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The dumbing down of Android

The road to ICS is paved with iPhone copied features that may help user friendliness, but ultimately destroys a lot of what I really liked about Android in the first place. BONUS ICE CREAM SANDWICH REVIEW... or a link to one...
by Sunny Kalsi on Dec. 16, 2011, 12:29 a.m.

I’m fairly excited for Android ICS. Unfortunately, it continues on a trend of making Android more like an iPhone, and removes a lot of really nice features on the older Android platforms. Here’s some things that I liked on my HTC Magic (1.5) that aren’t as good on my Nexus S (2.3), and suspect are even worse on the Galaxy Nexus (4.0):

Hardware buttons

I liked proper hardware buttons on Android. Not just capacitive buttons, but real, honest, buttons. Things you could feel without pressing them. A lot of Android stuff could be done without looking at the screen. The search button was a personal fav. I could long-press search and call someone. Pressing menu was a slightly more reliable way of unlocking the phone, and could be done before I even looked at the screen. And this one is silly, but I used the “back” button sort of like the ADD “AC” key on a calculator.

I should make specific mention of the Hardware Ring / Hang up buttons. The old action of picking up and hanging up the phone, something I used to do before smart-phones, was a habit I could keep with my magic, but not with the Nexus S. I need to look at the screen, which is way more distracting than it appears. I’m now confined to iPhone-esque attention-grabbing gestures.

Minimalism

The original design aesthetic of Android was to use the entire screen to show the useful stuff. Shove the settings and things on a different menu, out of the way. If you wanted access to them, you press Menu, or you long-hold on the thing you care about. Now, it’s all short press on buttons which bring up extra features. This is more visible, sure, but also more cluttered in equal measure.

I find myself accidentally selecting items when I mean to scroll, and selecting items brings up a new menu, which often persists through the scroll. The thing with Android is that it’s far more powerful than an iPhone, so the long press was a way of getting rid of a lot of the buttons and functionality and hiding it. Want to ring someone on Twitter? The old action would be to long press their username. Now you have to select their name and a new menu comes up and you select the “call” button.

This probably has implications — Android traditionally isn’t a series of “applications”, rather an environment full of “tasks” which can inter-weave apps. ICS seems to be going down the road of a more discrete app environment. If you want to share data around you have to bring up ageing APIs.

Hardware mouse

Anyone who says this is a bad idea can just go die in a ditch. The biggest problem with touchphones is that your damn hand covers 80% of it. Scrolling while reading is just a pain. It’s a constant dance of moving your hand in the way to scroll to where you want, then moving it out of the way to actually read. The little trackball was a great way to just read. It was like the scroll wheel to the mouse.

And it was like playing with a nipple. What’s not to like?

The Grunge

The original Android was a bit like Brutalism. It wasn’t pretty, but it felt like it stood for something, and that in itself had a quiet nobility about it. The thing that escapes me is how the iPhone is meant to have modernist design, but the principles themselves are completely different from modernism. The kitsch of the modernist success story contrasting with the failure of the modernist ideals — something for everyone. In the past you would call other Android users “comrades”. In the future, it might be a condescending “Buddy”.

Still, there’s an Arduino plugin, and ICS is back to being open. And in the end, ICS is really just a cleaner, more friendly brutalism. I hope.

I’m sure all of these things amount to not a lot of pain. I don’t really think the lack of these features will make Android significantly worse, but it is a shame. It’s as if Palm gave up on their iconic graffiti. Far from giving the Android a soul, ICS seems to be a soulectomy to make, perhaps, an affable but fringe “the dude” turn into a vacuuous but popular “Edward”.

[EDIT: I’ve now had my hands on ICS for a couple of days, here are my thoughts. I’m going to mostly make notes on this excellent review]

The new Send button is just plain crazy. I see what they’re trying to achieve, it’s a paper airplane / arrow thing, but man it just looks like a play button. If it was multiple arrows, like a “GO GO GO” button I’d be happier, but as it stands it’s a bit silly looking.

Those “...” things should just be removed. I don’t think anyone would notice or care.

It’s interesting that danny thinks the back and enter buttons look like “send”. I think it comes from twitter. Even in Android the reply is an arrow pointing to the left. Point it to THE RIGHT YOU ARE SENDING A MESSAGE! This is icons 101. I think the back button should look just like a browser back button. The HTC Magic back button looks almost the same as the twitter “send” button, and I thought it was a nice unambiguous button. I blame twitter for making the waters murky.

That “open apps” button is probably the single most useless button in the world.

I have far fewer “menu” buttons popping up than Danny (because I have a hard menu button). As a result, the menu buttons on my phone, so they actually seem consistent. I also have the search button.

Interestingly, I think I’m better off in some ways with the nexus S compared to the galaxy nexus, owing to the hardware buttons. That silly “menu” icon doesn’t appear for me, and the home button is not right below the space bar so I can type just fine. And I have search. Hopefully there’s a setting somewhere in the Galaxy Nexus which brings back the old style buttons. That would probably fix half of Danny’s qualms.

I think the biggest problem is its lack of consistency in UI. It feels like it’s been thrown together rather than designed. App navigation is horror incorporated. Settings is nerdtastic. You linux guys neglect UX for the soul purpose of having every conceivable functionality / setting imaginable, where if you took a step back, it would be blatantly clear that you could streamline a lot of it away.

I’ve been a bit frustrated with the lack of consistency as well, but I think if you look at Android 1.5 or below, the UI was actually surprisingly consistent, if a little ugly. It also didn’t have “discoverability” which I actually see as a good thing — it was starkly minimalist, which I like a lot more than a whole bunch of icons and text saying “LOOK AT ME”.

By the time Android 2.3 came around, a lot of apps were iOS apps copied without thinking. The progression of tasks didn’t make sense, and they implemented an extra “back” button on the screen which didn’t actually go back, so pressing the hardware “back” button did the wrong thing, etc. The apps also added “discoverability” as an idea. The Android guys decided to embrace it, so pretty much every action had a “discoverable” way of doing it and a “classic” way of doing it, only the classic way was now stupid, because the minimalism was already gone, why press the extra button?

Now that ICS is here, the phone is even more like an iPhone. The “stark emptiness” that I liked about the old Android is gone. This is less about having more settings, and more about hiding functionality away. I suspect that the Android guys can’t just remove the old way of doing things immediately, they probably have plans that by Android 5.0 or 6.0, all the old style of Android will be gone, and the new interfaces will remain.

The Android Design Guide is out, and it offers some clarity to what’s happening. As it turns out the “...” buttons not appearing is actually due to the size of the Nexus S and not the hardware buttons. I can see why the “...” buttons exist now — for tablet compatibility.

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