If there’s one thing you can point to in Android L that’s guaranteed to divide opinion it’s Material Design. Some people see an elegant continuation of Google’s minimalist style, others feel that it’s flat, there’s too much white space, and the colors are garish. There’s no escaping the usual fatuous claims about copying Microsoft’s Windows Phone or Apple’s iOS, but there’s another important issue to discuss here.
Material Design is more than a skin to sit atop the platform and it goes beyond Android. This is a new set of fundamental design principles that bring depth and uniformity, clear feedback for users, and slick animations showing how the UI fits together. It could usher in a brave new cohesive dawn that gives Android a clear visual identity whatever you happen to be using it on.
But OEMs will continue to deliver their own Android UIs. What is going to motivate developers to adopt Google’s design language in their apps? Is the incentive there for them to jump onboard now considering the fragmentation issue?
The fragmentation issue
If we look at Google’s data on fragmentation from this month we find that just 17.9% of Android users have KitKat 4.4, the latest version of the platform to be released. Glancing further back, 56.5% are using one of the three Jelly Bean versions.
The first, most obvious argument against developers adopting the Material Design principles outlined by Google is that it will be a year or more before Android L represents a decent percentage of Android users.
Developers could put a lot of effort into designing a sexy new app that chimes with Google’s vision and only a small percentage of their customers are going to be able to take full advantage. Backwards compatibility could be a real issue. How gracefully does Material Design degrade for older versions of Android? How much work are developers going to have to do to make their apps look good on all versions?
We’ve been here before
It’s more than two years since Holo Everywhere, a new system theme that offered standardized design elements for apps. Google made it a requirement for devices running Android 4.0 and up to include the Holo theme, but there was no rule that they had to use it. Google was slow to deliver design guidelines and developers were slow to adopt them, but it represented the beginning of something.
We can safely assume that Google learned plenty over the last couple of years. The Material Design preview comes well ahead of the next Android version and there’s a beta for developers to get to grips with. If they’re interested they can get started on something now. Material Design is also a lot more visually impressive than Holo.
A big fat carrot
Google apps are amongst the most used in the world. Millions of people will learn Google’s shorthand and that familiarity in UI navigation is well worth taking advantage of. Developers won’t be waiting around for further direction either. There’s a detailed design guide, lots of templates and content to use, and advice that will help many developers deliver a better experience for end users.
Google’s responsive design ethos ensures that your website or app will appear the same in terms of content, images, and structure regardless of the device used. Material Design is offering a solution that’s relatively easy to implement, built for the future, and optimized for smooth performance. Any developer starting from scratch and trying to create their own elegant solution has a lot of work to do.
That’s a big fat carrot to incentivize developers and encourage adoption. It won’t persuade everyone, but a lot of developers are going to be excited about the possibilities and keen to reap the potential benefits of being an early adopter.
It would be difficult, if not impossible, for Google to dictate that OEMs must stop skinning Android, but it can offer more incentives. The Android Silver program looks exactly like that. In return for promotion and support the OEMs agree to release devices without custom overlays and bloatware.
The need for OEMs to create custom overlays is growing increasingly debatable. Now that Google is moving beyond the stark and functional toward something that should appeal to a wider audience it’s tough to see the benefit for anyone other than the OEMs.
Is there a stick?
You have to wonder what discussions have taken place between Google and the big Android OEMs, most importantly Samsung because of its commanding market share. There was a sense with the Google Now Launcher that Google was moving into a new area. Is Material Design basically Google skinning Android and showing the OEMs how to do it properly?
We know that Google wants the OEMs to tone down the UIs and individual tweaks. Ideally, this will pave the way for an Android experience that’s much more uniform and recognizable, but without throwing away the customizability that makes the platform so attractive for many. We’ve seen the stock Android skeleton start to grow, with features being sucked in from popular third-party apps, OEMs, and custom ROMs.
In an earnings call last October Larry Page said, “We are closing in on our goal of a beautiful, simple, and intuitive experience regardless of your device.”
Material Design is another step towards that, but it’s also a step toward to greater control over the platform for Google, because, ultimately, if Android isn’t driving people into Google’s ecosystem, it isn’t doing its job.
It’s possible for Google to say OEM skins are off-limits for Android Wear, TV, and Auto because they’re rolling out fresh from a position of market dominance in mobile. With Android smartphones and tablets Google is stuck trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle, and it’s trying not to use the stick.