How does the reported end of Nexus devices affect custom ROMs?

4 min read

In a Google+ comment thread reacting to Android Central’s article about the end of the Nexus era, a ROM developer I greatly respect said he wasn’t worried about the change, as long as the bootloader is still unlockable and Android source code updates are still released for certain devices

At the time, I agreed with the sentiment, but with the news that the phones HTC is making for Google will be branded Pixel phones, it really started to hit me. This could be the end of much more than simply the word “Nexus” emblazoned on the chassis of a Google-centric phone. It could be the end of the entire concept of “stock Android” as we know it. We might never again see a phone released to market with a mostly AOSP flavor of Android as the Nexus devices were.

It’s no secret that Google has been progressively abandoning key parts of AOSP and releasing proprietary counterparts in the Play Store for years. Many of us in the blogosphere were pleased with the trend at first – we saw it as Google taking updates of key Android components out of the hands of sluggish OEMs and carriers and simply pushing updates to our phones through the Play Store.

Although some writers (like Ron Amadeo, formerly of Android Police and currently working for Ars Technica) saw what was happening early on, most of us weren’t paying enough attention to the disturbing cloud lurking below the silver lining. Many respected ROM developers were keenly aware of the pitfalls all along, and said as much at the time.

What they saw was a pattern of key Android features being abandoned in AOSP by Google in favor of closed-source alternatives. With simple apps like the “desktop clock”, the calendar, and email it didn’t really seem to matter that much. Most users prefer Google’s proprietary apps such as Gmail and Google Calendar anyway, even flocking to Google Photos away from the AOSP gallery, or to the Google Now Launcher over “Launcher 2” (as it was called back in 2013).

This year, however, it appears that the entire SystemUI app will be housed in the Play Store for the Pixel phones (SystemUI includes the navigation bar, status bar, notifications, settings, etc.). Although most of the cool new Nougat SystemUI features are still available in AOSP this year, but Google might put all their best SystemUI features in their proprietary Play Store app next year and leave this key Android component at its current level of development when Android O drops. Besides, what other core Android components will Google migrate to the Play Store by that point?

Don’t get me wrong – custom ROM developers will probably always be able to build a functional OS from AOSP code along with the proprietary blobs released in upcoming factory images. Nevertheless, it’s starting to look like soon even the most elite custom ROM will lack many popular features Google packs into its future Pixel phones.

When certain prominent figures in the Android world declared to me earlier this year that custom ROMs are dying, they may have been quite literal in that statement (they shall remain unnamed since they told me this privately). They may have been referring to something much more than just a continued steady decline in popularity as “stock Android” gains more features over time. They may have been referring to a near-impossibility to make serviceable custom ROMs up to par with the latest Android features since the latter will soon become mostly proprietary.

As I mentioned, many of Nougat’s best features are still available in AOSP, but in the very near future, we could see another picture entirely. If the open-source parts of Android O are only marginal improvements over Nougat while the best OS features are reserved in the Play Store for the Pixel phones, ROM developers could be reduced to just trying to imitate the features Google adds. They might have to do something like what the Nova Launcher and Action Launcher developers did after the Nexus Launcher leak, only with the entire OS.

While future Pixel phones get the “real” Android O, AOSP (thus also custom ROMs) might be stuck with “O Lite” or “Nougat Plus”. I hope I’m as wrong as Shaggy and Scooby Doo after eating an 8-foot-tall sandwich and seeing a “ghost”, and that AOSP will continue to enjoy meaningful input from manufacturers and talented developers. I hope that Google and Sony (RRO/OMS theming) will continue to be the foremost among them, and that custom ROMs will still be improvements over the experience Google pushes to its future Pixel devices. In my next editorial I’ll examine several reasons why I might indeed be wrong. Don’t bring out the torches and pitchforks just yet, and keep that tinfoil hat tucked away.