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Android Exec Says Google Will Loosen Reins on Watches, TVs and Cars Over Time

Restrictions may ease as Google sees how new areas use its technology.


Google is taking its versatile Android operating system into new places, like cars and watches and TVs. As part of that process, it’s also severely curtailing the degree to which hardware makers can tinker with the core parts of the software.

In the first crop of Android Wear devices, for example, software customization has been largely limited to a few custom watch faces. Google insists it doesn’t have some grand plan to lock down Android — a common concern among device makers and others in the mobile industry.

“It’s not some Google-way-or-the-highway kind of thing,” the company’s vice president of engineering Hiroshi Lockheimer said in an interview on Tuesday. His comments came as Google rolled out Android 5.0, a.k.a. Lollipop, which is designed to power a wide range of other devices beyond the usual phones and tablets.

Lockheimer acknowledged that hardware makers have less flexibility to customize Android for use on watches, TVs or in cars, but said that is not necessarily a permanent situation. He said Google wanted a bit of time to make sure it had the basics right in these new areas before allowing deeper customization of the software experience.

The upcoming Asus Zen Watch will show the first glimpses of how hardware makers can customize software on Android Wear watches, he said.

Overall, Google has been pushing device makers toward doing custom apps rather than skinning their own versions of the Android user interface. That’s the same approach it’s taking with Android One, the company’s effort to deliver lower-cost devices in the range of $100 to emerging markets.

With the Android One, Google controls the software image that’s loaded onto the devices, but the hardware makers and carrier partners can select apps that get automatically downloaded onto the phone. Unlike with some preloaded software, though, Lockheimer says users will also have the option to uninstall any apps they don’t want.

“We’re trying to find the right balance of differentiation and customization,” Lockheimer said.

Google attempted to put its Android brand front and center on mobile devices through a marketing program it called Android Silver, according to sources. The company wanted to promote a less-customizable version of the OS that would make it easier for app developers to create one version of its software for the Android devices, instead of having to make many versions for different flavors of Android. The program was shelved after lukewarm interest from device makers that didn’t want to share its branding with another company or employ such a restricted version of the software.

Lockheimer declined to comment specifically on Android Silver, but did say that the company’s Nexus brand of devices will continue well into the future.

Google, Lockheimer said, has always believed that the best way to develop an operating system is to do so in parallel with a piece of hardware.

“That’s always going to continue,” he said. “You can’t build an OS in the abstract.”

As for Google’s planned entry into the in-car entertainment market, Lockheimer said that Android Auto is “moving along,” with the first cars hitting the market this year. Android Auto, Lockheimer clarified, requires both a car with support for the technology and a phone running Lollipop.

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