What features are missing from stock Android? What lessons could Google learn from other platforms?

June 13, 2014
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Google Nexus 5 black aa 8

Part of the beauty of Android is its open-source nature, which allows manufacturers and even end-users to add on new features through customized UIs, launchers, icon packs, lockscreens, apps and the list goes on. With Android you can make your experience whatever you want it to be, but what about the out-of-the-box experience?

While there are Android users that prefer stock Android as it is — due to the clean, fast and fluid experience it provides — there are likely at least a few features that some users might feel are missing from stock Android but are present either through OEM skins, 3rd party modifications or even other operating systems.

For this week’s Friday Debate we discuss what stock Android is missing, and what features we’d like to see baked into the OS that are currently found on other platforms or through other services. Join in the discussion below and answer in our poll!

Gary Sims

Trying to ascertain what is “missing” from stock Android is actually harder than you might think. We are presented with several problems. First we need to define what is stock Android. Second we need to understand that some features which are available from third parties should never actually be added to stock Android, and third we need to start thinking out-of-the-box.

So what is stock Android? Is it the open source version of Android. Does it include or exclude Google’s apps? For example, maybe I think that the default keyboard should include the option to enable arrow keys (like SwiftKey does). Is that stock Android? Or is it part of Google’s Keyboard app? If I think the camera needs something, is that stock or again an app from Google?

At the lower levels there are things which squarely fall into the purview of stock Android. The biggest thing missing from the innards of stock Android is 64-bit support.

But leaving aside the innards for the moment, we need to ask ourselves the question. Should popular third party functionality be added to the base operating system? Apple certainly thinks so, just look at the new Messages app coming in iOS 8. It is clearly designed as competition for other third party messaging apps. Should Android have that attitude as well?

And this is where it gets complicated. Google (like Apple) wants to use its mobile operating system as a way to promote its own offerings, even when those offerings are in direct competition with other third party apps and services. If Google (or Apple) gets the balance wrong then everyone cries foul and starts using words like “monopoly.” If it does too little then users wonder why doesn’t Android have service X or Y built-in.

The other problem is, how innovative are these features that I want to see added to Android? Clearly iOS 8 is just Apple playing catch-up. The ideas have come from somewhere else. When I ask myself what is missing from stock Android, am I asking – what do other mobile operating systems have that Android doesn’t? Or am I asking – what neat thing is missing from all mobile OSes, including Android.

OK, enough prevarication. Here is a list of things missing from stock Android:

  • Full top-to-bottom support for 64-bits.
  • A standard way to access embedded security assets (something like Knox 2.0 from Samsung but for all Android devices)
  • Cursor keys on the default keyboard.
  • Better support for Internet-of-Things (6lowpan, RPL, CoAP etc)
  • A visual development tool based on a very high level language, i.e. something that reproduces what Visual Basic or Delphi did for Windows.

Lanh Nguyen

For me it’s really just the smaller details. An option to reboot, battery percentage in the notification shade, and a flashlight toggle would be great. These features seem like no brainers but you still have to flash a custom rom just to get them. Also the fact that Sims aren’t hot swappable on stock android is annoying too. Maybe integrate Sms onto the desktop like iOS has done would be nice too.

Jonathan Feist

I must echo some of the sentiments of Gary Sims. I very much feel that Android, as an OS, should focus on the most basic of core operation and connectivity, leaving the rest up to installed apps and services.

At this core level, I agree with the need for x64 support, second the desire for better support of connected Internet-of-Things and would add a preference to see a minimal GUI file explorer. The file explorer would provide specific tools for grouping app data and managing the unruly file structure that is currently allowed in the virtual SDCard.

Beyond the core OS, I ask if there is anything that stock Android cannot do? More to the point, Android is built such that the installed apps provide function, is it safe then to surmise that anything ‘missing’ from Android is simply an app undiscovered?

Google’s own set of apps and services are fairly thorough. There are the little things that I could go for, like cursor keys on the keyboard and better file management, but what I really want are things that only root can provide.

I will not fault the decision to lock things behind root permissions, much of it we just do not need access to, but I have been thinking hard since the recent permissions grouping changes, and I think I have concluded that the Android app permissions structure is broken.

I have not thought through an appropriate end-to-end repair or replacement for the current permissions model, but if there was just one thing I had to say was missing from stock Android, it is appropriate permissions.

It is unfair to suggest the ability to allow or deny specific permissions for a specific app, as that would require developers to account for functionality changes based on every given permission, but why not? Simply put, I want every app to begin in a secure and sandboxed state, of which I can opt greater permissions/system access on the fly, up to and including root level access.

Like I said, I have yet to flesh out the details… Stepping away from the deep stuff:

  • I wish stock Android allowed for icon packs and other launcher level visual tweaks.
  • I wish for power level controls for items like the GPS, cell/WiFi radios and display touch sensitivity.
  • I wish for better/dedicated music playback functions with the screen off.
  • I wish for more granular control over the display sleep timer.
  • And yes, as Gary said, a Visual Studio level IDE would be so very nice to have.

Robert Triggs

As Simon mentioned the other day, multitasking is the big one for me, but I’m not just talking about side by side windows. It seems odd that, despite the increasing power of our handsets, we still have to hop focus back and forth for even really basic things, like sending messages or sharing come content with a contact.

There are already a few good examples of how this could be done. Samsung has its multi-window function for certain apps, Paranoid Android’s Halo works great, and there are even apps on the Play Store that can bring back the familiar windows look and feel. I don’t really mind how Google would do it, but we need some way to quickly make use of other app features, especially social ones, contextually and quickly, without losing focus on the video we’re watching or the article we’re reading.

Another feature that I’m really keen on its Nova Launcher’s swipe gestures for opening up apps, etc. Global, programmable gestures would be a great way to hop to your favourite apps or contacts quickly, and could go some way to improving Android multi-tasking too. Visual tweaks, or support for a full Theme engine, would be very welcome too, but less urgent.

Finally, some integration between Android and other devices would be helpful, especially as I’m at my desktop a lot. iOS8’s integration with OSX looks like it could be quite useful, and Google could probably do something similar using Chrome. There’s already the Chrome desktop extension that could be used to display phone notifications, and AirDroid has shown how such an idea can be done through a web browser.

Lanh’s list is also pretty good. The little things go a long way to improving the day to day user experience.

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