Google is bringing the stock Android home screen to almost every phone, outfoxing OEMs
Since Android started to take off a few years back, users have had to choose between a limited number of stock devices and the plethora of OEM-modified experiences. Some of the best hardware available comes with detestable software, but now Google is finally on the verge of easing the pain. A huge update the the official Google Search app has been pushed out to devices, and it contains a new stock launcher experience just waiting to be activated. A launcher in the search app? Yes, it's looking like a massive end-run around OEMs.
How Google's new launcher works
Device makers want to differentiate their products, and there's no better way than customizing the home screen, which is one of the central experiences on your device. They put all of their custom apps and widgets on the home screen, and most people leave them there. That makes it very valuable real estate, and Google is going after it.
With Android 4.4 on the Nexus 5, Google debuted a new home screen interface with much deeper Google Now integration. It didn't take long for users to realize what was going on, we weren't looking at a traditional launcher at all. It was all being handled by the search app. The Nexus 5 shipped with an updated version of Google Search that contained all the assets and code to run the launcher on the device. There is still a GoogleHome.apk file that the system sees as the launcher, but this is just a stub, an empty shell that forwards everything to Google Search.
This method preserves backward compatibility with other launchers, but more importantly, it allows Google to update the home screen interface and features through Google Play. So rather than wait on a system update to change the home screen behavior, an update to the Google Search app takes care of everything. The search app in question is a core app that is running on virtually every Android smartphone connected to Google's services, so OEMs couldn’t even trim it out if they wanted to.
The Google Experience Launcher is the next step for Google's search aspirations. It brings the predictive search functionality from Now into the home screen, and also adds new features and a cleaned-up look. This puts Google's services front and center, and pushes all those OEM customizations into the background. This launcher is headed for a lot of Android phones, whether OEMs like it or not.
Google Now is infiltrating your home screen
When the first Android 4.4 updates started to go out, Google was careful to point out that the new launcher was going to be exclusive to the Nexus 5, at least for a while. It was already known that the launcher stub and updated search app could be extracted and installed on other phones, but it didn't work very well. There were layout issues and performance was lacking.
The most recent update to Google Search changes that, version 3.1.8 has started rolling out to devices through Google Play and it includes all the code necessary to run the Google Experience Launcher on most Android devices. Basically, if your phone has Google Now, you're about to get the new stock home screen. That should work out to more than half of all phones, according to Google's platform distribution numbers.
This version of Google Search doesn't have any of the bugs that came from sideloading the Nexus 5 app, and the new launcher has been verified working on various devices on Android 4.1-4.4. The only thing that's missing is the GoogleHome stub that brings the search app to the home screen. Anyone familiar with what Google's up to can sideload this app to enable the Google Experience Launcher, but it's only a matter of time until that app is dropped into Google Play officially.
When Google announces the availability of the new launcher, users will probably be directed to the GoogleHome in a variety of ways, for example emails and Google Now cards. They will think they're downloading a new launcher, but really the launcher was already there, just waiting for the switch to be flipped.
You still have a choice, though. Android allows you to use the launcher that came with the device, a third-party alternative from the Play Store, or (soon) the Google Experience Launcher.
Google has been moving apps out of the core of the operating system for the last few years. Getting the launcher into the Play Store is just the most recent example of this. Using the search app as a Trojan horse for the new launcher is brilliant because it bypasses OEMs and makes Android's most user-facing features almost universal.
We're reaching the point that it won't matter what version of Android is running under the hood. The changes in each version are becoming more developer-focused and low-level, the updated home screen was probably the biggest feature of Android 4.4, and now it's coming to a ton of phones. The pain of fragmentation is about be become much less severe for users.
If you want to get a look at the future unified face of Android, just make sure the updated official Google Search app has reached your 4.1+ device via Google Play (it's a staged rollout). Then pick up the GoogleHome.apk and install it like any other app. Just like that, you've realized the potential packed away in Google Search, your home screen has truly become Google Now.