The Plot To Kill The Desktop

As a fan of interface design, operating systems — Android, iOS, Windows — have always been a tremendous point of fascination for me. We spend hours in them every day, whether cognizant about that fact or not. And so any paradigm shifts in this field intrigue me to no end. One such paradigm shift that appears to be happening, is the phasing out of the desktop metaphor, the screen you put a wallpaper and shortcuts on.

Windows 8 was Microsofts bold attempt to phase out the desktop. Instead of the traditional desktop being the bottom of it all — the screen that was beneath all of your apps which you would get to if you closed or minimized them — there’s now the Start screen, a colorful bunch of tiles. Aside from the stark visual difference, the main difference between the traditional desktop and the Start screen, is that you can’t litter it with files. You’ll have to either organize your documents or adopt the mobile pattern of not worrying about where files are stored at all.

Apple created iOS without a desktop. The bottom screen here was Springboard, a sort of desktop-in-looks-only, basically an app-launcher with rudimentary folder-support. Born this way, iOS has had pretty much universal appeal among adopters. There was no desktop to get used to, so no lollipop to have taken away. While sharing files between apps on iOS is sort of a pain, it hasn’t stopped people from appreciating the otherwise complete lack of file-management. I suppose if you take away the need to manage files, you don’t really need a desktop to clutter up. You’d think this was the plan all along. (Italic text means wink wink, nudge nudge, pointing at the nose, and so on.)

For the longest time, Android seems to have tried to do the best of both worlds. The bottom screen of Android is a place to see your wallpaper and apps pinned to your dock. You can also put app shortcuts and even widgets here. Through an extra tap (so not quite the bottom of the hierarchy) you can access all of your installed apps, which unlike iOS have to manually be put on your homescreen if so desired. You can actually pin document shortcuts here as well, though it’s a cumbersome process and like with iOS you can’t save a file there. Though not elegant, the Android homescreen works reasonably well and certainly appeals to power-users with its many customization options.

Microsoft and Apple both appear to consider the desktop (and file-management as a subset) an interface relic to be phased out. Microsoft tried and mostly failed to do so, while Apple is taking baby-steps with iOS. If recent Android leaks are to be believed, and if I’m right in my interpretation of said leaks, Android is about to take it a step beyond even homescreens/app-launchers.

One such leak suggests Google is about to bridge the gap between native apps and web-apps, in a project dubbed “Hera” (after the mythological goddess of marriage). The mockups posted suggest apps are about to be treated more like cards than ever. Fans of WebOS1 will quickly recognize this concept fondly:

The card metaphor that Android is aggressively pushing is all about units of information, ideally contextual. The metaphor, by virtue of its physical counterpart, suggests it holding a finite amount of information after which you’re done with the card and can swipe it away. Like a menu at a restaurant, it stops being relevant the moment you know what to order. Similarly, business cards convey contact information and can then be filed away. Cards as an interface design metaphor is about divining what the user wants to do and grouping the answers together.

We’ve seen parts of this vision with Android Wear. The watch can’t run apps and instead relies on rich, interactive notification cards. Android phones have similar (though less rich) notifications, but are currently designed around traditional desktop patterns. There’s a homescreen at the bottom of the hierarchy, then you tap in and out of apps: home button, open Gmail, open email, delete, homescreen.

I think it’s safe to assume Google wants you to be able to do the same (and more) on an Android phone as you can on an Android smartwatch, and not have them use two widely different interaction mechanisms. So on the phone side, something has to give. The homescreen/desktop, perchance?

The more recent leak suggests just that. Supposedly Google is working to put “OK Google” everywhere. The little red circle button you can see in the Android Wear videos, when invoked, will scale down the app you’re in, show it as a card you can apply voice actions on. Presumably the already expansive list of Google Now commands would also be available; “OK Google, play some music” to start up an instant mix.

The key pattern I take note of here, is the attempt to de-emphasize individual apps and instead focus on app-agnostic actions. Matias Duarte recently suggested that mobile is dead and that we should approach design by thinking about problems to solve on a range of different screen sizes. That notion plays exactly into this. Probably most users approach their phone with particular tasks in mind: send an email, take a photo. Having to tap a home button, then an app drawer, then an app icon in order to do this seems almost antiquated compared to the slick Android Wear approach of no desktop/homescreen, no apps. Supposedly Google may remove the home button, relegating the homescreen to be simply another card in your multi-tasking list. Perhaps the bottom card?

