Google has had a great year. We've seen the launch of two phones with extraordinary cameras, a version of Android with some incredibly compelling new features, impressive strides in usability and feature buildup in the Play Store, and a headfirst dive into VR — and that's just the stuff off the top of my head. As with all things, especially Google things, there's still plenty of room to grow and improve. As we wind down 2015 and get ready to forget which year we're supposed to write down on everything, it's time to take a critical look at the things we think Google needs to give some extra love to in the new year.
Figure out what is going to happen with tablet UI and UX
There's not one major thing wrong with Android on tablets, but there are a lot of little things that need to be done in order to create a truly compelling tablet experience on Android. The Nexus 7 duo worked because they were basically big phones you could consumer entertainment on, but with the Samsung Nexus 10, HTC Nexus 9, and Google's new Pixel C, the experience is lacking in several key places.
Ultimately, it all comes down to apps. Developers need to be encouraged to support landscape and portrait views across their entire app, and to actually use the tools provided to look nice on these larger displays. This is sort of a chicken/egg problem, since there aren't a ton of apps out there seeing massive tablet adoption so it's not always easy to justify the expense of new development for those users. To make things worse for some users but not for others, many developers have opted to start using Samsung's tools for multi-window support as their solution for tablets, since Samsung makes up such a large percentage of the Android phone and tablet market. There's also some discovery issues, as the Google Play Store doesn't always do everything it should to get users a list of apps that look best on their tablet even after the developer fully supports the experience.
It's easy to list the problems, but addressing them isn't going to be quite so simple. Multi-Window isn't a cure-all, either. We need apps to play nice with larger screens, and Google need to work with developers to make that happen.
Google needs to adopt new features across the board at launch
This should be a no-brainer, but it seems like every year we run into multiple examples of this not happening. When we get a new version of Android with new features and new capabilities, Google's apps need to lead the charge at launch with those features ready to go. We're now several months into Android 6.0 being in the wild, and there's still no sign of Direct Share support in Google Hangouts. Better yet, go check and see how many of the Google Apps you use every day are in the Android 6.0 Backup manager right now. Spoiler — not a lot of them.
Google gives third-party developers access to the next version of Android early so they can support the new OS when it launches, but their own internal teams can't manage to do the same. It's something that should really be addressed in the new year, especially with Material Design visually bringing all of Google's apps together into a single thought. Function needs to follow form, and if it does there's little doubt competing apps will work just as hard to support those features as soon as they're available.
Lets see even more focus on the family in the new year
Google did some incredible things with the Play Store this year when it comes to supporting families. Family ratings, Kid-friendly app guidelines, gifting, sharing plans with Google Play Music All Access, and YouTube Kids are all amazing contributions to the Android ecosystem. It's been a great year for family support from Google, which was sorely needed. The only logical thing to do here is keep pushing forward, and the best place to do that is with better purchase mechanisms for kids.
Right now Google's purchase system for a child with their own account is either a firehose or nothing at all. There's restrictions by rating or content type, but with the new sharing plan it's an all or nothing affair. You either don't let the child have the account password, or you give them access to buy everything. Giving a parent remote access to install things from their account — preferably from their Android phone or tablet — makes way more sense. A reasonable alternative would be something similar to Apple's current purchase system, where the child asks for approval and the parent grants it.
Either way you look at it, more family focus would continue to do wonders for Android even if you are neither a parent nor a child.
Split keyboards, split screens, and split syncing
Phones aren't getting smaller, and neither are tablets. We're going to keep getting bigger screens, and many of us are going to have more than one of these screens on us at all times. It would be great is Google addressed this in 2016 with a handful of little changes to the way things are currently done.
Split Keyboards — I trace-type with the best of them, but sometimes you need to turn that phone landscape and really bang out a message. This is fine if you've got larger hands, but the rest of the world is looking at phones like the Nexus 6P wondering how they're ever going to react G or H on their keyboard comfortably. The solution is splitting the keyboard so it can be used on both halves of the screen in landscape. It's not a new idea, but it's something Google can do right and make it enjoyable.
Split Screens — Lots of people talk about multi-window support for apps when it comes to tablets, but really it's something Samsung (and LG and Huawei) has demonstrated works just about everywhere. We've been talking about this for years now. It's time for Google to make it a standard feature in Android.
Split Syncing — Google has gotten pretty good at syncing notifications between devices most of the time, but it'd be nice if there was a centralized way to choose which notifications go where. You can sort of set this up per-device right now, but it'd be nice to see this be more granular. Inbox reminders are great, but I don't need them on my tablet. I don't ever want Netflix notifications about new content on my phone, but it wouldn't hurt to see it on my watch. There's a lot of flexibility there, and Google has the ability to make it work well.
Nexus Player 2 with HDMI passthrough
Google's Nexus Player was quickly usurped by Nvidia's Shield TV as the best Android TV box on the market, and even with steep discounts on the hardware it's a hard thing to recommend over the more capable Android TV box out there today. What no Android TV box out there today managed to sort out yet is the need to include HDMI Pass-through hardware, and that's something Google can get out in front of next year.
For the uninitiated, HDMI passthrough is what happens when you take one HDMI source and play it through the UI on another system. A common use case here is to take cable boxes and pass the video through so you're using the Android TV interface instead of whatever was included in your cable box. The most popular hardware currently using this tech is the Xbox One, and it's a great way to get the interface you want with the content you're most interested in. Google's current hardware partners try address this with televisions running Android TV, but a box with HDMI Pass-through is something everyone could put in their homes.
It's something of a fantasy, but an NVIDIA Nexus Shield with HDMI Passthrough and a Tegra X1 processor would be well worth whatever Google charged for it. We've seen Android TV baked into televisions isn't exactly a complete thought yet, and set-top boxes are still the way to go. Android TV has a lot of great things going for it, but the platform needs to support more than just cable cutters. Lets get something worthy of Input 1 with the Nexus label across the top, Google. You can do it.
Better VR, including an inexpensive way to capture video
In a world where Oculus and HTC are battling like epic titans for the attention of early adopters ready to game in VR, Google has done an incredible job democratizing virtual reality through Cardboard. There's been some impressive strides in smartphone-based VR this year, but Google need to keep growing and improving. VR exploration in a 3D space is amazing, and will continue to get better, but capturing video for VR is where things are going to get interesting.
We need something like Google's Cardboard Camera, but for video. An inexpensive way to record video for VR that will let just about anyone be a part of the experience. We've seen LucidCam put some effort into inexpensive way to do this over the last year, and we know Google's Jump program is going to make high-end recording amazing, but we need something simple to keep this idea going.
Everything is always better when you can put it in the hands of millions of people and tell them to go create, and VR is at a critical point right now where lots of people want to try it out. If Google can put recording VR in an easy to use container for a reasonable price, it's going to be a big deal for everyone.