It is the Batman of Android. Seemingly endowed with no special super powers but making the most of its own plain-ness: uncluttered, not burdened with unnecessary apps, zero advertising, fast and smooth, and relatively easy to update. Small wonder, it remains the role model for almost every Android UI out there – we always hear brands saying how they are trying to make their own interfaces like it to ensure their users have a smoother experience. Reviewers and geeks alike adore it. It is the proof that no matter how plain and devoid of color it is, vanilla is the king of ice creams.
I am speaking of stock Android.
The darling of the geek classes.
But alas, not of the masses.
There will be those who will be outraged at the notion. Criticizing stock Android can evoke sentiments among its supporters similar to those that visited the hearts of the Nazis when a Jew criticised Hitler in 1930s Germany. It is pure. It is untainted. It is the ideal.
The stark fact, however, is that, unlike Der Fuhrer and the Batman, it does not sell.
As per the latest Counterpoint report, Nokia is back at number one. Well, in a manner of speaking. The research organisation placed Nokia on top of the list of brands that were updating their devices’ software in its report “Software and Security Updates: The Missing Link for Smartphones”. 96 percent of Nokia smartphones sold in Q3’18-Q2’19 were running on Android Pie. Nokia is the flag bearer of stock Android – all its phones run on stock Android and the company has a formidable record when it comes to Android updates.
Well, to put it a little in perspective, rather brutally, a report on global smartphone sales from the same organisation, does not place Nokia even in the top seven brands in terms of smartphones sold in Q2 2019. To give you a slight idea of what Nokia’s share could be, the market share of the brand in seventh place, Lenovo, is three percent! In fact, if one looks in terms of market share, there is only one major stock Android user in the top seven – Lenovo/Motorola. It is not as if the other brands do not have stock Android devices. They do – Xiaomi has the Mi A series, for instance – but they up make a tiny part of their portfolio.
This is a far cry from about two years when Motorola, the brand that famously made stock Android mainstream with its iconic Moto G and Moto E series, had surged back into the top five of the US market, doubling its market share. Its parent company Lenovo too had shown signs of adopting stock Android and with Nokia and Asus on the comeback trail with stock Android as well, it seemed that the time for uncluttered Android had come. Which, many pundits felt, was a good thing. After all, who wanted a cluttered interface full of third party apps that often replicated what was already on the core Android system on the phone – we had phones with multiple browsers, messaging clients, several games (some of which were partial installations) and so on? All those apps and ad-driven services just gobbled resources and could slow down phones. Surely everyone wanted a clean uncluttered Android experience?
Evidently, they did not.
A few years ago, you could have attributed this to the relative unavailability of stock Android devices. But that argument does not hold true today. Stock Android is very much available – Motorola and Nokia have a number of phones running it, Xiaomi has an Android One edition series and Asus has used stock Android on its very popular Zenfone Max Pro series of phones. So, a consumer in the Indian market, for instance, definitely has a number of stock Android devices at their disposal. It is not an issue of availability or even of price – many stock Android devices are available in the sub-Rs 15,000 segment, the very same in which the likes of Redmi and Realme have been selling millions of units.
All of which makes one wonder if stock Android is the magic bullet that many of us (including Yours Truly) believed it was. No, there is no doubting the fact that it is clutter free and that it gives you far more control over your device than a “skinned UI” would. And well, as I pointed out earlier, it comes with a number of other benefits – it is clean and uncluttered, relatively easier to update, more secure, free of ads, free of bloatware, able to fight crime dressed in a bat costume at nights (oh all right, that is a bit much perhaps).
But what it clearly is not is a crucial factor in product sales. It is rapidly becoming the equivalent of an art film that critics applaud and the box office ignores. It will win plaudits, but not the public.
In short, stock Android’s own stock is dipping. Here’s hoping that Android 10 and the new Pixels change that. Because in a world increasingly overrun by complexity, there should always be room for sheer simplicity.
The Joker might be more popular and colorful. But what the heck, you do need a Batman!