Google has done a pretty good job of rolling useful features into each new Android version, but there are times when it seems to lag behind. Stock Android is an excellent platform now and it’s becoming harder for OEMs to add a great deal of value with their UIs, but there are still standard inclusions that everyone agrees are desirable that are missing from Android, and a split screen option is one of them.
Android has long had multitasking listed in its “pros” column, but it’s not taking full advantage. As more tablets hit the market and the average screen size of flagship smartphones hits 5 inches the argument for some form of split screen functionality grows stronger. Resolutions are pushing 1080p and beyond, there’s plenty of processing power under the hood, and we know it works.
Come on Google
Samsung has multi-window, LG has split view, and Sony has small apps. Individual apps like Skype and Facebook’s chat heads offer floating app functionality. The trouble is that all of these options only support a limited subset of apps and they all handle the same problem a little differently. A standard feature baked into the platform would be a welcome addition and it would definitely improve the Android experience.
OEMs and developers have shown that it can work. Apps already have to deal with a huge range of different resolutions and screen sizes on Android. There may be a few exceptions that won’t play nicely with the feature, and there are phones with smaller screens where it won’t work so well, but these problems are hardly insurmountable. If the OEMs can do a half decent job, you can bet Google could come up with something better.
Where’s the benefit?
Tapping that multitasking button to jump in and out of apps is a pain. Sometimes you want a video playing while you type up an email or quickly reply to an IM. Being able to look something up in your browser without jumping out of what you’re doing can be handy. As we start to use our Android tablets and even smartphones in the same ways we traditionally used our desktops and laptops, not being able to have two, or even more, windows open on screen together is a pain. It’s part of the reason there are still some things we reluctantly fire up the laptop or desktop to complete.
The natural flow
A number of innovations, as the platform has developed, have come from third-party developers. For example, simple apps that repurposed the camera flash as a torch were soon adopted by OEMs and baked into their UIs. On iOS this led to Apple adding a torch app into the platform. If something is useful and a lot of people use it, then it’s exactly the sort of thing Google should be adding as a standard out of the box.
The trouble with leaving it up to third parties can extend beyond simple clunky design. Remember when it was revealed that Brightest Flashlight was selling your location data to advertisers? That’s a highly rated, extremely popular app in the Play Store, and most people are oblivious to what it is doing behind the scenes. Most free alternatives serve up ads and they’re potentially eating data and battery life that a Google torch wouldn’t be.
Many OEMs offer pre-installed torch apps now, which are comparatively trustworthy, but if Google bundled one with Android we wouldn’t have to go looking. An option in the quick settings menu and on the lock screen is something many of us would use.
If the aim is to keep AOSP as clean as possible then why not just bundle these extras in on Nexus devices and make them available for those who want them, like the Google Now Launcher?
Apple could do multi-window first
If Google drags its heels for too long it looks as though Apple could beat it to the punch.
So… just in case there was any doubt left… iOS 8’s SpringBoard has code to run two apps side-by-side. 1/4 size, 1/2 size, or 3/4 size
— Steve T-S (@stroughtonsmith) June 9, 2014
After WWDC passed without any split screen comment, speculation is focused on split screen in iOS showing up on the next iPad, or possibly even to accompany the long-rumored jump to a larger screen for the next iPhone. It would be frustrating to see it roll out on iOS before Android. Especially since the capability to do it has been in the Android code all along.
You can argue about the need on smartphones, but larger tablets, a category where Android is lagging significantly behind, it’s an obvious thing to add and something a lot of people want.
Google does it better
Don’t make us rely on OEMs or custom ROMs. Don’t leave us to shop around for apps. We don’t want a hacked version of something that Google could do well without the risk of instability or security threats. If this was really a difficult thing to do, or Google had serious concerns about the impact, then surely it wouldn’t already be possible through all these alternative routes.
There are always plenty of items on our wish list for the next version of Android, but split screen functionality is near the top right now; all eyes on Google I/O 2014 to see if it made Google’s list.