Sundar Pichai made a series of statements at recode's Code Conference yesterday that seem to have the internet aflutter. Pichai claimed that Google would be adding more software features to future Nexus devices, specifically: "You’ll see us hopefully add more features on top of Android on Nexus phones... There’s a lot of software innovation to be had."
Some have taken this to mean that "stock Android" on Nexus phones is no more. That Google will begin to differentiate just like its partners, with proprietary features and software, and that this marks a move away from a "purer" interpretation of Android. This makes sense until you actually think about it, because Nexus phones haven't run "stock" Android in years, and it's time for us to have a conversation about what that word even means, let alone the idea that Google's interpretation of Android is somehow "purer."
For starters, all of the following applications that ship on Nexus phones today are closed-source.
- Email (Gmail)
- Launcher (GNL)
- Camera (Google Camera)
- Messenger (and Hangouts)
- Gallery (Google Photos)
- Browser (Google Chrome is closed source, even if Chromium is not)
- Search and voice control
These apps are responsible for core smartphone functions and services, and Google holds absolutely all of the keys to every single app in that list. Without those apps and services, your Nexus phone would suck. These are all proprietary Google products, built by Google, but with one key caveat: many of them are available to Google's various Android partners, and so have become conflated with a "stock" or "pure" interpretation of the Android OS.
The term "stock" in regard to Android originally referred to an experience that closely emulated the Android Open Source Project. And, in the early days, even from an end user perspective, AOSP Android was pretty close to the Android you got on a Google Nexus phone like the Nexus One or Nexus S, just minus the Gapps package which added a few of the above items. At the time, though, those apps were pretty much limited to existing Google services and products that had been brought to Android and were around well before it. The dialer, launcher, email client, SMS app, gallery app, clock, and even the browser were all part of AOSP at one point or another as completely open source applications. Most of them still are, too - it's just that they stopped getting updated in large part since Google implemented closed-source replacements for them.
So, a "stock" Android experience actually really doesn't exist out in the market anymore, and unless you're loading a custom ROM of some kind, you'll probably never see it again, anyway. What does exist is Google's Android. And that's what we really need to start calling it. By saying Nexus phones have "stock" or "pure" Android, we're essentially rewriting history in a way Google would very much be amenable to (Android is totally open, and Nexus phones run an open Android), but that isn't especially faithful to the reality of Android's present state. Certainly, Google defines "stock" Android in a technical sense through its changes to AOSP and continues to do so, but a good part of the end user experience is now influenced by apps and services that have nothing to do with AOSP or Android's openness at all. They're just Google products and services - they don't define Android any more than Samsung S Voice or HTC Sense do. They're just add-ons.
As such, the idea that Google adding Nexus-specific software features or services would create a "less" stock Android experience is utterly and completely silly. Nexus phones don't run "stock" Android as far as the end user is concerned (they never really, truly did), they don't have a "pure" software experience, and they aren't somehow above corruption - this is smartphone mythos, plain and simple.
No, what makes Nexus phones special is that they are Google's Android. And adding more Google Android-specific software features to them wouldn't be a change of direction, it would be just another step forward on the same path Google has been taking Nexus phones for years now. I, for one, remain excited about that, because I do believe Google's interpretation of Android is the one I most enjoy using. And I find no reason to justify it with terms like "pure" - words that call to mind religious zealotry far more than they do consumer electronics.