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Why Google Play Services is more important than the Nexus 5

Gordon Kelly

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Why Google Play Services is more important than the Nexus 5

This month it is fair to say Google has everyone baffled. The world’s press waited around in utter confusion on 15 October for an impromptu event to launch the much-leaked Nexus 5 and Android 4.4 - which never came. Then yesterday we were primed for an official event that ultimately offered scribes nothing more than the chance to "better acquaint themselves with Google Play.” Better acquaint? It is like being told Christmas has been delayed so you can better acquaint yourselves with Sainsburys.

The next big date for our calendars is supposed to be 31 October, but with less than five days to go nothing official has come from Google. So the wait goes on for two updates many predict will be the company's most important of the year. There is some truth in this, but they're wrong.

There is something else Google must put under the spotlight, something far more important than another Nexus and an Android point release. It is an app, on the surface quite a dull app which has been around since September 2012, but an app which just so happens to be the future of Android. Its name is 'Google Play Services'.

What is Google Play Services?

According to the app’s official description Google Play Services is “used to update Google apps and apps from Google Play”, but what makes it special is its near-limitless level of access. Whereas some apps may want permission to access your contacts or your location, Google Play Services has the right to access and modify virtually every aspect of Android. A grab of these is below... spread over two screens.

Scary? No the scary part is Google Play Services can also give itself new permissions at any time to do even more and that if you try to uninstall it virtually every app on your phone will no longer function. Try it (Settings – Apps – All – Google Play Services - Force Stop) then open some apps. Yes it is time to reboot.

This being Google the scary aspects are obvious: privacy and control. That said in choosing Android or any other rival ecosystem for that matter you made your choice a long time ago. Besides the real value to the tool are its game changing benefits.

Fixing Fragmentation

Google Play Services enables Android to virtually eliminate fragmentation. It runs on Android 2.2 upwards and its range of system wide permissions and APIs allow the following to be split from the OS and made upgradeable from the Google store: Search/Now, Calendar, Keyboard, Chrome, Maps, Gmail, Hangouts, Google Plus, Drive, Play Books/Music/Movies/Magazines/Games, Voice, Keep, YouTube, Wallet and Google Apps policies.

What is Android left to control? App settings, the lock screen, system UI (including notification bar), drivers and hardware support. Google Play Services gets even greater power in Android 4.0 and above, but in essence it makes the platform almost entirely modular.

As such what did Android users get in the last year via Google Play? Overhauled search/Now, Maps, Gmail, Chrome, Hangouts, Calendar, Plus, Drive and Voice along with free access to QuickOffice (in your face free iWork) and the introduction of Google Keep. It didn’t matter what your handset maker did or didn’t update or what Android version your network allowed. By contrast what did Android 4.3 bring? A new camera UI, restricted user profiles and Bluetooth 4.0 and Open GL ES support. Were this Apple it is clear which one sounds like a new version of iOS.

Apple likes to bang on about Android fragmentation, but Google developer statistics claim 98.7 per cent of active Android devices run v2.2 or above and all Play updates were immediately available to them. Google Play Services makes fragmentation by Android version number an outdated way of thinking.

Prepping the Future

As much as keeping Android up to date, Google Play Services is also the distribution tool for implementing Android’s future. Back in May Google I/O attained widespread acclaim for adding a raft of location, sign-in and notification syncing APIs, but what went less noticed is they were introduced using, yes, Google Play Services.

Now with Android 4.4 around the corner and talk building of a Gem smartwatch it is time for Google Play Services to introduce another raft of APIs and permissions because whatever Android needs to be this is the tool to transform it.

Is Google Play Services now Google’s primary development platform rather than Android itself? Given how easily Android can be forked, I’d say so.

In fact the signs are already there. Android 5.0 was rebadged as Android 4.4 earlier this year no doubt to reduce the disconnect felt by those stuck on 4.x. Even switching the name from Key Lime Pie to a KitKat tie-in makes it feel more playful and less crucial to the enhancement of your phone. After all there a better message: don't worry about Android versions, all the good stuff now comes through Google Play and that's for everyone.

Will Google make this point when the Nexus 5 and Android 4.4 are finally launched? Possibly. Will they point to Google Play Services as the reason why? Probably not.

In some ways this is understandable. Putting the spotlight on Google Play Services is exposing the belly of the beast. The all-knowing, all-controlling tool that has happily drifted under the radar so far. It would be easier instead to focus on handset displays, megahertz and megapixels and pad it with news of the Play Store interface update we know is coming and maybe a YouTube music subscription service. It all makes for fluffier, more digestible stories to get our heads around.

But make no mistake the puppet master behind it all is Google Play Services. It is far and away the most important part of Google’s mobile strategy and it is time the company admitted it...

Next, read our comparison of the Nexus 7 2 and the Kindle Fire HDX tablets

Nate Ebner

October 25, 2013, 5:19 pm

Thanks Gordon.
A great article. Well written and concise, clear without being patronising.
Your work is a real credit to this site!

