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Andrew Rothman
Andrew Rothman

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On the 2020 iPhone SE and the Future of Android / ChromeOS / Fuschia

I just wanted to share some thoughts and start some discussion about Android after Apple's announcement today of the revamped iPhone SE. Most of this post is about consumer tech, but I will also bring up some developer-oriented comments near the end.

My first smartphone was an original iPhone back in 2010, but I switched to Android in 2015 and currently use a Samsung s10e. I've been hearing some predictions that the 2020 iPhone SE may significantly hurt Android devices sales, especially in the mid-range. The main reasons seem to bring up some core differences between the platforms.

To a lot of every-day users, the value of their phones comes having a good messaging service, having a great camera, acting as a status symbol (we are not a perfect species, but it's the truth of human nature), and/or having a low price. They want to be able to trust that it will work pretty well for at least a few years, and maybe get a few new features here and there as technology improves (non-technical users aren't too keen with UI changes though).

Today, Android has some really amazing features, but also some pretty major issues with each of those points. Mostly around first-party messaging services, providing long-term support for devices, and quality / availability of apps. The status symbol thing is okay, that's Apple's thing (and they're amazing at it... credit where it's definitely due). But the messaging services, updates, and app selection are real problems.

Google seems to realize this, but not much has changed to the outside world. RCS sounds great, but it also has some issues worth discussing. If Apple decides not to support it, then it wouldn't help much with messaging iPhone users anyway, which means a sub-par messaging experience with a lot of friends and family if you're in the US. It also isn't encrypted, so there will be trouble convincing those who understand and value that privacy.

Project Treble from 2017 was meant to help with the update problem, but I still have to wait a long time for Samsumg to push out an update to my phone. Apple's 5 years of device support in iOS 13 is appealing.

Then there's the apps. I have a very hard time finding an app that does what I want with a good modern UI. I've developed apps for iOS and a few for Android (phones and Google Glass). I haven't done much with Android for a while, but it was considerably more difficult to make a UI that looked nice compared to iOS. I don't fault Android app developers. It's really hard. There's a lot of devices with different features, Android versions, screen configurations, and skins to support. (If you're an Android app developer, I'd really love to hear your thoughts.)

I bring up these criticisms not because I want to bash Google, Android, or app developers, but because I want to see them thrive. I think it's great that Google and Apple are competing to provide the best user experience to as many people as possible.

I'm mostly a full-stack web developer these days, but I have a lot of experience in mobile as well. I've really been enjoying working on the web platform. It has great developer tools, far-reaching cross-platform compatibility, and a bright future of new browser features added every day.

I'd love it if Google built something like a cheap but capable Pixel 3A running ChromeOS. It would provide nightly automatic updates. All first-party apps could be PWAs designed around a common, lightweight and attractive UI framework. Maybe they'd include the Android compat. subsystem that ChromeOS already has for existing apps. A revamped Play Store with more curation (with developer opt-out to maintain existing behavior) could help users find great apps.

PWAs are pretty easy to build, act very similar to native apps, work on all popular platforms, and the performance keeps getting better with improvements to Chrome's JavaScript engine V8 and WebAssembly. The web is getting new capabilities every day. You can already do some pretty amazing 3D work with WebGL. You will soon be able to interact with Bluetooth devices. They could provide comprehensive UI suggestions so developers can brand their PWAs while keeping them user-friendly. Maybe, just maybe, Google will start a campaign similar to Apple's There's An App For That to help you market your app, and for them to market their own devices.

Then, they could work with other developers to include a messaging service that's encrypted by default with text, voice, and video chat, and also has compat. with RCS/SMS and any third-party service that wants to hook in. Having a singular messaging hub would be really useful. Maybe this new app has some form of Assistant integration regardless of the underlying messaging service used?

I can't imagine what I mentioned would be too hard for Google to build, and I can see significant benefits for users if they took this approach. They already have most of the pieces in place, a little money to throw around, and a lot of very talented engineers. There's very likely a ton of other things at play here that I'm not familiar with. But... maybe this is where their Fuschia and Fugu projects are headed?

What do you think?

(P.S. Long shot, but if anyone here works on the Fuschia, Android, or Chrome teams, I'd love to talk!)

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