What is Android? All your questions about the operating system answered

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It’s hard to imagine a world without Android. It’s been almost a decade since the first official release, and the operating system has risen from humble beginnings to become the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, with more than 2 billion users.

But despite its overwhelming presence, “what is Android?” isn’t a question with a simple answer. Far from being as straightforward as Apple’s range of iPhones, where an iPhone is an iPhone, Android seems to exist as a veritable galaxy, with smartphones from all over the world and from many different manufacturers all powered by the same operating system. And yet, they often look so different. What gives?

Developed by Google, Android can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to be. We’ve rounded up the most common questions that you might have about the now-ubiquitous operating system, and we’ve got the answers you’re looking for. If you’re confused by Nougat, don’t understand what an Android Go is, and are wondering why so many people want to know when an Oreo is due to hit their phone, read on.

What is Android?

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Android is an open source operating system (OS) — “open source” because the basic code is free to use, and can be used by anyone who wants to adapt it for their use. Because of its open source nature and its familiar and solid base, Android has been used in a vast number of personal devices outside of smartphones — you can find Android running in TV streaming boxes, video game consoles, in your car, and elsewhere.

What’s the difference between an Android phone and an iPhone? Outside of any personal preference, you’re likely to find little difference between the two in terms of day-to-day tasks, since both handle all the usual smartphones tasks in a similar way. But if you’re interested in taking your control a little further, then you’ll find Android isn’t limited by the demands of Google in the same way that iOS can be limited by Apple.

Android’s open nature doesn’t just mean that manufacturers can customize Android for their devices (more on that later) — it also puts that customization into your hands. Most standard Android devices also have the ability to run a “custom launcher” — that’s an app that runs instead of your usual home screen and allows you to change the look and feel of your device, from something as simple as the look of your app icons, all the way to deciding how your app drawer scrolls and how many icons fit onto one screen.

What is stock Android?

You might have previously heard of “stock Android” either as the OS a device is running or as a comparison point. But what is “stock” Android? It’s not a soup you make by boiling down old Android handsets — that would be an Android stock, and please don’t do that. Instead, stock Android refers to the base version of the OS used by Android’s owner and primary developer, Google. It’s usually thought of as the most basic version of Android available, and it represents the base layer of Android, coupled with Google’s standard apps, like YouTube, Maps, and Google Drive. But don’t take that to mean it’s lacking in functionality — stock Android is widely considered one of the best operating systems around. Google’s Pixel phones run mostly stock Android, but with a few extra additions just for Google’s own special phones.

While personal preference is obviously key in choosing which version of Android you prefer, stock Android has the advantage of being considered the fastest and least demanding version of Android. This is simply because it has less going on behind-the-scenes, and so is able to commit more resources to whatever actions you’re undertaking. While the Pixel 3‘s smooth and snappy performance isn’t just owed to the use of close-to-stock Android, the slim OS goes a long way toward helping the user experience. Stock Android is Android as Google intended.

What is Pie?

android 9 pie
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Maybe you’re wondering: What’s the difference between “Oreo” and “Pie”? Each Android update that’s major enough to require its own number is also granted its own sweet-based name (Android 8.0 Oreo and Android 9.0 Pie). Each new version brings some changes, a few refinements, and usually adds new features. Because there’s no system of universal updates for all Android devices, there’s a wide range of different versions of Android on different phones, which is known as Android fragmentation.

Android 9.0 Pie is the latest major Android release, but the next version, which we’ll call Android 10.0 for now, is expected at the Google I/O developer conference, which will probably be in around May 2019. Since Android releases proceed alphabetically, and the last release was “Pie,” Android 10.0 looks set to be something beginning with “Q”.

What is ‘Android Go’ or ‘Android One’?

If you’ve been in the budget market at all, you’ve probably also come across “Android Go,” or “Android One.” Android Go is a version of stock Android specially tuned for lower-powered devices that might not be able to run the latest version of Android. Android Go was launched fairly recently, with an eye toward low-end devices in the Indian and Brazilian markets.

Android One, on the other hand, was the precursor to Android Go, and is as bare a version of stock Android as you can get. It’s most common on budget smartphones like the HTC U11 Life and the Moto X4.

Manufacturer skins and UIs

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 review app switch
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Google isn’t the only company in town changing Android’s looks. Each manufacturer has the option of creating their own look for Android on their devices, and it’s an option a lot of companies exercise. Each manufacturer’s take on “reskinning” Android is different, as is the extent to which they depart from the look of stock Android. These reskins, or UIs (user interfaces), can go from as simple as HTC’s Sense UI, which adds a few additional elements to stock Android, all the way to Huawei’s Emotion UI (EMUI), which looks and feels significantly different from most other versions of Android.

But don’t worry. It generally doesn’t matter which version of Android you’re running — since they all run on the same underlying Android framework, you’ll still be able to access the same apps as everyone else. However, if you’re a fan of being up to date with the latest security and software patches, then you might want to stick with a stock Android device like a Google Pixel, or a phone with Android One, since those devices benefit from updates straight from Google. Phones with customized manufacturer skins generally take longer to receive updates and upgrades since each manufacturer has to update their software to run the new OS, as well as run their own tests. That’s why the Samsung Galaxy S8 received the Android 8.0 Oreo update in February 2018, despite that update officially releasing in August 2017.

That’s bad news from a security point of view, but manufacturer skins aren’t completely pointless. Each custom UI comes with advantages and features that you won’t find in stock Android. For example, EMUI’s power-management software is superior to many other phones, Galaxy phones can get apps specially tweaked to work with Samsung hardware, and Motorola has equipped its budget line with some fun extras. Much of this is personal preference, so always make sure you research a phone thoroughly before you buy.

What is “Forked” Android?

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This isn’t an element of Android you’re likely to ever need to think about, but if all the talk of stock Android and manufacturer reskins has left you hungry for more, you might want to hear about Android “forks” as well.

As we’ve discussed, since Android is open source, the basic code that underpins most of its functions can be used and adapted by pretty much anyone. That’s the reason we see such variety in the Android ecosystem, and so many manufacturers making their own Android versions. However, though Android is free and open, Google’s services aren’t, and to access the vast repository of apps on the Google Play Store, you have to play by its rules — a price that many manufacturers are willing to pay.

A few manufacturers don’t want to play by Google’s rules. That’s where “forks” come in. A fork — so named because its development “forks” away from the original development — is an independently developed piece of software that uses Android as its base, but doesn’t have to be connected back to the Google ecosystem. You’ve probably used a forked version of Android and not realized it — Amazon’s Fire tablet OS was developed from a build of Android, but doesn’t have any of Google’s apps or services built into it.  You’ll also find Android forks on some Chinese-built devices, with interfaces that look surprisingly like Android but don’t have access to the Google Play Store.

While forks could be seen as a bad thing, it’s not that simple. Forks are just another piece of the open source software picture, and since Google has a handle on its own software, Android as we know it is well-protected.

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