Chris

October 25, 2013, 5:34 pm

Good article - still no sign of any announcement. I wonder if Google are trying to avoid the stock issues they faced with the Nexus 4 last year - and possibly combine the launch of KitKat with the new Nexus 10 as well? We shall find out... though at this rate not until into November.

Borkr

October 25, 2013, 7:53 pm

I don't know. When I stop Google Play Services apps work fine, even without GP Services running in the background. Maybe it handles differently on different phones/Android OS's?

I'm only using Android 4.2.2 on a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone (GT-I9505).

One thing I will say is a lot of (good) Google Apps won't work for Eclair 2.1, which is a shame as there's a fair few of my friends/relatives still using that.

Fragmentation... Are the issues the same as they were 2 or 3 years ago? To me, it's probably the hardware differences that create the biggest headaches for devs, such as processing power and screen resolutions. My biggest surprise is why there are still so many exclusive apps being developed for iOS when Android is surely a more enticing marketplace through sheer numbers or will grow to be? So, hardware parity? I dunno.

Privacy... what privacy? :/

Edit - my other submission is awaiting moderation so to add:

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets...

quoting user comment from jdale (from link above): "Since this framework is closed source and depends on the Google Play store, it also cuts off anyone who tries to fork the underlying Android layer. That means you, Amazon. It also limits what Samsung can do with their big Android market share. In some ways that's good, in other ways it is bad for users." kinda like what TR commenter AlanP says,

Marvin P.

October 25, 2013, 8:49 pm

Well designed apps should work fine without Google Play Services. Developers know that there's no guarantee of the Google Play Services app even being installed on the phone. This means that any call to Google Play Services needs to be wrapped in an if-statement that checks whether or not it's available. And I think most developers do that at this point.

AlanP

October 25, 2013, 8:55 pm

Shame you missed the most important aspect which is Google Play is not open source so you have an open source OS where everything has to be done through a closed API. In effect Google have replicated Apple's walled environment with the same advantages/disadvantages.

Android fan

October 26, 2013, 5:18 am

You should read the article once again, my friend.

Fixing Fragmentation works on upwards of Android 2.2. And that's reason stopping Google Play services does not stop you from using other apps. However, you are missing out on crucial updates to google's core apps ( viz. Search/Now, Calendar, Keyboard, Chrome, Maps, Gmail, Hangouts, Google Plus, Drive, Play Books/Music/Movies/Magazines/Games, Voice, Keep, YouTube) as and when they are released. These apps are continuously updated throughout the year, though the Android version remains the same on your phone. This can only be done by Google Play services on upwards of Android 2.2

Also, 98.7% of Android users are above 2.2, so its high time for you to update your Android version.

TrOuBLeDbOy

October 26, 2013, 8:58 am

i don't understand , can someone dumb it down for me?

jeux999

October 26, 2013, 1:03 pm

"Android 5.0 was rebadged as Android 4.4 earlier this year no doubt to reduce the disconnect felt by those stuck on 4.x"

..source?

Gordon Kelly

October 26, 2013, 2:22 pm

Google will help you with that, it says very widely publicised. Just one of many sources http://www.phonesreview.co.uk/...

Gordon Kelly

October 26, 2013, 2:24 pm

Are you trying third party apps by chance? My point is virtually all core Google apps will not work. You're certainly right that hardware is now the biggest upgrade motivation.

2.2 introduced a lot of changes which is why I suspect the cut off is there. To be fair that goes back a long way and the line has to be drawn somewhere.

Gordon Kelly

October 26, 2013, 2:24 pm

Thanks Nate, kind of you to say.

Guest

October 26, 2013, 6:02 pm

"with the same advantages/disadvantages."
I doubt the play store hampers the way apple does (control freak), or censorship in various forms (play store does minimal moderation)

google play also does not get in the way of third party apps/ markets , now do they ? of course they are getting a bit protective of their work - but they are doing it in a way that makes the leechers either get into the contributors list or struggle to keep up with their own set of services (amazon, aliyun, samsung probably wants to be there)

holo is a pretty polished design language, and is getting better al lthe time. google's pace is pretty good, now wonder apple is facing the heat - and resorting to negative tactics such as slander about fragmentation

Borkr

October 26, 2013, 6:07 pm

The 2.2 cut off appears to be directly related to Google's decision to only provide the new Google Play Store app to those devices running Froyo and above. Whatever the technical reason I don't know but it's clear they don't care about the 1% (their data, linked below) of users below the Froyo-mark. This is essentially what the article's about.

http://developer.android.com/a...
Actually, in reply to Android fan, it would be nice to know the technical reason why perfectly good phones - ZTE Blade, HTC Legend, T-Mobile Pulse etc are now defunct or stuck in un-upgradeable land. And not everyone is savvy with rooting and ok with installing new ROMs and all the technical issues that occur so that's not a workable or very good option for most to take.

