The latest dead Google project is Android Things, a version of Android meant for the Internet of Things. Google announced it had basically given up on the project as a general-purpose IoT operating system in 2019, but now there’s an official shutdown date thanks to a new FAQ page detailing the demise of the OS.
The Android Things Dashboard, which is used for managing devices, will stop accepting new devices and projects in just three weeks—on January 5, 2021. Developers will be able to continue updating existing deployments until January 5, 2022, at which point Google says “the console will be turned down completely and all project data will be permanently deleted—including build configurations and factory images.”
Android Things was a stripped-down version of Google phone OS meant for the Internet of Things, a network of small, cheap devices like sensors and smart home devices. The idea was that Android would bring wide hardware compatibility, an established app SDK, and easy access to Google’s cloud platform to IoT, along with regular security updates, which are currently unheard of in the fire-and-forget IoT firmware space. Android gets a lot of flak for its inability to update every smartphone quickly, but that’s based on smartphone standards. In IoT, where your device will probably never get a firmware update, Android’s typical three-to-six-month-late update cycle would be an incredible upgrade to the nightmare security world of IoT.
For Android Things, Google actually took the Apple-style update strategy that many wish the company would take for Phone Android. Modifying the OS was banned, and Google said updates would be centrally distributed by Google to every device for three years. IoT admins just had to hit the “ship update” button on the Android Things Dashboard, which Google created specifically for remotely managing Android Things devices and shipping OS and app updates.
The problem with Android Things was that Android is really heavy, and while an OS for smartphones can be extended to cars and TVs pretty easily, Android Things devices were always bigger, more power-hungry, and more expensive than typical IoT form factors. Google tried to strip the OS down by removing things like the system UI, settings, widgets, telephony, USB support, NFC, biometrics, and more, but it never got to a small, cheap form factor. I think the smallest test form factor was a 2-inch-square board that used a low-end smartphone chip (a Snapdragon 212) that you would typically find on a $100 smartphone.
Android Things’ failure in the IoT space led to a pivot toward smart speakers and smart displays built by OEMs. As far as we know, Google never built a device based on Android Things. Its own smart displays and speakers use a modified version of the Google Cast platform, which might have something to do with Google being able to consistently undercut its Android Things-based competition, like the Lenovo Smart Display.
“Android for Everything” has some winners and some losers
Android Things was part of what we’ll call the “Android for Everything” strategy, where Google tried to extend the Android-for-phones model to other form factors. The company pushes a no-cost OS onto a market segment, giving device manufacturers an easy, low-cost way to get up and running with a solid, updatable OS with a strong developer and app ecosystem. The best example of this is, of course, regular Android for smartphones—sure, you could build your own OS, work with hardware vendors for support, and build your own SDK, and you could attempt to continue development after launch and ship security updates and hope an app ecosystem develops. But Google is giving all of that away for free! Building all of that yourself would cost money, while adopting Android won’t. You have to sign a few contracts with Google and follow a few rules, but would you rather your next quarterly earnings report include heavy line items for long-term OS development, or would you rather just start selling stuff now with Android?
After phones, Google’s next most successful market with this approach is probably TVs, where various Smart TV vendors can ship Android TV and get access to all the major streaming services, great hardware support, and even access to a few games. There is a lot of TV competition from Roku, Samsung’s Tizen, LG’s WebOS, and others, but Android TV is doing well. Google’s market with the next most potential is probably car infotainment systems, where car manufacturers have typically struggled to keep up with the experience provided by smartphones, and a sales pitch like “get Google Maps and tons of media apps in your car!” is pretty good. Android Automotive is just starting to hit the market on the Polestar 2.
In the “losers” category, we have Android-for-watches, aka Wear OS, which never got off the ground due to a lack of chips. Qualcomm finally made a semi-modern smartwatch chip this year, but it seems like too little, too late. Android for tablets, which is really just phone Android, never worked out because Google couldn’t be bothered to maintain the OS’s tablet interface or a suite of Google tablet apps. Google’s “Daydream VR” group started to cook up Android-for-VR-headsets—they’re both phone-powered headsets and one or two standalone models. Android’s app ecosystem and touchscreen prowess never really translated to VR, so it’s not clear why you would want an Android headset. The phone-based headset is officially dead, and Google stripped the VR features out of the Android codebase with version 10.
When Android Things launched in May 2018, Google promised “free stability fixes and security patches for three years” for every Android Things device, and it told developers its hardware was “certified for production use with guaranteed long-term support for three years.” This put Google on the hook until May 2021, but based on both the FAQ and the official Android Things releases page, it sounds like Google did not honor that promise. The last Android Things release listed was August 2019, putting Google’s actual update support at one year, three months. Android Things will no longer support new devices starting two years and eight months after launch, and the whole thing will be shut down three years and eight months after launch.