Google has now made some fairly significant changes to the way it names Android versions. But what’s in a name? Let alone an Android name?
This might not seem like a big deal to those outside of the Android bubble, but it is for those inside the bubble.
It’s not that there’s a major functional change with a name-change. There’s not. After all, Android Q is the same Android Q it was before Google confirmed it’s Android 10. But, there’s a mentality change with this rebranding exercise and arguably, it has been a long time in the making.
As far back as most loyal Android users can remember, Android has come with a flavored name. To some, the flavorings represent Android at a core level. How Android is different, how it is “fun,” and to some degree, how varied the platform is.
Just like you might have a Samsung, LG or Huawei phone and the interface/experience that comes with it and I might have a Google, OnePlus or HTC phone and a completely different interface/experience, you might be on Android Oreo while I’m on Android Pie. Both of us are using Android phones, but they are not the same.
In fact, “not the same” was recently a key part of Android’s branding message. But times have changed, and although this is a new change, it’s unlikely it was a new change in Google’s mind.
What’s in a name?
A lot actually. In the same way you or I are not called “1” and “2,” a name is a form of personification. People name pets for the same reason. They might only have one cat or dog but they don’t name the pet “cat” or “dog.” They could, as with only one cat or dog there, there’s no reason for individualistic elements like a name. But people still do because they don’t see a cat as a thing. Instead, they recognize the pet as an individual with unique characteristics, traits and behaviors. It’s deserving of a name.
You should see my cat, Sandy. She’s the cutest. Now, subjectively she is. Objectively, all cats are cute. But you might be more inclined to believe Sandy is cuter than other cats because of the name-drop. Especially if you already happen to consider “Sandy” to be a cute name.
There’s a lot to be said about a name and while you could argue “cats and dogs are different to an Android version,” that’s not technically true.
Personification refers to the applying of a “human” value to an animal or an object. It is extremely common and not just in terms of an actual name. For example, while someone might name their car, they also might refer to it as “temperamental” because of how often it breaks down.
That’s a word that’s supposed to describe the emotional state (or fluctuations) of a person. Yet, if someone applies it to a thing like a car — my car is so temperamental, my car is so unreliable, my car is so funny the way it does this thing where… – we would all relate on a personal level.
What does this have to do with Android?
A thing is a thing. Regardless of whether it’s a car or an operating system, giving it a name elevates it. Google is not the only company to do this, but attaching names to its products like it does with Android, attaches additional meaning to them.
Taking this to the next level, attaching sweet or dessert names to products elicits even more of an attachment. After all, who doesn’t like a slice of pie now and again? Sweet or savory, for that matter.
Adding a name to a product, adds meaning. Changing those names with each version further individualizes each version of Android. Pie is not the same version as Oreo or Marshmallow, but it might feel like a more similar version if it was just Android 7, 8, and 9.
OK, so then why is Google changing the name?
Times change and while personifying something like an operating system can be useful when you are trying to sell a product or service in the early days, it can also become a hindrance later in that product/service’s lifespan.
Android is not new. It is the most widely used mobile operating system. Android now matters, and how it is perceived matters just as much. This is even more the case for a company like Google who is already highly sensitive to attracting criticism.
Google pretty much said as much in the rebrand announcement. “As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world.”
This is a prime example of the issues surrounding personification in branding. The more individualistic you make a product – giving it a name – the more likely you are catering to one person/market over others. After all, names are regional. While someone reading this will think naming a cat “Sandy” is fine because it is a recognized name in their region, elsewhere, “Sandy” might have no meaning. Worst still, it might mean something I don’t want it to mean.
For reference, she’s called Sandy because she’s a sandy-colored cat. Not because of an obsession with Sandy and Danny from the 1978 “Grease” movie. Although there’s a perfect example of the problem. Those who see Sandy might guess it’s because of the color, while those who don’t see her might assume it’s because of “Grease.” It is open to interpretation and shaped by associations with the word.
Google doesn’t want to run the risk of people misinterpreting Android any longer. Arguably, it no longer wants anyone placing any meaning at all on Android. That is, other than inclusive sentiments like “for everyone” and “together.”
A long time coming
Google most likely set the stage for this change a long time ago. The issue was the timing. Google knows that for a lot of existing Android users, dessert names are a fun and engaging pastime.
