Google gets serious about improving Android apps

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Google’s Android platform 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 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.

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