Android 5.0 is still rolling out to phones across various carriers, but that hasn’t stopped us from carrying on a tried-and-true tech industry tradition: thinking too far ahead. Despite the fact that Lollipop is currently on less than 4% of all Android devices, we can’t help but think about how it could be better, and what should come next.
Namely, while the update does wonders to freshen up the look and feel of Google’s OS, it still carries a number of gaps in functionality that, in some cases, leave it behind the curve next to iOS and Windows Phone. Lollipop has planted the aesthetic seeds for Android’s future, in other words, so the next iteration should focus on growing the OS into something more capable and convenient. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a few specific ways the inevitable Android M update can go about doing that.
To be clear, these are all very much first world problems. Lollipop is a fantastic update on the whole, and it still allows your phone to do amazing, previously unheard of things. But when easily solvable problems are afoot, you solve them. If you’re paying hundreds of dollars on something that promises to make your life easier, you want to that thing to be as helpful as possible, right? Right. Here are a few things Android M can do to ensure that’s the case.
1. Add Some Gesture Controls
This is one of the few areas where stock Android is actually outclassed by the UI skins from Google’s hardware partners. Motorola, LG, HTC, and others have all figured out that Android’s bag of tricks doesn’t have to end when your phone is asleep, adding on a number of gesture controls that make getting around the OS faster than usual.
For example, today’s Moto phones let you twist your wrist twice to quick launch the camera. Recent HTC One devices let you swipe the sleeping screen in various directions to directly open a handful of apps. LG’s latest flagships allow you to open up the device with a quick double tap, as well as peek at your notifications bar to see if you’ve missed any messages. The Android-based CyanogenMod OS packs simple commands for skipping or pausing music and turning on the flashlight, among other things.
Shortcuts like these look neat, for one, but more importantly, they all reduce the number of steps you have to take to do something. Having something like a “double tap to wake” shortcut can be a lifesaver if your device has a faulty power button. They make things easier without getting in the way, and that’s exactly the kind of sentiment we’d like to see Android M follow.
2. Enhance Privacy Settings
For all the strides Android has taken to improve its take on privacy over the years, it can still feel disinterested in keeping you free from spammy callers and over-intrusive apps. Its security settings menu is a little too broad for our liking, undercutting the level of customizable protection that’s attainable with the OS.
You don’t have to look further than CyanogenMod to see how things could be better, as features like “Privacy Guard” and “Blacklist” from that OS would be more than welcome on Google’s platform. The former lets you more closely manage the permissions you give your apps. Instead of the zero-sum game that’s common to regular Android—where you either let an app access the various functions of your phone or lose a good deal of its functionality—Privacy Guard gives you more granular control.
So if you’d like to use an app like Facebook but also want to know when it’s trying to access your camera, current location, and the like, you can make it so the app always has to request permission to do so (or deny it entirely). You can even determine when it’s allowed to vibrate or ring your device. With the continued tensions over how tech companies manage user data, this added level of nuance, where people are allowed to more accurately define the level of intrusion their comfortable with, would be welcome.
Incorporating something like Blacklist, meanwhile, seems like a no-brainer. That lets you automatically block calls and/or messages from a specific number just by adding it to the eponymous list. There are apps in Google Play that do this already, but again, having such functionality baked into the OS would go a long way towards making it a standard. This would put the clamps on annoying telemarketers and those spam calls you’re just going to ignore anyways. It can also greatly diminish the power of a personal abuser right from the offset; harassment is real, unfortunately, so Android M should seize the opportunity to lessen it.
3. Play Nicer with Multiple Devices
Remember Pushbullet, the app that lets you view and respond to phone notifications on your desktop? We’ve extolled the virtues of it in the past, but now it’s time to make its abilities the norm. Trying to get work done on your PC only to have your attention dragged away by a constantly buzzing phone is a pain, but apps like Pushbullet—or Motorola Connect, or BlackBerry Blend, or the Continuity features of iOS 8—centralize everything onto one screen. You can respond to texts right from your computer, quickly send files between the two devices, and, in Apple’s case, even take calls when they’re on the same network.