And yes, I think I got the gist of Gordon's argument. I agree that the Nexus 5 isn't important, it doesn't (thus far seem to) represent any kind of sea change or even small evolutionary step forward in Android's evolution. There's no apparent evolution in hardware either. We've already got 4G, 1080p screens, 64bit is on the way, NFC is widely available etc.

Yes, the issue of the Google Play Services app that is seemingly so central to Android having so many permissions is of concern as it may represent an obvious security target. This is the point of the article? And that it holds up all other core Google apps like the keyboard, calendar etc?

I'm not pretending to be smart, I'm asking questions and trying to figure through what this means exactly. I tried stopping the Google Play Services app myself as instructed and yes, with a third party app also. First - there's no option to stop the service the way Gordon's demonstrated for my phone, only the option to disable it, which as GK says, doesn't seem a good idea. No option to uninstall either. I could only stop it using the 3rd party app System Panel I recall. I'm only reporting what I've done and asking questions to get more clarity on the issue.

Android fan, I realise why you've written what you wrote now. You seem to have missed the fact I'm using a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone with Android version 4.2.2. No, not time for me to upgrade my friend. I'm as up to date as can be. And I disagree that older phones should be forced into retirement as Google won't give them the updated Google Play Services app, for which reason might make a more interesting article, at least for people like me who don't feel phones should be forced into the bin just because... if there's a good reason then fine. Tech moves on sure but I don't think the extra megahertz processing power is the reason those people on 2.1 or lower cannot run Google apps like the keyboard, Chrome browser, Calendar etc do you?

MikkaMakkaMoo

October 26, 2013, 9:14 pm

I read a lengthy article about that the other day too.

http://arstechnica.com/gadgets...

terry

October 27, 2013, 11:40 am

I've lost interest in nexus 5. Silly games Google playing. They can keep it to themselves. S4 can be rooted so gonna get that and bugger nexus 5.

jeux999

October 27, 2013, 12:20 pm

thanks! actually that page has no proof in it, it's just someone's opinion! factually, google never specified that the next release would be 5.0, you were just speculating that's what it would be. this leads me to discount your work, so it's wise to link me to a page with actual facts that this happened, rather than someone else's musings.

zuron7

October 27, 2013, 12:31 pm

Are you bonkers, my friend? Does apple let you modify your operating system?

Gordon Kelly

October 27, 2013, 1:14 pm

Thanks for the comment AlanP - for me that isn't the most important aspect of Google Play Services though since Android has never truly been open source.

Yes you could fork it much like you can fork any piece of software, but the core entitlements of Android such as the Play store were always conditional on you following strict guidelines.

Gordon Kelly

October 27, 2013, 1:25 pm

Thanks for the feedback. Linking to another source was to provide neutrality and I'm sure you know you can find many examples by Googling 'Android Key Lime Pie 5.0'. Here are a bunch for Trusted:

http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

http://www.trustedreviews.com/...

Google changed the number at the same time it announced the switch from KLP to KitKat. I'm sure you have noticed I always link to many sources in my editorials. I tend not to when I believe something to be common knowlege.

Gordon Kelly

October 27, 2013, 1:28 pm

That was actually the dumbed down version of quite a complex thing ;)

Reducing it again: a service called Google Play Services continually runs in the background in Android and can do anything it likes to your phone. This control allows Google to break up the core elements of Android into easily upgradeable apps from the Play Store. This combats fragmentation and makes the version numbers of Android less important. That said it comes at the expense of giving up privacy and control of your Android devices. .

Gordon Kelly

October 27, 2013, 1:29 pm

Thanks for the link, that's a really good piece. Fingers crossed this will help push Google Play Services more into the spotlight.

Gordon Kelly

October 27, 2013, 1:32 pm

It is an intriguing one and I've never seen the press so confused by launch timing. We've sat around on the 15th, 24th and now everyone is marking the 31st in their calendars yet with no official event announced by Google.

I'd like to think stock is something it'll get right this time and is a factor as demand will be huge. That said I honestly don't know why things are so murky... perhaps there is simply too much speculation (heaven forbid!)

mothergoose85

October 27, 2013, 9:38 pm

I think it's a fair approach - Google doesn't want to support 2.1 and earlier because it's old and well behind the current architecture. All the users with those phones must be at the end of their 2 year contracts by now so should be able to upgrade away from it (I've no figures apart from the activations we see with our app, it was so low that we stopped supporting it as it reduced the test effort we had to go through).

Gordon Kelly

October 28, 2013, 11:21 am

Like so many things Google and other major tech giants do it has the potential for so much good and so much evil. Whether Google, Apple or Microsoft are any better than one another in this respect it open to debate.

Gordon Kelly

October 28, 2013, 11:22 am

I can relate, but I'm sure that'll change once it is officially announced :)

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