android insideIt’s no surprise that Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang yesterday described Android as “the most disruptive operating system we’ve seen in decades” and “the most versatile operating system that we’ve ever known.” Huang should know: Nvdia’s chips have been used to power many of those same devices.

Google’s not-so-little operating system that could has been used to make everything from itty-bitty game consoles to touch-enabled desktop computers. If Google’s goal was to provide the foundational layer for almost any software-reliant device, it succeeded. So why does the company continue to drift from the operating system it created?

Manufacturers have long twisted Android to suit their own purposes. Amazon replaced every aspect of the Android experience with its own software, from the user interface to the digital marketplaces from which people can purchase movies, music, games, and apps. Samsung has done the same. HTC hasn’t customized Android to quite that extent, but it’s still obfuscated the core operating system by relying on gimmicky features and its own design in its flagship devices. Android provided the foundation for each of these companies’ products, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them. These companies effectively removed Google from its own operating system.

That’s starting to change. Google has slowly been adding its own applications to the Play Store, the digital marketplace that can only be officially installed on Google-approved devices. These apps can complement or replace the versions that ship with a device, effectively making them a duplicate foundation with which people can actually interact. It began with mainstay services like Gmail and Maps; it’s since started to add integral services like the software keyboard and app launcher.

Google, you see, is taking Android back.

These latest releases are a marked departure from Google’s previous strategy of convincing some manufacturers to ship devices with its version of Android instead of their own. Instead of coordinating deals and asking consumers to purchase new phones at their full retail price to use the operating system as it was intended, the company is now using its platform to put these apps directly into consumers’ hands.

This is good news for anyone who has had to live with depressingly awful Android software. A number of third-party developers offer apps and services that emulate Google’s software and design — being able to download the real thing from the Play Store would be a welcome change.

Google’s take on Android is the most compelling I’ve seen yet, and the ability to use it without having to rely on a cheap smartphone (the Nexus 5), re-purchase a device I already own with the software pre-installed (the Google Play edition HTC One), or change my wireless carrier (Verizon doesn’t support the Nexus 5 or Google Play edition smartphones) seems like manna from Android heaven.

This shift in strategy might have been prompted, or at least accelerated by, Facebook. The company’s release of Facebook Home, an app launcher that replaced almost everything about the smartphones on which it runs with Facebook’s software, practically dared Google to re-take control of Android. Now, as others have pointed out, Google seems to have responded to that dare by emulating Facebook’s approach instead of simply allowing Android to be twisted by any manufacturer wishing to use the operating system.

Nvidia’s Huang is probably right to call Android the most versatile, disruptive operating system released in the last few decades. That won’t change despite Google’s attempts to assert more control over the operating system. If anything, Google’s ability to re-take Android from the many manufacturers and software developers who have changed basically everything about the operating system should serve as a shining example of its versatility.

Android has become the foundational layer for countless devices; now it seems that Google, like everyone else, is going start building atop that layer.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for PandoDaily]