Android and iOS are kissing cousins. Compare them with Windows Phone, or the Kindle Fire, and you’ll immediately notice that their User Interface (the “style” of the OS) is a lot more similar to each other than to other competition, and neither one really radically different from older desktop UI’s.
From the outset, though, Android differentiated itself with widgets and notifications, which provide information or app functions on-demand on the user’s homescreens and notification centers. Still, the principle wasn’t very different from keeping an app window open at all times on the desktop or receiving an email notification.
With Android 4.1, however, Google started to take a decidedly different direction with Android. Having cleaned up the User Interface considerably in Android 3.0-4.0, Google has turned to envisioning a new future for mobile software, and that future is Now. Not just Google Now specifically, but what it represents: a new paradigm of information-and-content-on-or-before-demand blending seamlessly into every moment of your everyday life.
Google Voice Search for Jellybean was one important part of this process. As a Search company, Google could not afford not to have the best Virtual Assistant on the market, and while Apple’s Siri is still ahead in some areas, the gap there is closing, but where Google is ahead of Apple, they are way ahead.
Tied closely to Google Voice Search is Google Now, Popular Science’s Innovation of the Year 2012. Google Now is Predictive Search, using search history, Gmail, location data, and other factors to deliver information before you ask for it, such as weather, traffic, sports scores, flight information, and points of interest.
Google didn’t stop there, either. They added re-sizable widgets and enhanced the homescreen to make it easier to place widgets. And in Android 4.2 they have now added Lockscreen Widgets, as well. They also overhauled the Notification center, with richer (and often interactive) Notifications, allowing you to view more information, and even take actions like replying, without opening an app.
Finally they added Daydreams in Android 4.2, Android’s answer to the desktop screensaver. Many of these Daydreams display information and interactive content, including Google Currents with articles that can be opened by tapping them.
There’s a theme you may have caught here: rich contextual information and action-ability on-or-before demand and, preferably, “at a glance”. We could, perhaps, add Google+ Local into this equation, delivering information on local places on demand.
This is why Google hates traditional apps. Yes, hates them, wishes they would go away, whether they say so or not. Why? Because out of the 700,000+ apps available for either Android or iOS, only a relative handful even begin to take full advantage of the capabilities of mobile devices and their software.
Most apps haven’t even tried to change how we normally use software on computers, beyond using our fingers rather than a mouse. They serve the same old purposes, even if we do more of those things in more places with them. And they do it in roughly the same old ways.
With such rich information to draw from, including information about the user, their context, their location, and more, most apps seem very old fashioned. The user launches the app, taps and swipes through screens and menus (like their finger was the mouse), retrieves information or content and/or takes actions, and then closes the app. Except this is how we did things before the “always on” computing era of mobile, too.
No more if Google has its way. Voice Search will evolve into a more dynamic system, like the Enterprise Computer (which helped inspire it), delivering the information you need on demand. Google Now, meanwhile, will take more and more of the Search load as it delivers information before you even ask for it.
Enhanced Notifications will continue to evolve and the user will spend less and less time in actual apps viewing or responding to these. Lockscreen and Homescreen Widgets and (to a lesser degree) Daydreams will pipe information and content without requiring the user to ever “open” an app (or even unlock the homescreen, for that matter).
More than these, though, Google is building a new app paradigm in their Niantic Labs, creators of the popular Field Trip and (invite-only beta) Ingress. Field Trip provides information of interest in the local area, including local history, local music, local restaurants, and more. In many ways Field Trip is what Google+ Local should be.
Unlike most apps in its category, Field Trip provides rich information and context that truly engages the user in a process of exploring their local area. It shows the best of what an app can be when it takes full advantage of mobile, the cloud, and Big Data.
Ingress is an MMORPG “alternate world” game where players seek out mysterious energies and portals. It requires the user to undertake travels and adventures in the real world (essentially, augmented reality). It not only pushes the envelope of how we think about mobile gaming, but it also anticipates Google Glass and other wearable computing devices.
Google is giving a none-too-subtle shove out the door to the software development methods of the 20th Century. No longer can apps simply be apps, they must be dynamic two-way portals to information, content, and actions on or even before demand. The day that no one ever has to open an app to get their information, when no one in fact even thinks of “opening” or “closing” an app anymore, will be the day Google has achieved its goal.
This also means new models of advertising and retail will have to emerge. Users will not want to be bogged down with intrusive ads. The technology of the future dances in harmony with the user, never slowing them down, tripping them up, getting in their way, or sending them astray. Ingress’s partnerships, including Jamba Juice, point the way forward for advertising.
Where app advertisers have lived for the click-through from display ads, they must now start to aim for the walk-through, the dive-through, or even better the direct conversion of a sale in the real world as part of the normal flow of interaction between the user and their software. Advertising must not only blend in with but even augment the user experience.
Check-In services have had some success in this area, but even FourSquare’s gamification begins to feel rather stale and routine after a while. The immersive and dynamic quality of apps like Ingress or Field Trip have the potential to transform consumer activities into recreational activities.
Apple’s 20th Century “device-centric” business model (and their weakness in Big Data), and Microsoft’s equally antiquated licensing-and-subscription model, don’t stand a chance against this, especially as it expands to the web, Chromebooks, and more. Microsoft would need to get many more users to buy their mobile devices and use their web services to begin to match Google’s ambitions, but they’re still in a better position than Apple’s walled garden in that regard. And Amazon? I’m not sure they have any place in that future in the long-term, Kindle Fire’s success notwithstanding. Ditto Facebook.
Information, Content, and Action on or before demand, and an immersive experience that blurs the boundaries between man and machine, between reality and cyberspace. This appropriately enough is, I believe, the future of Android. It’s already happening before our very eyes, in fact, and all the pieces are finally starting to come together.