Android 2.2 is out, and it's pretty nice! But what's next for Android? A better keyboard? More sexy? And how exactly does Google decide what goes into each version of Android anyway? Let's ask Lead Android Andy Rubin.
The highlights, if you don't want to read the interview below (which is fairly interesting if you're into Android, if I do say so myself):
• It's actually "pretty random" what goes into every version of Android, and they don't plan more than one release out
• There's not much they can do about phones with custom UIs lagging behind on new versions of Android
• They know the keyboard could use some work
• HTC may very well be on their own with Apple's patent lawsuit
• The next 6 months will "blow your mind"
Gizmodo: So my personal thing, the one question I want to ask personally, is when is the keyboard going to get better?
Andy: I mean, it does need a little bit of improvement. I think we did a pretty good job given that it's pretty generic for all different screen sizes—you have small screens, big screens, you have landscape, you have portrait. But what I think you start needing is more specific for the device. It's a framework—pretty generic—and we need to do a little better job. The voice team, I think, did a good job of basically making the keyboard kind of optional in some areas. I speak to my phone when I'm sending SMSes. I speak to it, and correct it a little bit with the keyboard. My primary use case is voice, but I think you're right, we do need to be kind of reviving it a little bit.
A lot of that, it's not necessarily the software—a lot of the time it's the type of touch screen the OEM uses. You've seen all those tests where they have like the Droid touchscreen, the Nexus touchscreen—they're all a little different and it's hard to make one keyboard work across all those different flavors of touch screens.
Gizmodo: We're up to Froyo 2.2 now, but we have devices with custom interfaces, which often lag behind latest version of Android. People with, say, a Droid Eris or a Hero waited around 6 months or longer just to get to 2.1, and now 2.2 is coming. So how do you address that sort of issue and where does Google stand on that type of thing?
Andy: I mean, if I was like a dictator I would enforce this stuff and everyone would have to have the same version at the same time and there would be a big switch with great fanfare, but it's just not in the cards. So we'll do a great version, and if they decide to adopt it, they'll adopt it. The difference between those two models: The first model, it's really hard for people to differentiate, everybody gets the same thing. So you are kind of commoditizing a whole slew of companies in the process and that's painful because people will literally go out of business potentially. In our model, it allows differentiation. At the platform layer, it is still compatible, so the apps in the marketplace will still run in the platform. But yeah, they have to modulate how quickly they can put their differentiating features on top of the base platform, and that's a race.
Gizmodo: But if you're not running 2.1, for instance, you can't get the official Twitter app.
Andy: I mean there are apps written for Vista, just like Photoshop CS5 does not run on Windows 3.1. I mean it's just a fact, there's nothing new here. This is how it has always been and that's why I made the distinction of legacy. We have legacy and if somebody wants to use a feature that's in the new OS, they really can't run that app on an older OS. So it's just things are happening so quickly that it becomes really obvious that we went from 2.0 to 2.2 in a very short time frame. I think that will slow down a little bit. I'm actually advocating coming out with releases around the buying seasons, May and September, October.
Gizmodo: So how does the update process go? How do you decide what goes into each release?
Andy: It's pretty random. We roadmap one release out, so we don't plan out the year, or two years or five years like a lot of other people do. It's more run like an internet company would run it, so there's a lot of iteration and what we are finding is innovation comes from all over the place. Like the Simplify Media guys, that was a company we acquired and now their stuff is in the Froyo release.
Gizmodo: HTC been in a sort of interesting position in terms of patents—they're licensing technology from Microsoft. That kind of actually makes Android not free for them to use. Are you worried about that in the future?
Andy: If I do an implementation of an MP3 codec, down the line, the guy selling the device—the guy that's making the money—he's going to have to pay a royalty to the MPEG association, the guys who own that intellectual property around that. If I implement the ActiveSync protocol and talked to Exchange servers, somebody's going to have to pay Microsoft for the royalty. And that happens in phones today—there's no difference between Android or something else.
Gizmodo: What is it you want to fix or add to an Android next? Like what's on your list of "Things I Wished I Could Have Done"?
Andy: Well, even to me, when we released the first version, it didn't feel like a 1.0, it kind of felt like a 0.8. If you look at where we were 18 months ago and where we are today, that just makes the future brighter. Because the rate at which we went from that kind of 0.8 to 2.2 was so fast that we're just earning how to master that type of engineering—that type of iterative engineering—and all of the innovation, I mean it's game on. There is going to be stuff that's just going to blow your mind. In 6 months. Before it was 18 months, now it's 6 months.
Gizmodo: So where do you want to see Android in a year or two, in terms of bigger goals?
Andy: For Android it's a numbers game. It's an end product with end OEMs and product categories today, but what we demonstrated at IO was pretty unique. We demonstrated big screen and small screen; we demonstrated ARM processor and Intel processor, and we demonstrated stuff from different OEMs: HTC, and Sony on the TV side. So look, we're cross product category, cross manufacturer, cross CPU architecture, agnostic, and we have all the services pointed to the platform, and the platform is just going to go pretty broad across those product categories. It's never been done before.
If you look at it as a graph, we're right in the middle of a hockey stick right now. You don't realize that you're right in the middle of it until after the fact and you're looking at it—oh that's where it was, but we're right in the middle of it right now. So I think it's just going to be exponential in the amount of adoption.
Thanks to Google VP of Engineering, and head of Android Andy Rubin for talking to us!