While wandering the streets of Tokyo this past weekend, I came up with a theory that a city - and the people within it - is made up of alternating layers of the strange and the expected. At the most obvious level, any foreign city is filled with strange sights, smells, language and, of course, people; all of which feels increasingly alien as you move farther from wherever you consider home to be. But peel away one layer, and there’s much to relate to: the Japanese language may be beyond my comprehension, but human emotions are relatively universal (happiness, anger, calmness, agitation, and so on). And beneath the unfamiliar smells and noises are the same features, food, and functions that every city has. Peel back yet another layer and you may drop into the underlying structure of the city which, once again, is often quite different. And so it goes on.
Sometimes, the Android OS feels exactly the same to me. What should be a universal system often has a layer of customization on top of it, making every OEM’s version a little different. You know that, with patience, you can work out the basics because one layer down, Android will have the same features and functions… you just need to work out how to navigate to them. And then, just when you work that out, you may drop into the underbelly of the OEM’s manipulation of Android and find out, once again, that nothing is quite what you would expect.
This is a problem for the industry and for Google. Sure, I understand the benefits of the customization for the OEM, attempting to improve on Google’s OS and to provide the customer additional value and, just possibly, a little more pain if they choose to switch OEM. And, to an extent, that is acceptable, at least for the top layer of the environment. But when the customization moves to Android’s underbelly, the results can be quite confusing, with forked or other modifications causing hiccups to what should be a universal system. The result is a pervading sense of suspicion that it’s all not quite working in harmony.
As a case in point, I found myself a little lost in Japan’s capital city because something went awry between Google Maps and the connection from my Pixel Buds to my non-Pixel smartphone. And by awry, I mean complete silence when I should have been hearing walking directions. While exploring new cities, I typically walk quickly and think slowly, so it took the better part of a mile in the wrong direction before I realized I was lacking the helpful messages from Google’s little assistant.
Having retraced my steps, while staring constantly at the map on the screen, I pondered which part of the tech solution to blame - the Buds, Maps or the phone? I chose to blame the phone, which despite being new, had already experienced too many strange anomalies and quirks in how it worked - so, the phone must go. I’ve decided to replace it with a Pixel phone in the hope that a full Google hardware/software solution will bring a greater sense of technology harmony into my life. Of course, if I had embraced the Way of the iPhone, I would already know that inner peace (as well as sense of direction) and would have been happy to place the blame on whichever mapping app I had chosen. But, apparently, the Android Way is a less direct path; and so was my walk through Tokyo.