It’s a well-worn tech topic best avoided in polite conversation. But a recent Bloomberg article has once again brought it back to everyone’s attention.
Citing “people familiar with the situation”, Bloomberg reports Google plans to win some of Apple’s share of the high-end phone market with major interface changes in Android P (aka Android 9).
This will be the next major version of Android. It’s likely to debut in a Pixel 3, or similar, phone later in 2018. But what exactly has Google got up its corporate sleeve?
Appraising Material Design
Android’s look, and that of much of its web interfaces, is based on Material Design. This concept was introduced in 2014 alongside Android 5.0 L. It hasn’t changed all that much since then. It’s flat. It’s colourful. It’s simple.
“The impact Material Design had was massive, and it has been quite successful in creating the first step of a cohesive experience,” says Mikael Widerström, design lead at Ustwo, a digital product studio that has previously consulted on both Android and Android Wear – it’s also the studio behind Monument Valley and Whale Trail.
London-based freelance UX designer Stef Ivanov sees bringing the Android UI’s consistency up to the level of iOS is a “massive challenge for Google”, though.
“Material Design has extensive use of animations, overuse of colours, images, shapes and it can be distracting sometimes. Apple has been consistent from the very beginning with their UX, and longtime iPhone users like me are pretty well brainwashed in terms of what to expect and how actions should happen,” says Ivanov.
Android P Release Date, Name & News
- What will Android P be called?
- According to Bloomberg, the internal code name is ‘Pistachio Ice Cream’, but this is unlikely to be the official name. Google typically names its Android updates after desserts or confectionery. Fan favourite suggestions include Pancake and Pumpkin Pie.
- When will Android P come out?
- It will be unveiled at Google I/O in May, but expect it to be released around August or September at the latest. As ever, it will come to official Google devices ahead of third-party ones from the likes of Samsung, LG and Sony.
Changing colours and app icon shapes does not constitute a radical redesign. Google even experimented with square icons in a beta version of Android 8.0 Oreo. However, Widerström also sees animation improvements as necessary.
He would like to see Android P “more streamlined, with more emphasis on animations, making them even tighter.
Developers have to create their own app animations in Android apps. The result is a form of user experience fragmentation within Android. Some app developers create high-quality transitions. Others do not, leading to a janky feel that used to permeate Android in its early years.
A new kind of user experience
Google flushing this out won’t convert many iPhone fans either, though. Widerström has a much more interesting, and dynamic, view of what an Android redesign may look like. “Android introduced soft buttons instead of hardware buttons, like, five years ago. After that not much has really changed in the basic interactions. It’s time to look a little more at how you can make the basic functionality of the phone more engaging, fluid and seamless,” he says.
“The most important thing is ironing out the things you use most often, like unlocking your phone, finding and locating an app on your home screen, and so on. Trying to figure out those things and using machine learning to automate them.”
His vision is of a lock screen that operates contextually, bringing to the surface relevant notifications and actions based on what you’re doing. “An example of that would be payments or travelling by bus, or ordering an Uber,” where the information or feature is simply there when you need it. When the AI Google already uses to great effect in its Home smart speakers is allowed control over Android, what do we end up with?
It’s “a blend of Google Now services on the homescreen,” says Widerström. Google has developed its Now and Assistant software for well over half a decade, but in Android they are still timid influences on the system.
Widerström says there were discussions on the subject a long time ago, too. “I haven’t worked on the Android platform in the last two years, but this was something we talked about maybe four years ago. It has been very long coming, these thoughts and ideas. But it takes a long time to get them in.”
When the artificial intelligence Google already uses to great effect in its Home smart speakers is allowed some control over Android, what do we end up with? We’ll be “going between functions rather than apps,” says Widerström. “So it’s not so much going into Facebook or Instagram, but surfacing the content within the phone itself.”
This could effectively dissolve the structure of how we use our phones day-to-day, currently a hop between the lock screens, home screens and the apps menu, which Widerström views as somewhat archaic. “It feels like a very old-school way of doing things, like using an old Windows machine or an old Mac,” he says.
“Surfaced” content and functions may remind you of widgets. In Android’s younger years these were touted by some as a USP over iPhone iOS. We can’t think of anyone who uses them now. “It was the wrong framework for the right problem,” says Widerström, “not a super-bad idea, but they were a little too constrained.”
Google Assistant momentum
That data also powers its Adsense advertising network, which earned Google over $95 billion in 2017. It has a file on you. On all of us. Natural speech engines and data collection-based activity predications are areas in which Google has a huge lead over Apple.
“Apple is definitely failing when it comes to voice interface. They are quite far behind on that, compared to Google. Google has been far better at doing that integration,” says Widerström. “Some things are very well integrated [in Apple’s ecosystem], but as soon as you have something to do with voice, that breaks the system.”
This points to a big opportunity for Google. Amazon’s Alexa is the market leader in terms of getting “AI” powered speakers (and listeners) into our homes. But all smart speakers are doing the important work of normalising automation, highly predictive interfaces and gadgets that seem to know what we want in a more unnerving manner than an Amazon “suggested buys” box.
Apple has traditionally been seen as the master of device integration: your phone, laptop, tablet and watch. However, HomePod’s deliberately restrictive, privacy-led approach could backfire if analysts’s more optimistic smart-home forecasts prove correct.
“The phone is going to be a huge part of [the smart home], as the central UI, in a way. That’s the most convenient, most efficient UI you have to control all of these things. It’ll be very much the central hub of all your connected things. They will revolve around the phone, at least for the coming couple of years,” says Widerström.
Siri is so far behind Assistant, Google’s smart custodian, that much deeper integration in Google’s phone OS seems the best, and perhaps only, way Android could feasibly overtake iOS in the coming years.
The question is whether Google has the nerve to let Assistant take over Android, and the ability to make it work.