By Joe Levi | March 26, 2013 2:32 PM
Google’s Android OS has gone through some major changes since its release half-a-decade ago. Some changes have been cosmetic while others have been “under the hood”.
Cosmetic changes to the user interface usually correspond with major version releases of the OS. As such, if the next version of Android is version 5.0 (which most of us are calling Key Lime Pie) and it follows this pattern, we’re in for some pretty significant UI changes.
What those changes may be is up for debate, but we can look at what’s happening with other OSes to get an idea where mobile devices are headed — and we can be fairly certain that Google won’t want Android to be left behind.
We recently saw Ubuntu for Phones previewed. It brought a gesture-rich user interface where commonly used UI elements hide just off the screen, ready for you to access with a swipe from one side or the other. Jolla’s Sailfish includes gestures. BlackBerry has gestures, too.
It stands to reason that Google’s next version of Android will include some kind of gesture support.
One of the up-and-coming custom ROMs for Android-powered phones is called Paranoid Android, with it comes Pie Launcher. As its name implies, Pie Launcher is a launcher that looks like a pie, with various information and shortcuts radiating out from a central place and accessible by swiping your finger over them. It’s invoked by swiping from one of the edges — a gesture.
Pie Launcher is so popular developers are copying its functionality. We showed you one such launcher not long ago: LMT Launcher, which is also invoked by swiping from one of the edges — again, a gesture.
The problem with gestures
It seems like gestures are going to be a part of any updated version of the OS, and the “pie”-esque design seems to be a no-brainer. The problem with gestures is that they’re hidden. They don’t take up any space on the screen, but you have to know they exist and you have to know how to get to them. Not very intuitive.
On the other hand, since they don’t take up any real estate on the screen, you have a cleaner UI with more space available for your “stuff” rather than “overhead” from navigation and UI elements.
Google has done it before
When Google released Android 3.0 Honeycomb for tablets they built a radial menu into the web browser. This menu was easily accessible and moved the omni-present navigation buttons from the screen and tucked them away, freeing up the screen to display the webpage rather than the navigation menu. This menu was accessible through a gesture, and looked like a pie.
More recently Google introduced Google Now. The standard method of accessing this new feature is to swipe up from the bottom of the screen. As you drag your finger up a half-circle is presented on the screen with only one “button”: “Google”. Why couldn’t Google repurpose this gesture to include home, back, and app switching functionality?
CyanogenMod is doing something similar with Pie Controls and Navbar Shortcuts. Both methods use gestures to launch a very pie-esque user interface element.
One of them eliminates the back, home, and app switcher buttons, which frees up the 60-some-odd pixels the buttons normally occupy at the bottom of the screen.
The other uses the Google Now approach to let the user configure commonly launched apps by swiping up and fingering over whichever app they want to launch.
Why not combine the two? This would eliminate buttons, free up space, be quick and easy to get to, and would utilize a gesture and location that Google has already been training us how to use.
Do you find it somewhat coincidental that Android 5.0 is likely going to be called “Key Lime Pie” and we’re seeing all these pie-shaped user interface patterns beginning to surface?
Personally, I think it’s a natural evolution, but one that usability concerns that Google has had to find a way to overcome. Google Now was their way to get users used to a gesture-based UI, and the “Pie” metaphor carries over to this method perfectly.
What about you?
Do you think all the “pie” stuff is coincidence? Do you think Google has been training us on how to use a new gesture-based mechanism with Google Now? Will Android 5.0 Key Lime Pie get rid of the traditional on-screen menu buttons and hide them behind a gesture? Let us know what you think in the comments!