I’ll be waiting with bated breath to see how successful Google can be in this endeavour. The homescreen/desktop metaphor represents, to many people, a comforting starting point. A 0,0,0 coordinate in a stressful universe. A place I can pin a photo of my baby girl, so I can at least smile when pulling out the smartphone to confirm that, in fact, nothing happened since last I checked 5 minutes ago.

  1. Matias Duarte, current Android designer, used to work on WebOS  

A Chromecast with a Remote

The internet is a series of tubes.

Last week Android TV leaked on The Verge. The leak was conveniently timed right after the Amazon Fire TV release, and featured unusually clear screenshots that were perfectly front facing but appeared lightly filtered, almost as if to make them appear as though they were unintentionally leaked. Regardless of intent, it gave us an insight into the set-top box that Google is supposedly building.

Just a couple of months ago I bought into the Google Chromecast, a headless HDMI dongle that streams the internet to your TV. The Chromecast is as simple as can be: it requires you to use your handset or tablet to control it, so there are no “apps” per se. In fact, in order for Netflix to support the Chromecast, it has to offer its content — movies, TV shows, poster art, box art — as URLs. Because the Chromecast can read nothing else.

That’s where it gets interesting. The article in The Verge suggests an obvious question, why is Google making a set-top box that requires apps when its first successful TV device required none? Thankfully, GigaOM filled in the blanks in their article on the technology behind. If I’m reading the tea-leaves correctly, Google have indeed cracked it, and the Android TV doesn’t really require apps — not in the way we’re used to:

I’ve been told that Google’s new approach wants to do away with those differences by replacing these custom interfaces with standardized templates. Publishers wouldn’t need to come up with their own user interface, but instead would develop apps that provide data feeds to the Android TV platform.

Read it this way: you don’t have to make an app for the Android TV, your content just has to be URL accessible. In fact, if a service is already Chromecast ready, putting it on Android TV will probably require very little work. It’s quite clever; just expose the content-tube endpoint and  you have the best of the internet in a native experience, like an RSS feed for television.

Android TV is just a bigger Chromecast, with a remote-control and an interface, should you prefer that. Ted Stevens was right all along.

Android, several years later

Google I/O is wednesday, which traditionally means a peek at the next version of Android. Having used Android since version 2, I thought now would be a great time to reflect on how far Android has come.

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Droid

The Android open source project has been around since 2005, but it wasn’t until Android 2.0 (no unique dessert name, Android 1.6 was “Donut”) was released alongside the Droid phone that Android started its rise to some sort of smartphone dominance. Looking back, version 2 of Android was a pretty uninspired affair with very few good apps to brag about. Some apps were crashy and copy and paste wasn’t everywhere and not particularly good. The experience as a whole felt sluggish and laggy.

What made it worth getting instead of the iPhone, however, was the fact that everything synced as soon as you were logged in with your Google account. There was not a trace of iTunes, and did I mention the superior turn by turn navigation? Douchy hipsters would ask why anyone in their right minds would get an Android phone when they could buy an iPhone instead. Even back then, the answer was: sync and maps.

The Nexus Phones

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While Android 2.0 started the rivalry between Apple and Google, Android 2.1 (“Eclair”) which coincided with the Nexus One, set the war ablaze. Pinch to zoom was omitted due to threats of themonuclear war, but the phone itself was still the best Android to date.

Only, there was a problem: way too little internal storage. 256M if I remember correctly. This little space had to hold the entire operating system, including apps, including application data. Which meant, of course, that you’d run out of space within days if you used the phone like you were presumably supposed to. Android 2.2 (“Froyo”) tried to mitigate this embarrassing hardware decision by allowing you to store apps on the SD card, but since application data was still stored on the system partition this change did little to fix the situation. Visually, Eclair received relatively minor tweaks, Froyo likewise.

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The Nexus S was released alongside Android 2.3 (“Gingerbread”) and it solved most of the problems that plagued the Nexus One. There was plenty of internal storage. Copy and paste was now unified across the operating system. There was a new, darker and flatter skin that made the experience a bit more elegant but the design felt weirdly half-baked. As a whole, the phone felt snappier, more coherent, and generally more pleasant.

Only, once again there was a problem. The stock Android browser bundled with the Nexus S was optimized for Snapdragon processors, not Hummingbird processors. The Nexus S had the latter, so browsing anything not mobile optimized was slower than it was on the Nexus One. You had to go out of your way to find an alternate (inferior) browser such as “Dolphin”. Not cool.

