My impressions of Android 5 are excitingly career-limiting, as you might have guessed from the title, but what the hell. A few weeks of using it has not substantially dulled my initial impressions, so I might as well share them with you. Would you believe there are positive bits here? You’ll have work for them, obviously, panning for compliments in the effluent stream of my usual opinions of technology, but they’re in there. Here’s a gimme: it’s not ugly! So there’s that? On the other hand I haven’t been able to watch an entire video on their new “material design” approach without laughing out loud. So there is also definitely that.
It’s not so much that their designers all seem to speak with the same stunted cadence that ancient-aliens history channel guy has, though that’s part of it. The big reason is the realization – which is almost certainly not true, but they sure give you the impression it could be – that they edited out every fourth sentence, because it ended with “… and we were so high that day”.
Pre-4.4 Android was… bad. Some time ago I referred to KitKat as “technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911”, but despite my own first-impressions debacle I thought that 4.4 was moving in the right direction. Android was still visually a relic, though, and Conway’s Law was in full effect:
“[…] organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations” – M. Conway
In Google’s case this seems to mean that people can work on what they want to work on and nobody’s really in charge of making sure the entire package works right; it showed then and it still shows. For a long time it’s seemed like Android’s primary design constraints were “what can I convince disinterested engineers with self-diagnosed Aspergers’ and terrible taste to ship”, so it’s one-pixel borders and dark gray backgrounds and I’m busy buddy these barges full of RFID chips and QR/AR bridging aren’t going to talk to Glass^2 by themselves.
In that context even the slightest suggestions that a human might occasionally want to see colours now and then or maybe – and I know how crazy this sounds, but stay with me here – “experience joy” are more than welcome. So despite the delivery, Material Design looked like a pleasant if not revolutionary step forward.
And in a few important ways – I told you we’d get here! – it is. Application switching is smoother and prettier, the launcher is somewhat easier to get around and the reworked notification system is quite pleasant, despite Hangouts’ best efforts. It’s nice to see the rotation-lock toggle and tethering buttons right up front rather than buried four menus down in the settings where they used to be. There’s even a flashlight button in there with them, a nice built-in now rather than the third-party permission-creeper that spied on everything you touched that it used to be, so we’ve got that going for us dot gif.
App switching has improved as well, moving from the postage-stamp screenshots to a much more pleasantly scroll-y interface. Recency ordering there is nice, and makes much more sense in this cards-type display; infinite scroll there would be a welcome addition, but given the antecedent I’ll take it.
Most of Google’s apps, though, haven’t been substantively changed. Gmail, sure – and, um, wow – but most of the rest seem to have been recompiled with the new widget set without really putting a ton of thought into how they work or what they do. A lot of odd animations happen for no obvious reason, and places where an attempt to act like a “material” betrays itself in some oddly irritating way. Moving the lock screen on one axis now disallows you moving it on the other axis; touching some (but not all?) list items makes this odd radial “splash” thing happen, which looks like a printf they forgot to ifdef out before shipping.
There’s a lot of stuff like that, not often at the edges – Maps’ mad dash towards incomprehensibility seems to be picking up speed – and in that sense it’s business as usual. There isn’t really a coherent narrative or model or anything underpinning Material Design, just a bunch of random, disconnected stuff you’ve got to relearn by discovery and practice by rote. It’s novel and more colourful – which is nice, for real! – but so much of it doesn’t make intuitive sense that it’s hard to stay excited about Android’s prospects. Pulling down on this widget causes that other widget to move sideways, or some other circle to appear and then spin. Some icons just hover there disconnected from anything, perplexing iconography near-invisible against the wrong background. Scroll far enough and ominous shadows appear and seem to follow you briefly around, a subtle visual cue that you’re at the end of the list and Oh by the way death awaits us all. In fact, modulo some tentacles and chanting I have the nagging sense I’m looking at a Lovecraftian pop-up book, aiming for colourful intuitive fun, running aground on the black shoals of the arbitrary and incomprehensible.
Still better than it was, though, seriously. It’s a big improvement.