The Google Now Launcher has been the go-to choice for Android users looking for a simple, stock home screen since its general availability in 2014. If you had a skinned phone and wanted something that looked a little more like “Google’s Android,” you could hop down to the Play Store, install the app, and get a home screen with Google’s predictive Google Now cards integrated.
Sadly, the Google Now Launcher will probably be gone soon. According to Android Police, Google is sending out letters to OEM partners declaring that the Google Now Launcher will be retired in Q1 2017. Devices that have the launcher installed will be able to continue using it, but the app will no longer show up on the Play Store.
Google actually has two home screen apps on the Play Store, the Google Now Launcher—which is widely available and the stock launcher on the Nexus phones—and the Pixel Launcher, which is exclusive to the Pixel and Pixel XL. Neither app actually contains the code for the home screen; they are just small “enabler” apps.
The code for both home screens is actually contained in the Google Search app, with only a few internal configuration flags separating the two launchers. Is killing the Google Now Launcher a move to make the “Google Android” look more exclusive to the Pixel phones, or is Google just working to consolidate its two launchers, with the Google Now Launcher going away and Pixel Launcher opening up to any phone that wants it?
By sticking the launcher code in the Google Search app, Google has enabled deep integration of Android’s primary interface and Google Search. Since the Google Search app is already running as the home screen, the voice response system is always ready to handle a command. On the Google Now Launcher, this is the regular Google voice command system, but in the Pixel Launcher, the voice command system is the Google Assistant. We’ve heard rumors that Google will finally open the Google Assistant up to more Android phones than just the Pixels soon. A report from CNET says the LG G6 will be the first non-Google phone with the Assistant, and 9to5Google’s Stephen Hall claims the Assistant is coming to Nexus phones with the next “major” update. Perhaps the death of the Now Launcher and a Pixel Launcher rebrand would be a part of a wide Google Assistant rollout.
Taking the “limited exclusively” route would follow the original path of the Google Now Launcher, which existed as a Nexus exclusive for some time before opening up to the wider ecosystem. Google is, after all, a search company, and the Google Assistant is the future of Google Search. Google is accustomed to serving hundreds of millions of search results a day, and limiting one of the flagship search interfaces to a single line of low-volume phones makes little sense for the company’s future. With Amazon’s Alexa partnering with every manufacturer under the sun, there is even more pressure on Google to open the Assistant up to third-parties.
Regardless of what Google decides to do, advanced users will always be able to grab either APK from a third-party and sideload it.