The Honeycomb Detour

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We eventually found out what ailed the Nexus S. Google was busy making a tablet-friendly version of Android, and either didn’t have time to completely optimize the Nexus S, or simply chose to focus on the tablet instead. Matias Duarte, the original designer for WebOS, had been brought in to spearhead a strong visual direction for Android 3.0, “Honeycomb”. At the time, Gingerbread was just about ready to ship, and Honeycomb development was already underway. So the half-baked feeling that came with Gingerbread was due to the furious race toward the tablet.

For the very same reason, Andy Rubin had made the call that Honeycomb would be tablet only. There simply wouldn’t be time to scale the experience down to the phone form factor, that would have to happen in a later release. There was a lot to like about the end result, but arguably more to dislike. Regardless, a strong direction had been laid, and difficult structural decisions were in place.

Goodbye, Menu Button

Cue Android 4.0, “Ice Cream Sandwich”.

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Like sandwiches are combinations of things, Android 4 was for both phones and tablets. It drastically iterated on the Honeycomb UI. The spacey clock was now minimalist, and the pretty terrible Tron font had been replaced with a custom Helvetica-esque “Roboto” font. Applications, icons, even menu items were given a strong design direction, and the result for apps that used this new “Holo” theme was pretty gorgeous. Ice Cream Sandwich was released with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, and later rolled out for the Nexus S (complete with a stock browser that was finally optimized for the Hummingbird processor).

Impressively, Ice Cream Sandwich managed to shed some of the legacy shackles that had held back earlier Androids. The Menu button, once a requirement on Android phones, was now frowned upon, and developers were asked not to rely on it. Every menu item would come with an icon and shown directly in the action-bar if there was room (and land in the Action Overflow menu if there wasn’t). The death of the menu button was welcome since the button itself was the epitome of mystery meat navigation. Ironic then, that toolbar items would be icon-only. Still, Ice Cream Sandwich was a huge release with fundamental and difficult changes to Android, necessary for the platform to stay competitive.

Waltz

For every problem Android releases would solve, however, new problems would become apparent. Like a waltz — two steps forward, one step back — Ice Cream Sandwich was no different. While the menu button had been killed, the problems with the back button had become increasingly apparent. I’m not even going to try and explain how the back button works, but here’s a chart:

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It’s not optimal. But it’s certainly fixable. Especially on the Galaxy Nexus, where buttons are software. If killing the back button is on the … menu… then it’s possible. If not, there has to be a way to make its behavior more predictable.

In a similar vein, now that Android is beautiful, it’s becoming increasingly clear how most developers don’t care about optimizing their apps for Android. Most apps aren’t using the new Holo theme (which is legitimately beautiful). There are notable exceptions — Tasks, Foursquare, Pocket — but even first-party apps like Google Listen haven’t been updated to the new 4.0 SDK level. If Google can’t eat their own dog-food, how can they expect developers to?

Jelly Bean

Wednesday is Android 4.1 day and it’ll be interesting to see how Google intends to tackle the problems facing their platform. Perhaps it’s time to mimic Apple and create the “Android Design Awards”, showcasing well-designed Android 4 apps in the market. Might as well give a reason for developers to update the SDK level.

There’s also the problem with timely updates. As it turns out, an operating system running on an ARM processor is fundamentally different from one that runs on, say, an Intel Processor. Where on the latter, you can simply make one OS distribution you can install on every Intel processor out there, ARM operating systems have to be written directly for the specific version of the processor. Which incidentally explains why you won’t be able to install Windows RT (Windows 8 for ARM) yourself. So how can Apple do it? Well they build everything themselves, so they don’t have to target more than one processor.

Still, all of that is just software. Software is written by humans. We tell software what to do. If updates for Android are hard to do because there’s no generic interface for the ARM CPU, then make one. Whatever you do, Google, the big next challenge on your table is making Android easy to update.

Hey Google? One more thing. It would be nice if the Nexus phones you make aren’t so big they don’t fit in my pockets.

Smart Smartphones

Smartphones are great. I can use them to read, browse, look up who that guy in that movie is, listen to podcasts, and even take photos with them. Supposedly it can also make calls, but I don’t know anyone that uses smartphones for that anymore. Only, when my smartphone dings in the middle of the night because it found that I have a new email and it absolutely has to tell me right now, it’s not quite as smart as the prefix suggests.

Smartphones should know when to bug you but most importantly, when not to. On the Android, I’ve fallen in love with Setting Profiles, a programmable context settings manager.

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There’s a permanent shortcut in your windowshade showing which profiles are active. Click the shortcut and you’ll see all your profiles for easy access. Yup, would look much nicer were the app updated to the new Ice Cream Sandwich look … developer, ping?

