Android Intelligence Analysis

Android and the shifting simplicity spectrum

Google's approach to Android has slowly but surely been shifting over the years — and an equal but opposite force has been pushing back at the same time.

Android Simplicity
JR Raphael

With the first Android P developer preview inching ever-closer to its arrival, I've been thinking a lot about the state of Google's Android software and where it stands in the grander mobile tech ecosystem.

Even within Android itself, after all, it's hard to talk about the "new" features of a major release without acknowledging the fact that, in some form, many of those features have often long existed in third-party manufacturers' implementations of the software.

Take Nougat, for example. The big headline feature from 2016's Android 7.0 release was the addition of split-screen mode — the ability to view two apps on-screen at the same time. Another noteworthy element was an expanded Quick Settings area, with an added set of always-present toggles atop the regular notification panel and a newly customizable set of tiles when you swipe down from that view.

Both of those features, of course, are things that had long been available in the Android-based software created by Samsung and other device-makers and provided on their respective phones. They just hadn't been a part of Google's actual native Android OS or the broader Android platform up until Nougat.

This same notion came up a couple weeks ago, when I was discussing the significance of a screenshot editing and sharing feature being tested in Google's standalone Google app. I pointed out that such a feature would make an awful lot of sense as a system-wide Android element — and some astute readers noted that such an option already is available (albeit, in a somewhat different form) on certain third-party devices.

Now, don't get me wrong: There are plenty of instances where this strange-seeming duality doesn't hold true. Pretty much every Android OS update contains foundational improvements and platform-wide feature additions that haven't been (and often couldn't be) implemented at any other level before. But there are certainly enough examples of areas where Google seems to be "playing catchup" with what its ecosystem partners have already done to make you realize it's more than a fluke; it's a bit of a trend, especially as of late.

And when you stop and think about it, it's not entirely surprising. All software walks the line between simplicity and feature density. You want your product to be simple enough that it's immediately intuitive and easy to use, particularly when a wide range of users is involved (a la smartphones) — but you also want it to have enough features to satisfy the productivity-hungry power-user crowd.

Most products excel at one end of that spectrum or the other. Striking the balance between the two areas and managing to be intuitive yet also jam-packed with advanced options is easier said than done — and much more the exception than the rule. (Believe me, I spend far too much time searching for the apps and services that do accomplish that impossible-seeming task.)

Android itself, believe it or not, has traditionally leaned toward the former side of the spectrum — that is, toward simplicity over feature density. 2011's Ice Cream Sandwich era was when Google really started focusing on simplifying the Android experience and making it more polished, intuitive, and user-friendly, but the base operating system has always been more of a fertile foundation than a jungle-like greenhouse. Sure, it's long supported an array of tools and extensions that add all sorts of advanced functionality — but most of those tend to be things that you as a user can opt to install, if you're so inclined, as opposed to things that are built directly into the OS-level software.

Third-party OEMs like Samsung, meanwhile, have traditionally taken the exact opposite approach: throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the equation and overwhelming people with mountains of options, even when they offer a questionable amount of practical value.

Here's where things get really interesting, though: Over time, Google has been moving increasingly toward the "feature density" end of the spectrum while third-party manufacturers have been ever so slowly inching back toward the "simplicity" side. Think about it: Over the past several years, the core Android software has grown more and more feature-dense (and has become less simple and intuitive as a result) while many third-party manufacturers have been making at least some effort to scale back bloat and focus on interface improvements with their own custom Android implementations.

So here's the million-dollar question to mull over as we wait for Android P to arrive: How long til those two sides effectively meet in the middle? When you think back to how far apart they once were — the seas of difference in philosophies between Google's core Android software and the implementations of, say, Samsung, HTC, and Sony around 2011 or 2012 — and then consider how relatively close they've grown together now, you know what you realize?

It's kind of already happened.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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