A visit to the island of (happily) misfit ‘droids
Have you seen Google’s latest commercials for Android, its mobile operating system? The TV spots are energetic and adorable. They show different people, locations, ceremonies, celebrations, and moments from around the globe. The common thread? Android devices, of course.
Google’s message is simple: Embrace being different. Apple may have once demanded that you think different, but its modern devices are the embodiment of uniformity. Android devices come in more flavors than ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.
It is true that the Android experience can vary. Each device manufacturer takes Google’s open source operating system and customizes it. For example, you’ll see different tweaks to the design of the user interface, commonly referred to as a “skin.” Samsung, for example, is known for its TouchWiz skin. HTC is known for Sense. Motorola is known for its “Pure” experience. And Google naturally installs an unadulterated version of Android on its own Nexus-branded devices. No two settings menus are the same.
The differentiation has been a negative point for some, but Google (GOOG) has chosen to embrace it ahead of the launch of the new version of its Android operating system, version 5.0, referred to as “Lollipop.” The new software, which will be distributed over the air starting tomorrow, is a major release for the company, and it accompanies a slate of new Nexus devices: a six-inch phone called the Nexus 6, a nine-inch tablet called the Nexus 9, and TV streaming device called the Nexus Player. (The Nexus 5 phone, which was introduced last year, is also available.)
Yet when I tested the operating system for myself, it became clear that Google’s embrace of being different was mostly marketing. Sure, mobile devices are exceptionally personal. But Lollipop is Google’s strongest effort yet to ensure that Android devices have the same singular experience whether phone, tablet, or television—at least with regard to its own Nexus line.
Not that there aren’t important changes. For the last week, I lived inside Google’s Lollipop world by using all three new Nexus devices. The software’s new design demonstrates attention to detail that wasn’t entirely present in the previous Android operating system, version 4.4 “KitKat.” For example, you’ll find a slight pulse emanate when you select a button. Menu shades slide off the screen with ease.
In addition to playful animations, there are functional design changes. Instead of pulling down the notification shade to access alerts on a locked device, you can interact with them directly on the lock screen. (What kind of alerts, you ask? Archive an incoming email or “heart” a friend’s Swarm check-in, for example.)
Lollipop also offers the ability to create additional user accounts so that you may share a phone or tablet with a friend without handing over access to your personal data. During testing, I created an account for my kids on the Nexus 9 and Nexus 6 with access only to Netflix, PBS Kids, and handful of games. Distraction without destruction was only a few taps away. (Until they drop it, anyway.)
There are other changes of note. I very much liked the way the window-switching view placed them in a playing card-like stack; it made it easy to multi-task between apps. And I liked how voice search was integrated into the Nexus Player—it wasn’t hard to find something to entertain my family. In all, the Android experience is more consistent in Lollipop—compared to previous versions, but also between devices.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s the same approach Apple has long trumpeted as a key selling point for its portfolio of iOS and OS X devices. It’s also the same approach that Samsung, a longtime Google partner, has adopted for its own Android devices.
Today, when Google releases a new version of Android, its Nexus line is the first to receive it. Partners such as Samsung and HTC can take months to release updates that have been customized to their liking, by which time Google may have already released another update. Then the cycle repeats. The Android experience was indeed different, but it was also broken—exacerbated by the fact that Google sold comparably few of its own Nexus devices.
That’s all changed with Lollipop. Tired of waiting for its hardware partners to get the operating system in front of consumers, Google is touting its own devices as the best option. It’s a decision that may cause friction between it and its partners but will likely force them to keep up, in the end a benefit to the Android ecosystem. And it’s probably the most important “feature” of them all.
I don’t mind. Android is already plenty different from iOS and the rest. A little focus will go a long way.
“Logged In” is Fortune’s personal technology column, written by Jason Cipriani. Read it on Fortune.com each Tuesday.