How about an Android Pro?
At Google I/O this past week, I got my first taste of the next version of Android and I enjoyed almost everything about it. Android has gotten to the stage where improvements come in only incremental steps, and Google is mostly making the right ones with its annual updates. But I have an underlying worry about where this is all going: as Android grows more proactive and assistive, I fear it might end up alienating its more technically inclined users.
So here’s a radical thought: maybe there’s now room for more than one canonical variant of Android. I can already hear the chorus of disagreement, chanting the word “fragmentation” with cautionary zeal, but Google is already working on a modified version with Android Go, its extra lean serving for lower-spec devices. What I have in mind is a similarly stripped-down option intended for pro users: an Android Pro.
Google’s vision of the future of Android — and the future of mobile and personal technology more broadly — is defined by automation. Google Assistant is the user-facing aspect of an artificial intelligence juggernaut that promises to transform how we use our devices and, in many ways, make us more dependent on them.
As Android has evolved, it has consistently moved closer to Apple’s deliberately simplified approach to mobile software. The latest Android O streamlines the settings menu by presenting only the most-used options and tucking the rest away into expandable “advanced” menus. With every version of the core OS and app updates, I see more hand holding and bigger training wheels from Google.
As enthusiastic a Google Photos user as I am, I don’t like being nagged to back up my photos every time I open the app, and I don’t think I’ll much enjoy receiving constant reminders about Google photo books when they become available. There used to be a time when Google Maps was just a mapping application, but now it takes a couple of extra seconds to load while Google furnishes it with extra search options and local business information (mostly the locations of the nearest pizzerias). Maps has also developed an unfortunate habit of pumping notifications my way, whether it’s for road traffic that isn’t relevant to me or urging me to contribute my photos of known landmarks.
It is while setting up a new Android phone, as I uncheck every superfluous notification option on Maps, Android Pay, Docs, Drive, Photos, and YouTube that I come to think, this is Windows behavior. My standard operating procedure with any new Windows PC setup is to deselect all the options that Microsoft ticks for me — and now Android is bulking out to match that (admittedly minor) annoyance.
Speaking with Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer during Google I/O, I was told that the teams responsible for all of these apps make their decisions based on a lot of user research and (anonymized, he was quick to point out) data. One of Android’s outstanding challenges is informing people of everything the system can do, and the prompts for action from Google’s apps are helpful pointers for neophytes. In essence, Google’s lowest common denominator is gradually shifting lower, as the company looks to scoop up every last feature phone holdout while at the same time matching the accessibility of Apple’s iOS.
There’s always a balance to be struck when trying to keep experienced users moving at their fastest without leaving new ones behind. The trouble for me is that Google’s assistive efforts aren’t all optional. The suggested email replies of Google Inbox, for example, were promoted to the main Gmail app in Android during I/O — and, much like my colleague Adi Robertson, I find them off-putting in the way they impersonate me. Aside from the inappropriateness of offering canned responses when someone might be reading an intensely personal message, these responses just take up screen space.
If cars can have a sport mode that stiffens the suspension, heightens throttle response, and disables driving assists for a purer and faster experience, why not phones, too? I want something like Android Go — barebones, simplified, streamlined to run as fast as possible — but with all the latest and greatest capabilities that Android can support. All the torque, none of the training wheels.
My idea for an Android Pro wouldn’t meaningfully contribute to Android’s long-unresolved issue of software fragmentation because the thing I envision is taking features away, not adding more. I can live without Google Assistant and without Uber and Lyft being directly integrated into Maps. Just give me the familiar single-purpose, siloed-off apps, and let me worry about connecting the dots between them. That’s the way Android grew to its present popularity, and there are many of us already accustomed