Integrating devices like this helps you stay focused, and makes it so you don’t have to log into your cloud storage locker or email just to send a quick file or URL link. Considering how many devices Android manufacturers try to sell you, it’s stunning how few of them have seriously tried to make them work together harmoniously. Pushbullet is an efficient solution for Android today, but it can still be prone to the occasional crash and syncing error. Google, with its vast cache of resources, would be in a better position to smoothen the idea out. Here’s hoping it does.
4. Further Improve Notifications
While Lollipop makes notifications more accessible than they were on KitKat (by planting them on the lock screen), there are still a few steps Google could take to make interacting with them less of a nuisance. This is another instance where it can rip a page out of Apple’s book, because iOS 8 gives you the supremely useful ability to reply to notifications right from the notification shade. If someone shoots you a text on the iPhone, you don’t have to back out of whatever app you have open and jump into the messaging app—instead, you just pull down the shade, type your reply right there, and fire away. Again, nobody’s ever died from being pulled away from Instagram from 10 seconds to open Google Hangouts (hopefully), but Android still has extra steps that don’t need to be there.
All of this doesn’t have to begin and end with messaging either—being able to favorite a reply on Twitter or send a news alert to Pocket would save time as well. Alternatively, we’d welcome more “floating” notification widgets similar to what Facebook does with its Messenger app, since those also keep you from unnecessarily jumping between programs. Either way, simplifying the way we respond to notifications would help make Android as friendly to use as it is to look at.
Finally, this is a good place to note that notification syncing between Android devices can still be a bit rough. If you swipe away 20 Facebook alerts on a Nexus 6, you shouldn’t have to do the same thing as soon as you turn on a Nexus 9. As it is now, only a few of Google’s first-party apps are responsible in this regard. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s tiresome, and it’s the kind of tidying up that Android M should seek to work on.Tying them to a single Google account, rather than a single device, may do the trick.
5. Cut the Bloat
This one isn’t complex, but it’s been around for years. Just about every Android device, including those with Lollipop, still finds itself saddled with apps that cannot be removed whatsoever. These are often lesser versions of popular programs, only there because a carrier and/or manufacturer wants to coerce you into using its service (and thus adding to their revenue). Android usually gives you the ability to “disable” such bloatware, but not always, and it’s not the same as erasing it either way. Some people just don’t want NFL Mobile, Verizon.
All of this means that the amount of storage space you’re paying for isn’t the same you’re actually getting. There may only be so much that Google can do to get its partners (especially the carriers) to cut back on the needless apps, but if somebody doesn’t want a piece of software on something they bought, it shouldn’t be there. It builds complacency in the developers of the bloaty apps themselves, takes away room that could be used to support developers of better apps in Google Play, and in certain cases puts at least some damper on a device’s performance.
Lollipop took some steps towards fixing the problem, but it didn’t go as far as it could. Google effectively gave carriers the option of making their nonsense removable–naturally, most have declined. Android devices in general have gotten better about reducing bloat as public pressure has ramped up, but it’s still there, and it’s still much worse on Android than on iOS or Windows Phone. The iPhone gets onto the market largely unscathed, while Microsoft lets you fully uninstall anything your carrier or device maker may pester you about. Now, Android covers many more devices than those two, but any control Google can exert over the guilty parties here would be worth exerting with Android M. If nothing else, it’d make Android’s user base feel more like their devices were fully theirs.
There are plenty other things we’d like to see from the next Android update—a split-screen view for easier multitasking (a la Samsung’s Galaxy Note series, except smoother), a landscape view for phablets, a centralized hub for all forms of text messaging (a la BlackBerry Hub, except better looking), anything more Google can do to lessen the OS’s drain on battery life, the return of the damn mute function—but we’ll leave any further suggestions up to you. Oh, and before you ask, we think the M will stand for Milky Way. Or M&M. Mississippi Mud Pie?