Last week, Google sprung it’s latest version of Android onto the world. Android L is a pretty major UI update in some ways and pretty minor in others. Overall it’s generally well received and seems to be an improvement over its predecessor, so there’s nothing to complain about. My platform of choice, Windows Phone, recently had a bit of a bump as well, so I thought it’d be fun to see where these two stand now that they’re both in hands as we speak.
Now, it’s interesting to note that both Android L and Windows Phone 8.1 are still in Developer Preview mode. Neither of what you see on a Lumia 1020, nor a Nexus 5 are what could be considered final drafts. That being said, many have taken it upon themselves to “damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead” with the updates on their phones, myself included. I am running Windows Phone 8.1 Developer Preview on my daily driver (and since a bit of an accident in St. Louis, only driver) Lumia 920.
So, without further ado, here are a few things that I feel Android could learn from Windows Phone.
Dude, where’s my update?
One of our biggest questions after Google I/O is, “Who is getting Android L?” This is not an uncommon question after Android updates. Will I or won’t I? Following every platform update announcement comes the roundups from various sites with statements from OEMs saying “Motorola says they will support XXX in the coming months LG says only phones starting with the letter Q-Z will get the update.” Yada yadda. Granted in Windows Phone land, we’re a bit spoiled by the fact that there really has been only one significant OEM, so when it came to update announcements, we really only had one (ok, maybe three) source to check up on. Lumia. And thus far, the answer has been consistently, “Yes, plus Nokia’s going to add some more stuff.”
Now that Windows Phone is going to be made by varying numbers of OEMs, the question might start to resurface, who gets what. We’re not blind to that fact, but for the past several years with one notable exception, the question about Windows Phone updates has always been “When” and not “If”. From Google’s side, I think the consumers would love to see a blanket statement from Google to OEMs saying “If you’re using Android, you’re using the latest Android for the next two years, no exceptions.” We haven’t seen that.
Skins are death
Here’s looking at you Samsung. One problem Android has consistently had has always been skins and accompanying bloatware. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s how they differentiate from other Android devices.” Except Windows Phone didn’t feel the need to do that, why should Android? If OEMs want to differentiate, they can focus on apps and services exclusive to their devices. There are a few concepts that skins actually do better than stock Android (addressed below), but only a few. They’re not really worth bogging down an entire device, just so you can have a water ripple effect.
Know your ABC’s
Speaking of things Skins do better than stock Android, one major thing I missed going from a Samsung GSIII to a Nexus 5 was not just the alphabetical list of apps, but the ability to skip forward to a letter in the list instead of swipe left-swipe left-swipe left-swipe-“oh, there’s ‘Words with Friends’”. Windows Phone does have this option – once a certain number of apps are installed. Of course with Windows Phone, the straight up alphabetical list is a bit on the boring side – there’s room for improvement there too, but minimizing swipes and taps are critical for a great user experience, and stock Android – even Android L – isn’t it.
Walking in a widget wonderland
One of the best things about Windows Phone is live tiles. Live tiles are Windows Phone’s answer to widgets and Windows Phone nails it in a way that Android never has, and that is with sizing. With Windows Phone, there are three sizes to choose from – small, medium and large. The Small is half the height and width of the medium, and one quarter the width of the large. This makes for a very nice organizational paradigm that Android as it is simply cannot match. With Android, widgets are willy nilly based on how the developer is feeling on a given day. Maybe it’s 1×1, 2×2, 2×3, 4×3, 1×4, etc. etc. Sometimes there are even 4×4 widgets, 4×3 widgets and 3×2 widgets all for the same app. Then there’s the truly insane resizable widgets for whatever your heart desires.
I know this is a great thing about Android about how you can make it all your own and do whatever you want and blah blah. It’s a freakin’ mess people. Google should lock this stuff down. Small, medium, large. Period. End of list. Widgets are getting out of control and there needs to be some consistency there for a good user experience.
And speaking of consistency…
One thing that Android lacks and probably will always lack is consistency. This is largely due to the open nature of the platform and letting everyone have their own way and own voice, but the experience of Android is not consistent and is therefore very jarring at points. Windows Phone has a persistent user controls at the bottom of every phone and at the bottom of every app which makes a unified experience more possible. The persistent search, home, and back buttons help users navigate their way through the operating system while Android OEMs can move around buttons as they see fit. It leads to a broken experience across devices and it’s such an easy thing to lock down on. “Hey LG, I know you want to put a bring purple dinosaur skin on all your phones and that’s cool, but leave the back button right here, ok?”
Keep in mind, I’m not trying to argue here that Windows Phone is better than Android. Certainly not in any encompassing way. Android and Windows Phone both have their strengths and weaknesses, and there are just some weaknesses that look like they should be addressed from this side of the fence. Sure, maybe I’m arm-chair quarterbacking here, but this is not complicated stuff. One theme I’d like to see Android adopt is consistency across all OEMs. It’s your OS, Google. Exercise some control.
What do you think? Do you think Google should look north to Washington state for some inspiration? Or should I just mind my own business and let Google do what Google does. Sound off below and let us know where you stand and if I missed any lessons that the Goog could learn.