Blog Post

Google gets serious about improving Android apps

Google’s Android platform (s goog) has gobbled up marketshare and is now an app downloading machine. But it hides the fact that the apps on the platform are often not as polished or usable as their counterparts on other platforms. Now, Google seems to be getting serious about changing that.

Thursday, it introduced a new Android Design site aimed at helping developers learn the principles and best practices for building awesome apps. The portal, the first style guide ever introduced for Android, will feature a load of documents for educating developers on styles, patterns and building blocks that go into world-class apps. This comes following the release of Android 4.0, which includes an enhanced UI framework with new interactions and looks, which Google believes can produce more beautiful apps.

This is part of a larger push by Google to improve the quality apps on Android. Android is bearing down on Apple’s App Store (s aapl) in app numbers, but many of the apps are criticized as being substandard. That Google doesn’t review apps for inclusion in the Android Market plays a big role, but Google has also been more hands-off about suggesting how apps should look and feel before now.

A month ago, Google introduced a new Android Training portal, containing a collection of lessons on how to solve basic development problems such as managing battery life and creating effective navigation. The site includes a lot of lessons and code snippets to get developers started.

Then earlier this month, Google said it was mandating that all Android 4.0 devices include a “Holo” theme by default, so that developers can build their apps for that specific theme, and know it will work consistently across multiple devices that deploy their own custom UI skin, such as TouchWiz or Sense. Though it’s not the huge step toward ending fragmentation some had hoped, it provides developers with some assurance their apps will work consistently across new devices.

The new Android Design suggestions aren’t being forced upon developers. It’s an optional style guide, Matias Duarte, director of Android operating system, told the Verge, but an important one that helps developers take advantage of the changes in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich.

“If you want to be serious about design, you have to do this stuff. Ice Cream Sandwich is Android getting serious about design and this is part of that,” Duarte said of the style guide.

Because it’s still optional, it doesn’t really approach Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, which that company uses to help review apps for usability. But it’s a gesture by Google to address one of the weaknesses of the Android platform. Google’s more open approach invites apps of any kind, but while Google kicks out malicious apps, it doesn’t require anything in terms of usability or look and feel.

It will take a while for Google’s efforts to start paying off in a big way. A lot of this stuff is aimed at Android 4.0 devices, which are only just barely out of the gate. And since this isn’t required, there’s no guarantee developers will take these lessons and suggestions to heart. But it’s still a good sign that Google understands it needs to do more to ensure the Android ecosystem thrives and is fruitful.

Android apps still lag behind their Apple counterparts in generating revenue for their developers. Some of that is due to Android users’ preference for free stuff, but it’s possible that with better tools, developers can make apps more lucrative. It’s in Google’s best interest to improve the state of apps on Android. Though it has a lead in smartphone market share, which can help win over developers, it doesn’t want to be known as a place for second-rate apps, a reputation which could give more fuel to iOS and also provide a potential opening for Windows Phone 7(s msft).

11 Responses to “Google gets serious about improving Android apps”

  1. drew malcolm

    Fragmentation is the thing stopping my company from publishing on Android. The HIG is great, and we prioritize a beautiful interface anyway. In our minds, the trouble with Android is supporting so many versions…impossible to keep everyone happy in the droid ecosystem. Hoping this is the first step towards a more unified experience.

  2. I´m curious to see what Windows will bring to the table. As for iPhone apps being “farts”, I don´t think the quality is much higher when it comes to Android, quite the contrary probably. Maybe now with better tools the situation will change, one can only hope.

  3. It’s a lot more than HIG though. iOS has 57 fonts. Android has 3. iOS has animation at its core, Android has clunked it on. I could go on and on but what it comes down to is that giving better guidance on polishing techniques will just result in a slightly shiner turd.

    • Actually iOS has far more high-quality exclusive apps than what Android has. Stuff like Sonic, Infinity Blade, Monkey Island, Battlefield 3 Aftershock, Final Fantasy, and many more. Not to mention productivity apps like FL Studio, Garageband, and others. Android NEEDS better apps and exclusive ones asap. The Android Market just doesn’t compare at the moment. Hopefully Google’s push will get more developers on board.

  4. Just where do you get the proof that Android users prefer free apps? In my household we use Android & iOS and yes, if there is a free app that is not slam full of adds we use it. Otherwise we pay on both platforms.

    After hearing this so often I’ve even done some informal polling of people I know and get the same results.

    So i ask you and all the other bloggers to provide some tangible proof when stating that, Android users don’t pay for apps. If the app is good, we pay just like iOS users.

  5. Prasun Sinha

    A step to the right direction. Android seriously needs something akin to Apple’s HIG. I remember the first time I read HIG… It felt like someone suddenly opened up my eyes and taught me to appreciate beauty. It’s true that some popular apps do violate the HIG, but HIG is something that helps the UX person think. And that’s the goal of a guideline.

    Am eagerly waiting to see how this initiative improves the overall user experience for new Android apps. Good work, Google.

  6. Good! They’ll need this to compete with Apple and Microsoft. Android’s open market may be a big selling point to tech savvy users, but normal users just want good looking and especially working apps. This is actually one of the reasons why I didn’t go for an Android device last time, it may be a lot cheaper than your average iPhone, but they just felt less polished.

    Just wanted to note the part about the HIG. Apple may say they put a lot of importance in the HIG, but they’ve been breaking their own rules for years now and growth of the App Store has definitely been more important than GUI’s. There’s even a tumblr dedicated to the monstrosities found on the Mac App Store:
    But for every ugly app on the App Store there’s one or two good looking ones, this isn’t always the case on Android.