Google I/O is coming soon, and while it’s about more than Android, most of the news and things you read will be about the smartphone. That’s a given now that computers are things we mostly hold in our hands instead of set on a desk and I/O is a conference about software. I’m going to make another very safe prediction and say that reactions to the announcements aren’t all going to be positive. There will be people who dislike the things that you like when it comes to Android’s features and changes, and vice versa.
In the short term, that’s to be expected and not a very big deal. We are all wired differently inside our heads and not everyone wants the same thing or the same type of change on our little handheld computers. The world would be a very boring place if everyone thought like you or me. But in the long term, it brings up something that becomes a little more serious: where does Google go from here?
Some of us would love to see Google keep adding more and more until Android becomes Windows ME and is a huge conglomeration of stuff that works as long as you do everything the right way and in the right order and are savvy enough to dig through page after page of settings. Sort of what happened to Hangouts. That kind of Android would be “powerful” for enthusiasts and power users, and the hardware that gets dropped into flagship smartphones could handle it. The problem is that enthusiasts and power users alone don’t pay the bills and Android has to be accessible and attractive to less savvy users and devices with less stellar specs.
Google also can’t go forward without adding new features that will inevitably make things more complicated, either. If Android Q launches without any new user-facing features there will be a minor uproar from the internet-at-large about Google losing its mojo and Android becoming stale.
Google has moved from the “one big change” model in Android updates to offering several smaller, but still significant, changes.
Google tried to balance this with smaller features and user interface changes for the most part, with possibly one killer feature that will be “coming soon”. We saw this last year at Google I/O, and Google has used the year since to fine-tune how your phone and Google Duplex can make a call on your behalf to get a reservation with a hair stylist. This allows Google to move forward with essential changes to Android — address new ways we use our phones to make money for the company while making it easy for us — while it gauges public opinion on the bigger things like robocalling virtual assistants.
Can Google do this forever? Maybe. But that means the company will still have to find that one big thing each and every year then make good on the promise we got from a demo. That’s not easy, especially when you consider the limitations that come with a handheld device.
Because we all use a phone as a primary, or at a minimum secondary, way to interface with the world, things coming from Mountain View need to be designed for the small screen first. One of the biggest limitations is exactly that — the small screen where information can’t all be shown at once and a user needs to know how and where to find all the details. Maybe that’s as easy as scrolling down or maybe it means a deep excursion through the settings. Once that’s sorted, you need to think about things like how we input commands and ideas into our device, how our device can economically stay connected, what kind of feedback we need so we know our device “understands” us, and more. Developing for a phone is tough.
There are a lot of hands involved in making an Android feature happen.
Thankfully, Android does not exist in a vacuum. Not only are there years of great ideas about how to “do” computing to draw from, but Android is built on ideas and design from more than just Google. You need to look no further than a thing like multi-windowed apps for a great example. Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft all realized that you might need to see more than one thing at a time when using an operating system as far back as 30+ years ago. Google and its partners know this, too. Samsung was able to take relatively small changes Google made in preparation for it coming to mobile and build them into its version. After sharing it all with the Android team, Google was able to make more changes so it could become universal. The next time you slide an app over so you can see another app on half of your screen, know that Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Google, and countless other developers are responsible.
The real trick that Google is going to have to master is how to do any of this without alienating the enthusiasts and existing power users. As time goes by, its inevitable that changes will be made that simplify things in favor of taking away some of Android’s “features”. That word is in quotes for a reason: some features are actually a byproduct. Android wasn’t designed so that compressed files could be deflated and read on the fly, for example. That happens because of the semi-open permission system for file access. If that goes away, as it will when Scoped Storage is (ever) implemented, decompressing zip files without a special utility goes away, too.
You can’t please everyone. Or can you? Either way, Google has to try.
Most of us don’t care about working with .rar files in real time through a third-party file manager on our phone. But those who do care are going to have to face the reality that it’s going away. Other tricks and power utilities will die by the wayside, too, as Android becomes more streamlined and secure. Some will love it and some will hate it. Some will even change platforms for one of the lesser known but great in their own right smartphone operating systems that exist. It’s up to Google to find some semblance of balance in all of this if it can.
I’m sure that Google thinks it can do just that. I’m not so sure how it happens or if the company is even correct about it. But watching it all unfold is a hell of a fun ride.