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How can Google keep Android from becoming stale without alienating existing users?

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.

Jerry Hildenbrand
Jerry Hildenbrand

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

20 Comments
  • What I want to see.
    Better gestures
    A real Apple Watch competitor
    Finally solve advanced messaging, build it into Android OS, no 3rd party app and Stop relying on carriers to implement RCS and do it themselves. Sadly 2 of those 3 are why I'm using an iPhone now. And fix all the bugs with the Pixel 3 I keep reading about and seeing.
  • I also went back to iPhone. It just works. I am tired of messing with settings menus day in and day out to make my phone do its job. iMessage and Apple watch alone are enough reasons to not use android.
    I still like android, but at this point I don't even own an android device.
  • That's kind of unusual. I'm a long term Apple guy who has owned pretty much every iPhone, and it's rare that I need to go into the settings for anything on our Android devices. I originally moved to Android for battery life and audio quality.
  • I couldn't agree more about gestures and messaging. I worry that Google won't be able to solve the latter given it's track record. We're 0 for 2 on messaging platforms, so I have no reason to think a 3rd will be different without external buy in. And I think carrier buy in is going to be the only way Google succeeds in messaging. As for gestures, I think it's a matter of time. And not much at that. We're already seeing them play with gestures in the Q beta, and even if that falls through, Google will probably do what it always does and adopts something one of it's OEMs employed. Yay for crowd sourcing!
  • With Android Desktop now becoming a real thing, I think that Google and OEMs will need to provide good file explorers and other apps if they are to block all third party alternatives like solid explorer and others. I think that the desktop space is where Android has opportunity to grow over the next few years as mobile has hit near peak and users are less interested in upgrading to basically the same devices with a new number every other year. Though if we see new improvements in the phone powered desktop, that might just justify the upgrades each year to greater hardware.
    If all OEM's offer Android Q desktop and promote it (unlike Samsung) and expose users to the tech, surely people would begin to get excited to upgrade again :) The Android news has become relatively boring over the past few years with mostly reports on data issues or product comparisons to Pixel or Galaxy devices.
    Maybe with a massive new desktop computing experience that tries to compete with Windows and MacOS, people would get excited for news and reports on new Android framework changes that extend the desktop functionality in a more secure way than other desktop OS's.
    Though for now the media industry will just need to keep using data scams as ways to draw in people to show ads to... :(
  • I'm already alienated. The biggest issue to me is the play store. Too many apps don't work on all of my devices. The ones that do are mostly broken, so it's mostly a portable web browser.
  • What kind of phone do you have that so many apps don't work on? I have 156 apps loaded on my phone right now and they all work. Only one that didn't work was a screen rotation app that forced landscape.
  • I'm most excited about "Desktop Mode," especially once 5G arrives. With 5G, I will have no reason to have broadband at home (actually already got rid of it 4 months ago). Minus one bill. Desktop Mode to AV receiver, to BenQ projector. Add Bluetooth keyboard and mouse. Life is good, and extremely portable.
  • I would like a native desktop mode when you plug into a monitor, but I don't want Windows ME! I'm fine with feature refinement, but don't feel the need for them to come up with new ideas just to keep people entertained. My life is actually a bit TOO entertaining right now!
  • "But those who do care are going to have to face the reality that it's going away"
    - My God, you bloggers are repeating the exact same mistake you made with the headphone jack. Instead of fighting back and saying "NO, THIS IS WRONG" you threw up your hands and condemned us all to a horrific fate. Take stand for users, for God's sake. Not everything Google or devs or OEMs say is correct or the only way to see an issue.
  • Fix the existing problems and stop trying to make Android into iPhone.
    1. Make audio sync with video
    2. Dark mode all the things
    3. Fix the awful audio controls. Label them as what they are and either make one master audio or completely separate them. My wife is constantly missing notifications because of volume issues (thinking she was turning down one but really effecting more than one).
    4. Always on display elements don't move enough to protect your screen from burn-in
    5. Navigation elements don't move at all, allowing them to burn into your screen (same with status bar elements)
    6. A lot of first party apps are too basic and need to be replaced by something more useful
    7. Google app AND Chrome. Pick one and use it. I hate opening articles in the Google app only to have to open them in another app to get full functionality (YouTube videos etc)
    8. Stop trying to dumb things down. Google keeps removing any power user features in favor of less choice and less customization.
    9. Have Samsung be the next Pixel builder
  • Second to Steelew's comment about let Samsung build the next pixel phone. The original Samsung Chromebook Pro in my opinion was the best Chromebook made so far. While it has since been supassed in performance and Samsung's current offerings are dumbed down in comparison, it was a great device as a laptop and tablet. I upgraded to a Pixelbook for the added performance and ram, more storage, backlit screen and better looking device, but still covet how the SCBPro felt in the hand. Same thing is true for my phone use. I purchased the Pixel 2xl, but recently returned to using my Note 8 as my daily driver. Feels much better using it with smaller bezzels and thinner width, much better to hold in one hand and although I like a purer Android experience, Samsung has done a beautiful job with their current experience on top of Pie. J
  • Samsung makes some great hardware, but the company Google chooses to manufacture the Pixel has to build it Google's way. Case in point is HTC. They know how to build beautiful hardware, and their U12+ makes the iPhone XS Max feel cheap. Yet, the Pixel they manufactured for Google was the first phone I rejected because it was so ugly.
  • It would be nice to see a Samsung Pixel, without the Samsung UI and ecosystem.
  • I'd like to see changes to the play store it's hard to find new apps apart from the normal top apps. My dream would be tablet support but Google has decided not to use them anymore, I bet there will be a lot of Chromebook support
  • If they want Android to be come a real productivity platform (which they're foolish to abandon because why would ANYONE choose Chrome OS?) they can't afford to simplify things into the ground. It's already super-restrictive compared to a real desktop OS, making it worse is the wrong direction to go. I want to see optimization and efficiency go front and center. Battery life still stinks. I literally leave my work iPhone in its pocket on my bag all weekend and halfway through Monday morning it still has 62% battery.... no Android phone I've ever had even comes close to that. The responsiveness of "OK Google" is a pathetic shadow of Siri's speedy feedback to queries even if it is often better - the UX with Google Assistant is so bad I use Siri on my work phone whenever possible because it just works - it doesn't do much, but what it DOES do it does quickly and efficiently, key to convincing me that voice control is worth using.
  • Just don't make it more like an iPhone...I have tried to use iPhones (latest one XR) and always come back to Android. Do not get me wrong - there are some things I like in iPhones but the overall experience is not for me.
  • Fix the playstore, get the insecure malware/adware ridden apps out of there and vet the apps properly, not using some half assed algorithm that obviously doesn't work.
    Write the OS to be secure by design, not INSECURE.
    Deprecate the old versions
    Force security updates outside whatever crappy skin the OEM put on the phone
    centralize the settings, the OS has settings all over the place, what a mess.
  • I want to see updates taken away from the manufacturers. It appears that no manufacturer is capable of producing a well supported and bug free android phone, so it could fall back to google to release updates for the OS independently of the hardware.
  • > taking away some of Android's "features". That word is in quotes for a reason: some features are actually a byproduct. Yeah... and when these "byproduct features" will go away we will need gTunes to put media on our phones...