Every time a new release comes through, there’s months of speculation on what it will be called. All that speculation is user-led and creates buzz and excitement that might not be otherwise there. So Google will have been hesitant to upset those buzz-creators any more than it needs to. But, make no mistake, Google probably wanted to do this years ago.
Now you can say I’m reading too much into this but the way Google already markets Android versions makes it clear the company has been moving away from version names. Without going all the way back, we’ll start with Jelly Bean.
Head here and you’ll be directed to Android’s official page for Jelly Bean. You’ll also see that it is branded as “Jelly Bean 4.3.” Note the name first, number second branding. The same is true if you head here to the “KitKat 4.4” product page.
A change in hierarchy
If you head here you’ll start to notice a change with “Android 5.0, Lollipop.” Here the number comes before the name, although the comma still highlights the importance of the name.
If you’re wondering why the comma matters so much, well, that’s due to a comma’s typical association with lists. A list simply lists things, it doesn’t imply that one thing is greater or better than another. If I need eggs, milk, and bread when I go to the store then I need them all. None of the individual items are more important than any of the others. Unless of course you drink as much coffee as I do. Even then you wouldn’t be able to tell the importance of milk seeing it is listed after eggs. So order does not matter with commas.
The comma’s use for the first time, and considering in the pre-Lollipop pages the name comes before the number, suggests Google’s was attempting to equalize the fact that it had now moved the name behind the number. In other words, this is Android 5.0 and it is also Android Lollipop.
By the next year the comma was gone and we were simply left with “Android 6.0 Marshmallow.” The transition to number before name was now in full effect. No comma implies no separate things and the order implies the number is more important than the name. Just like the name was more important, branding-wise, with versions prior to Lollipop. The approach used with Android 6.0 remains in effect on the product page for “Android 7.0 Nougat” and “Android 8.0 Oreo.”
Android Pie was the beginning of the end
Last year, Pie arrived on the scene and this was the next big branding change. Enter “Android 9 Pie.” Gone was the .0 which had been in use over the past few years. It was no longer deemed important.
This was also the first sign Google was readying for a bigger change. For example, the comma only lasted one year in between the name moving from a leadership position to a following position. In the same way, we now see that the removal of the “dot” followed by a number was the precursor to the removal of everything after the dot, including the dot. We’ve gone from Android 8.0 Marshmallow to Android 9 Pie to Android 10.
To be clear, if you go back to any of the original Google announcements for any Android version you will see the number always preludes the name. In Google’s mind, the number has always been the important bit. Getting the users on the same page has been the issue and the current product pages for each of the releases over the past few years reflect the path Google has taken to achieve this.
You can see the changes more clearly in the image below.
If you look closely enough you’ll also notice some of the other branding changes that are in effect. Such as how the name (and version number) have actually gotten smaller over the last few years. Unlike the marketing message which has conversely gotten bigger.
Likewise, since Android 7.0 Nougat, the marketing message has also distanced itself from the dessert name. Or the drastic color differences between the more modern releases compared to the shades of gray used to differentiate earlier releases. Arguably, that’s a branding attempt to highlight how different the latest version is from the version just before.
Short, but (not so) sweet
Again, you could say that too much is being read into these changes, and maybe that’s true. But, companies like Google hire entire teams and spend a fortune to literally cross the t’s and dot the i’s. Very little in branding is ever left to chance and especially when a bigger rebrand/change is in the long-term works. These bigger changes do not happen overnight and quite often the marketing seeds are planted very early.
This is quite often seen with major rebrands where a company even goes as far as to explain some of the more intricate changes. Explaining things that you might otherwise miss, because of how easy it is to miss these minor, but telling branding changes. You can see an example of this with the Android rebrand video launched today.
So yes, things like dropping a dot here or a comma there might seem inconsequential when viewed on their own. However, when you focus on the branding changes Android has seen throughout the years, a pattern does start to emerge.
What was previously the main focal point of an Android version name has gotten pushed further back in the name hierarchy, before eventually being cut off altogether.
That’s how good branding and marketing works and especially when attempting to reduce negative impact. Changes are often too subtle to pay attention to at the time, but strong enough to lay the groundwork.
Slowly, often subconsciously, preparing you for the real change.