Explaining Google Play Services

Google’s apps are usually the most highly rated on the market. Google Mail has a rating of 4.3 and Google Maps 4.4. These are apps I use everyday, highly functional yet extraordinarily simple. Google’s latest app (if it can even be called that) is Google Play Services and it’s dividing opinion. Of a little over 11,000 reviews 6,000 give the maximum of five stars, while 3,500 give the minimum of one star with many assuring they would give less if the ratings system allowed it. 85% of users either love it or hate it with only 15% in the middle ground. The community is polarised. Who is right?

The case against …

From Google Play reviews:

Why do I have download dis mess I didn’t have to before, wats different now - A Google User

If I could give no stars I would. Uses valuable memory & power. You’ve ruined my google fetish. Deleted google+ – Lee Bone

Really?!?! Just really? YouTube app won’t work without this??? Wow, well that’s a new way of imposing cyber-martial law. – A Google User

To summarise the complaints, Google Play Services:

  • Forces it way onto devices – if you’ve already had a system update you may already have it, even though it won’t appear in your apps tray
  • Has many permissions – like reading contacts
  • Uses 9 mb of space – on devices like the Nexus 1, that’s 5% of the space you’ve got!
  • Is of unclear purpose – you can’t open it up, so what is it doing? What does the jigsaw logo mean? Have google dropped the “don’t” from their famed motto?
  • Is hard to uproot – trying to do so may break the Google Play store. If you’re not happy with the permissions, you should go into settings and disable it.
  • Apparently uses a lot of data and battery

… but why it’s a step forward

In light of the above it might surprise you that I give Google Play Services a 5 star rating. The way Google has distributed and explained it has been poor, however Google Play Services is set to play a crucial role in the Android ecosystem. While it may have the appearances of insidious malware, it’s attempting to do something Google, device manufacturers and networks have often failed to at: keep your phone up to date.

Google Play Services is currently designed to power a few key services such as Google Plus, Youtube and Google Maps. Let’s focus on the last of these. Before this new service was launched, the maps ┬áin Android apps depended on the version of Android, even if they look the same between versions there are bug fixes and speed improvements behind the scenes. The version of Android on the device typically depends on your carrier (mobile network) shipping updates. They are not good at that. Unless you have a Nexus phone you are usually months or even years behind the latest OS. And that means the maps in apps like OpenSignal will be out of date. That’s changing.

Google Play Services bypasses the distribution channels of carriers to make some of the very latest features of Google Android (or APIs to geeks like me) available to developers. Fellow Android dev Jack Thakar makes an excellent point in his review on the Android market:

“Think of it as the OS using a little bit more space, except that this part of the OS can be updated at any time without carriers or manufacturers delaying it.”

This also explains why power and data usage of Google Play Services can appear so high: this is due to other apps making use of its features. So this is likely data/energy that would have been consumed without Google Play Services – it’s just a different part of your system doing the work.

What a difference an APK makes

A lot of apps will soon upgrade to using Google Play services, if anyone doubts whether this is an upgrade or not consider the difference between the version of Google maps previously used by developers and the one made available using Google Play services: the old version used image tiles, had no cacheing, the maps were flat and there was no support for heatmap overlays. All these have changed, OpenSignal will be using vector maps, with cacheing, perspective and heatmaps. Here’s a sneak preview of an update we hope to wrap up for Christmas:

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2 Responses to Explaining Google Play Services

  1. JoComptrInfo says:

    The problem with this app constantly re-installing onto my “lil ole” lg vm phone is the use of internal space. Until I root the phone next month when it s out of warr, the memory constantly fills up (less than 2gbs of space & I’m forced w-apps I don’t use – fb,poynt, etc). Almost immediately after google play svcs reinstalls itself I get the”low-on-space” msg. An annoying dilemma!

  2. Pingback: OpenSignal - What Google Activity Recognition means for apps

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