (opens in new tab). 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 (opens in new tab). 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.

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.

  • For pixel, nexus or any phone that comes pre installed with google now launcher this in Going to be nothing different for them. Nothing will change because gnl is system file and don't need an update at all and the launcher is still supported by Google app update. they can format phone and gnl can be used. But the problem is for people who download gnl from play store. It will continue to work but if they format they will have to side load or use other launcher
  • Really good read. Still, sad face.
  • No need...There's so much better stuff out there and always has been. OEM's will be able to start throwing in the swipe right for Google now in their launchers, along with what ever other few features the launcher offers. But the Granular control that you get with something like Nova launcher makes it so vastly superior that I have no problem seeing the GNL go. I can understand why why some people would though, I guess if they like the look, simplicity, and don't mind its lack of capabity
  • Yeah, I moved on from GNL some time ago. Still kinda makes me sad.
  • Not sure if others mentioned but too many comments to look through. Something I didn't see this article mention which they should if they really want to inform readers, the Nova Launcher has gestures that can be set to open Google now cards. That's what I do, I double tap my screen and there it is. You can also set to swipe. So the GNL isn't the only one tks allows you to easily access the cards.
  • The bad news is that most manufacturers won't integrate this in the future, as they already have their own "swipe right" stuff preinstalled. Just like the conversation on the most recent podcast, manufacturers use their own stuff for the potential revenue that it produces. I was going to ask though, is this side loadable in the future?
  • It is, just like any other app that have been pulled from the playstore.
  • Do we think the Pixel Launcher will see a similar path? Being exclusive for some time only to be made available for everyone down the line?
  • It is already on the play store
  • It's not in my Play Store.
  • "Why would Google pull the Google Now Launcher from the Play Store?"... Because it's Google, and Android, and it's still a hot mess and always be. If not for cheap and free phones Android wouldn't be around. What about Samsung you say? In a few years they will drop Android and be 100% Tizen.
  • Lol, people have been making the Tizen prediction for years. It's always just a few years away.
  • Hey Nick, it's too bad you're forced to use Android. If only you had the freedom to choose what you wanted to use. Oh, wait.....
  • I love hearing from people who have never used Tizen on a phone
  • I develop Tizen apps. So yeah, I've used it.
  • Oh, so now you develop apps for Tizen? Right.....
  • I know you're lying becase NO ONE makes apps for tizen
  • Poor Nick. Get over it buddy. From the lowest end Android phone to the highest end hardware that not only can cost more, but is superior to Apple's best, Android has taken over the world. Apple still makes a killing in the high end, which is their objective. So don't get butt hurt about Android's global domination.
  • There is an approximately zero percent chance of Samsung dropping Android in any time frame where we could imagine any of us would still care.
  • When are they going to drop the Pixel phone and call it something else? No longer support it.
  • Give it a year or two, that is the Google way. 
  • Google Now Launcher is gone because it was a dud. It was meant for the Nexus and now that the Nexus is gone there is no way it can survive in a massive sea of competition which includes Googles own Pixel Launcher.
  • Except that launcher only works on pixel devices. The GNL launcher worked on any device w/ android 4.1+
  • Google will eventually support pixel launcher for all devices 4.4+ with Now integration. I think pixel launcher looks better than GNL
  • If Google used that logic we wouldn't have hangouts, google voice, allo, duo, and messenger
  • Definitely my least favorite launcher. No big loss.
  • Dang, didn't realize Google catered Android to your need specifically and no one else's! Must be nice.
  • It would be, if the launcher didn't suck. 😉
  • Yea, too bad you didn't offer any facts on why it sucks. Your opinion means nothing unless you provide reasons why it sucks and why the one you use is better.
  • TeslaCoil, might wanna make it so that rooted users can access the Google Now page, like Action 3.
  • I used Barry and Lacey as examples of developers who really need some path to be able to use the new search launcher services API. It would need to be completely checked and vetted by Google, and then put in the Play Store fro everyone to download. You will never convince me that people at Samsung or LG or anyone else are better qualified when it comes to home screen utilities than the people behind Nova Launcher and Action Launcher. Put the trust portion on Google by using a process similar to what Apple does for apps that want to include a system level component. I'd use AL3 or Nova with the same Google Now features as GNL in a heartbeat, and so would millions of others. I really hope Google is working on some way to get these new APIs to the people who can do good things with them instead of the OEMs who only want to wreck things.
  • This.
  • Well said Jerry. Give the millions of people that installed GNL on their phones a path to keep GN cards.
  • I love Google Now Launcher. For me it's the simplicity that makes it so powerful. You can laugh all you want but it was GNL that changed the way I did Android.
  • I wouldn't laugh. I feel the same way about Nova.
  • +1
  • Ya but Nova is actually powerful....Like 1000 X more so than GNL. The latter doesn't give you much more than an iPhone does, lol. I personally don't find that very powerful
  • Yeah but some people really like simple.
  • They most certainly do
  • I've been using GNL since the day i decided to switch to Android, at first i didn't like it since the icons were to big and considering the fact i have a NEXUS 6 damnnn, those icons were too big, but after i updated to Nougat i can customize the screen size, fonts and icons. I love simplicity it brings, Nova is good but as an old iPhone user i love sticking with first party.
  • For us that bought a non rootable android phone that can't have the swipe to Google Now on our Nova Launcher and are consoled by the Google Now Launcher, what do we do now that it's going away???
  • You keep using it. It doesn't get updated through the GNL app, only through the Google app. Your next phone should have something better, but if not, side load any version of the GNL app and it will work just like it does today.
  • Couldn't developers give the option to root users?
  • Or does Google have a way to selectively allow their API to be used? I know you're supposed to be a partner or whatever but what prevents a developer from just doing it anyway.
  • Yep. Not quite sure how, but Lacey is doing it with Action Launcher.
  • Okay with me. I never liked GNL's giant icons and lack of customization. Nova FTW!
  • Actually since Nougat you can reduce the size of the icons and the screen real state.
  • Side Load. It's pretty simple.
  • Clearly I'm not a serious Google Now user because I don't know what I'm missing by using Nova Launcher w/out that system level integration. Nova's latest update maps the Google app to a button that looks like the Pixel launcher's "G" slider, so I still have easy access to GN cards & such. What would integration enable?
  • No significant loss. People who have it can keep it. People who really want it will side load it. Hasn't been updated since 2015 so it's unlikely anything will break.
  • Big whoop. With Nova prime launcher who needs it?
  • Google is confused as I am!
  • Now You can get pixel launcher from play store
  • Currently using a Samsung Note 4, and by pressing and holding the Home button, it takes me to Google Now. Originally, swiping right brought me to Flipboard, which I promptly disabled so I can swipe in either direction and flip through my apps.
  • That's because the Note 4 is on an older os version. Ever since marshmallow holding home button now gives you on tap.
  • Nova is way superior anyway. No big loss.
  • Goes to apkmirror and saves the apk file!
  • So it'll go back the way it was when it was a Nexus exclusive yet I had it on my G2(no they weren't the same phones, shutty)? Someone will just rip the APK and distribute it thru other than the Play store
  • I think they're just replacing it with the pixel launcher.
  • Did this launcher allow you to sync the launcher across different android devices??