What is the magical ingredient that makes a smartphone smart? Is it the eight-core processor onboard or the multiple gigabytes of RAM? Maybe it’s the high-speed internet connection or the capable camera systems. If you answered yes to any of the aforementioned, you would only be partially correct. While all those things are generally present in a smartphone, the app ecosystem makes or breaks the smartphone experience — just ask the Windows phone. In Android, the app ecosystem is primarily powered by Google Play and its associated services.
What is Google Play?
Google Play is first and foremost the digital marketplace that — with few exceptions — comes pre-installed on Android devices, giving developers a place to sell and market their apps to an ever-growing audience of Android users. Google Play launched way back in 2008 as Android Market and has since been through many identity crises, ultimately settling on the Google Play we all know.
What is available on Google Play?
Google Play is an online marketplace run by Google to support its Android ecosystem. The primary cog in the Google Play machine is the Google Play Store—an online marketplace where users can download, buy, and rent a host of digital content. While the primary focus of Google Play is the 2-million-app-strong Play Store, the suite also brings several other offerings in the form of system updates and entertainment. Let’s have a look.
Google Play Store
The Google Play Store is the heart of Google Play—it is where you gain access to the extensive apps and games library from Google and any third-party developers that want maximum exposure for their Android apps. The Play Store features a mix of free and paid apps—unsurprisingly, the majority are free—in a wide range of categories, including social media, entertainment, productivity, and photography. Google also allows developers and users to use its Google Pay platform to manage app purchases, subscriptions, and in-app payments.
Google Play Movies & TV (Google TV)
Google Play Movies & TV aims to take care of your entertainment needs by offering a library of movies and TV shows for you to rent and buy. At least it did before Google announced in March 2022 that Google Play Movies & TV would be integrated into the Google TV app. With the shift to Google TV, the Movies & TV page will be removed from the Google Play Store. While Google TV has an incredible library of classic favorites, like The Silence of the Lambs and Parks and Recreation, the lineup is constantly being refreshed with the latest releases from western and international studios.
Google Play Games
Along with apps, games, eBooks, and movies, Google Play also bundles Google Play Games—a free, cloud-based service that enhances the gaming experience by giving users access to social features, achievements, and leader boards on games that support the service. Not all games on the Google Play Store support Google Play Games—developers do need to design their games with the service in mind—but designing around it does add quite a bit of value to the gaming experience.
Additionally, the Google Play Games standalone app features Instant Play, allowing users to try short snippets of popular games without downloading the full game. We’ve all downloaded a game that looked great, but turned out to be a total bore-fest; this feature helps avoid that. There is quite a large variety of games available on Google Play, from popular action titles like Apex Legends and Dead Cells to more laid-back, cozy games like Stardew Valley and Hay Day.
Google Play Books
Google Play Books is an eBook and audiobook library where users can buy and download over 4 million eBooks. This impressive list includes comics and audiobooks from popular fiction series like Star Wars and The Witcher, as well as a wide variety of non-fiction guides, biographies, and self-help books. You can purchase titles on the Google Play Store, but you will need to download the Google Play Books app to your phone or tablet to download and read the books.
While most books are paid, there are quite a few free books available through Google Play Books, and the app helps you curate your library with custom Shelves. As your collection grows, Google Play will also recommend books you might like based on your previous purchases, so you never have to worry about what to read next.
Google System Updates
The Google Play Store is a powerful distribution tool—a fact Google continues to emphasize by providing Google System Updates via the Play Store. Previously Mainline, Google System Updates provided users with updates and bug fixes to modular services—usually background services that play important roles in the day-to-day operation of your devices, like account management, device security, location services, and connection management. These updates would run on compatible devices running Android 10 or newer.
Google Play Pass
Game streaming services are all the rage these days, so it was just a matter of time before Google launched its own subscription-based service to bring you apps and games that you would normally have to buy separately. Priced at US$4.99 per month, or US$29.99 annually, Google Play Pass is a way for Google to lower the barrier of entry to hundreds of the most popular apps and games on the Google Play Store. The games and apps available on Google Play Pass are constantly changing, but some highlights of the subscription are LIMBO, Monument Valley, and Infinity Painter.
Is Google Play safe?
With more and more of our lives on our phones, device security is becoming increasingly important. The most obvious vulnerability is the end-user accidentally installing malware, which is why Google maintains Google Play Protect—a security service bundled with Google Play.
By default, Google Play Protect will keep your device safe by scanning apps before downloading them and occasionally scanning apps already installed on your device to ensure they are not infected with any known malware or security vulnerabilities. If any unsecured apps are detected when Google Play Protect scans your device, Play Protect will warn you about the threat or even automatically remove the app if the danger is severe enough.
Aside from automatically protecting your device and information from malware, Google Play Protect also ensures that app developers are upfront and honest about their data collection and privacy policies. Play Protect will warn you if it finds an app with misleading or dangerous data collection policies. While Google Play Protect sounds good in theory, the app’s ability to scan all the apps on your device—not just those downloaded from Google Play itself—brings up concerns about abuse and privacy for some users. This practice has led to confusion about unnecessary security warnings or apps being removed from users’ devices without warning.
Who can use Google Play?
Compatibility is a complicated issue—on the one hand, if your phone does not have Google Play pre-installed, chances are it is not compatible. Still, there are ways to get around this limitation. While Google maintains a searchable list of Android and Chrome OS devices that are compatible with Google Play—frankly, most Android devices you can buy from any large manufacturer are compatible—the requirements for running the service are not made perfectly clear to the end-user.
We know that for a device to have access to Google Play, it needs to be Google Play Protect certified, which means the manufacturer has validated that the device meets a certain degree of security before selling it to the end-user. Devices that are not Google Play Protect certified will not come with Google Play pre-installed since they are not officially supported. If you have a device that is not officially supported, there is a way to install the Google Play Store on any Android device.
In addition to Android and Chrome OS devices, Google Play Games for Windows entered beta testing in March 2022, allowing accepted users to install their favorite Android games on their Windows 10 and 11 PCs.
It is often said that Apple’s
walled garden ecosystem is the driving factor behind user retention and a top-notch user experience. While Google still has a lot of work to do to match the inter-device compatibility and interconnectedness of the Apple experience, it is fair to say that the tools provided to both end-users and developers by Google Play are a huge boon to the popularity of Android.
If you’re on the fence about joining the world of Android, maybe looking at the best Android phones around will entice you. If you’re already an Android user, you might want to dive into Google Play’s great app selection.