Google has got its 2014 I/O keynote out of the way, and for the most part the Android updates look impressive. The new design for Android feels modern, and once again we’re seeing the Google and Apple go-around take place. This time Google seems to be following from Apple’s design lead. Everything in the new Android is flat and single colour.
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But Google has also improved notifications, something which Apple has been borrowing from for some time. The new Android seems to have addressed many of the problems of the old notifications, giving far more detail and allowing you to access everything from you lock screen. Google has also given some thought to unlocking the device, and like me, it has noticed how much time is wasted drawing patterns, or typing unlock codes. To help with this, Android is now aware if it is being used by a legitimate user, by detecting trusted locations (like your home) or other devices (like your smartwatch).
So those are the things it got right, and that are good additions to the OS, but what did it forget about, and what really needs to be addressed soon?
No solution to slow manufacturer updates
The big shame of Google, and noted by Apple in its keynote at WWDC, is that no matter how many new versions of Android it releases, most phones in use now will never see it. HTC has announced that its One M7 and M8 handsets will get the update “90 days of receiving final software from Google”. But companies like Samsung and LG are much less proactive about pushing the latest version out.
Google has, to some extent, tried to get this back on track with Google Play Services, which allows it to push updates into Android directly, thus bypassing manufacturers and phone companies. But there’s no way to push a whole new version of Android out, especially with the huge changes expected in Android 5.
This remains the biggest problem with Android, because people are spending hundreds on handsets, and getting tied into long service contracts but not getting updates in a timely manner. It drives the Android faithful nuts too.
Security is still a big problem
Here’s the thing about malware on Android – it’s still quite rare. The problem is, Android is fast getting the reputation for having a virus problem. Even if this isn’t true, the damage that perception has is enormous, and Apple keeps hammering that point home at its launches.
What Google did announce was a Blackberry-style system where work and personal can be separated. This has been developed by Samsung for its handsets as Knox, but BB10 had this feature first. It will make Android a player in enterprise, perhaps, but it won’t help home users in the slightest, because none of them will really understand it, nor will they use it.
Instead, Google needs to win the war on Malware, and viruses like the Cryptolocker clone that holds your SD card storage ransom are just worrying people who probably don’t have anything to worry about. That said, McAfee recently looked at the Flappy Bird clones, and discovered nearly 80 per cent of them had some form of “malware” although this is usually just the ability to do things with your phone like track your location, or make calls. This isn’t actually malware, just apps designed with nefarious intent.
Apple also introduced the MAC address randomisation in iOS 8, which helps iDevices to maintain some of their anonymity when they join public Wi-Fi. There’s been a bit of debate about how useful it is, but it may certainly win some over as an additional “don’t track me” measure.
Tidying up the Hangouts and Google Voice mess
Google is king of having loose ends flapping around. Google Voice is one example of that. It’s a clever service, but it’s never launched outside the US, and there have been rumours that Google wants to get rid of it. But, with people using it for their main telephony service, that’s hard to achieve.
What has been rumoured, but wasn’t in the Android L announcement, is that Google Voice will be merged into Google Hangouts. This makes sense, and there’s no reason Google couldn’t offer a service allowing users to call traditional phones via Hangouts, Skype manages this with its premium service, so if Google wants to compete, it will need to do the same. It makes sense to build one app to do all of this.
What’s more, as good as Hangouts is, it really needs to be a lot slicker. A quick look at iMessage in iOS 8 will tell you how it should be done right. Even WhatsApp manages a better UI than Google seems to with Hangouts. But users are going to want a more intuitive way to share video, photos and audio clips with friends once they see their iPhone-owning friends enjoying those services.
Google has a massive advantage here too. Its service are very popular, and all Gmail users can use them. It’s also cross-platform, which iMessage is not. So this is something that, if done right, Google could dominate in.
For the most part, Android 5.0 feels like a solid improvement. It’s certainly the first major reworking of the OS we’ve seen for a while, and that should enthuse people. The problem Google has, is that too often it starts building new stuff, without fixing the old stuff. This was the update Android needed after Apple’s huge iOS 8 launch though.