Remember a couple weeks ago when we were talking about Google's new weapon in the Android upgrade battle? How Google was little by little pulling out the pieces that make up Android and offering them as standalone apps any user can install?
Don't look now, but another sign of Android's expanding deconstruction has shown up at our doorsteps. Google announced last night it would start offering the stock Android keyboard -- now known simply as Google Keyboard -- as a standalone download in the Google Play Store. In fact, if you have a phone or tablet running Android 4.0 or higher, it may have already appeared on your device as an update.
Seems pretty insignificant in and of itself, I realize. But let's take a minute to add everything up and look at this in the big picture.
At this point, Google now maintains the following core elements of the Android operating system outside of the actual operating system:
• Google Calendar
• Chrome (which replaced the original OS-integrated Android Browser)
• Hangouts (which replaced the original OS-integrated Google Talk)
• Google Search
• Voice Search
• Sound Search
• Google Maps
• Google Earth
• Google Play Music, Books, Movies, and Magazines
• Google Currents
• Google Wallet
• Google Keyboard
That's all in addition, of course, to a handful of regular Google apps that aren't (yet) a core part of the OS, like Drive, Keep, Goggles, and Shopper. There's also that mysterious "Google Settings" app that showed up on Android devices earlier this year; while it doesn't do much at the moment, there's no telling what purpose it may ultimately serve.
So what's the big deal? Simple: With so many pieces of the operating system now separated out of the OS, Google can easily deliver updates to everyone without having to rely on manufacturers and carriers. That means new features can reach every Android phone and tablet in a matter of days instead of taking months on end, as often happens with non-Nexus devices (particularly those on, ahem, a certain U.S. carrier).
Combine that with Google's new approach to its Play Services utility -- in which significant new behind-the-scenes functionality is delivered to devices in a similar a la carte fashion -- and the actual base OS has become far less important than it once was. We're essentially now able to get meaningful system upgrades without the need for a formal OS update.
Think about it: What's left in terms of the front-facing Android user experience that isn't yet unbundled? You've got the actual launcher, which Google could conceivably release as a standalone app at some point (Google Home, anyone?). There's the Camera, Gallery and People applications, all of which could also be unbundled and maintained as standalone apps. Other than a few random little things -- Calculator and Clock, for instance -- that's pretty much it.
Sure, you've still got the rest of the UI and plenty of function-oriented code at the heart of the OS. But it's easy to see where this is going. More and more, Google is constructing an ecosystem in which manufacturers can keep making all the OS-level modifications they want -- and yet Google can control and regularly update a meaningful part of the user experience with a direct-to-user path. And, as usual, you can decide whether you want to use the elements it provides or opt for third-party alternatives. It's win-win for everyone.
Between this ongoing transition and the new focus on "Google Experience" devices -- not to mention the full new version of Android and new Nexus gadgets likely still in the oven -- it's shaping up to be a pretty interesting year.