So essentially, the app is about profiles and contexts. For example, “Rotation lock” is simply a shortcut to a feature I’d otherwise have to dig up from deep within the settings panel; quite useful for when you’re lying down and reading. “Quiet time”, on the other hand, is auto-activated from 22:00 to 09:00 every day, i.e. night-time — it essentially mutes the ringer and disables email sync.

“Quiet time” is a activated by a schedule context, but it could also have been activated by a location (as decided by GPS, Wi-Fi SSID or cell-tower ID), or when you dock your phone in a car, when you plug in a headset, when you miss a call or a number of other contexts.

The end result is that I have to do a lot less managing of my smartphone. That’s really nice, and it’s certainly smarter than the phone was when I got it. Still, it requires you to set it up when in fact your phone should be able to handle a lot of these things itself. I bet that’s the next big thing: actually making smartphones smart.

Android Ice Cream Sandwich Might Be A Make-Or-Break Release

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Yesterday, Samsung and Google announced an October 10th event, probably to unveil a long-rumored new Nexus phone running the new version of Android. Today, that new Android version was shakily demoed. Being a huge Android fan I follow this intently. I love Android because it’s so open that Amazon can go ahead and build something entirely different with it. Living in Gmail and Google Calendar, I love that everything syncs headache-free when I sign in to my phone. The Gmail app, specifically, is what makes Android my favorite dish among an increasingly diverse mobile marketplace. But despite my love for Android, I think Android’s next release, “Ice Cream Sandwich”, will be a make or break release for Google.

Make or break? Really? Well, make or break for the Google curated version of Android, yes. Obviously the Linux core is not going to disappear, but Android is at a crossroads. One path sees Android eventually showing a return on investment for Google, the other does not.

I like to pretend I understand the broken windows theory more thoroughly than I actually do, so I often invoke it outside of its criminological roots. The gist of the theory is that if you walk past an abandoned building with a couple of broken windows, there’s a greater chance that you would reach for a rock and break one of the remaining windows, than had the building manager made sure to repair the broken windows before you got there. Evil you!

Android is under fire from all directions. Apple vehemently sues HTC and Samsung for stealing their look and feel, Microsoft is attacking for underlying Linux patents they claim to have, and Oracle arguably has the upper hand in one high-profile lawsuit. If Android was a fortress in a desert, it would be under siege from all directions, and at some point the supplies will run out. Google appears unfazed by the attacks but I bet it’s getting to them. Having recently bolstered their patent war chest with the purchase of Motorola, Google is better positioned to fend off the lawsuits. Heck, they might even turn around Motorola and have the company produce delicious, Google-curated Android devices. But by the time this happens, a little year from now, it may already be too late. Right now, Android has a lot of broken windows.

The attacks against Android are reaching the public ear. “Google’s copying Apple”, “Android isn’t really open”, “Android users don’t buy apps”. It doesn’t even matter whether these stories are true or not — if they persist, they’re likely to make the customer walking into a Verizon store skip the Android phone and pick the platform he thinks is “going to be around”. (Or he’ll buy anything, but that’s not a business model.)

That’s a grim future which sees Android falter. But fortunately that’s just one potential outcome. Android still has a disruptive business model: it’s a free operating system with free top-shelf GPS navigation, and it gets users to use Google apps so there’s a halo effect. Now all Google needs is a decisive victory. They need a phone that just looks great, has a UI that’s responsive, fluid and extremely delightful to use. And Google needs this phone to sell like ice cream. Sandwiches.

I would assume Google knows this, and that it’s why they hired Matias Duarte to up the ante on the UI design. The Nexus S is a gorgeous device, all black like the night without the stars, so clearly Samsung can create beautiful hardware when they put their minds to it, wink wink. If the combination (which may be revealed October 10th) is both user-friendly, snappy and delightful, it might just sell like those aforementioned treats. This’ll inspire HTC and Samsung to stick with Android. It’ll further Androids reach, ensuring a larger portfolio of apps. It might even make an Android tablet a value proposition. Put simply, if Google can rally the forces behind a decisive platform release and instill renewed motivation in its partners, these partners might continue their legal fights with fresh energy as opposed to settle and pick other platforms.

On the other hand, if Ice Cream Sandwich is not the watershed release Google needs, the platform might slowly wither away. As stuffed as Googles pockets are, they’re not going to keep throwing money at Android with no return on investment in sight. There’s no sense in being the number 1 smartphone platform if it’s not making you money. That would be a Pyrrhic victory.