Decrypted: Google Takes Aim at Apple’s Biggest Advantage with Material Design

Google just released a new “Material Design” standard for Android, which aims to decrease design fragmentation.


Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but we promise it’ll all be in plain english. Continuing on from his work on the first two issues (let’s call those a beta) is writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.

Google launched Android around a year after Apple’s iPhone changed the very definition of the word “smartphone”, but to date, it has yet to capture the same aura. Despite becoming the world’s most popular mobile operating system in just six years, Android is still viewed as second rate by many. In recent quarters, nearly four in every five smartphones that were shipped had a version of Android onboard, but in affluent markets such as the United States, its sales are closer to a 50/50 split with Apple’s iOS.

Thus far, Android has won the marketshare race by sheer force. Since 2007, under ten iPhone models have shipped. In the same period, hundreds upon hundreds of Android phones have shipped, many at under $150 in nations that Apple simply doesn’t compete in due to price.

a staggering 89 percent of all iOS devices globally are on the most recent version of the operating system. Conversely, only 14 percent of all Android devices are using the latest build.

But there’s another war going on that’s tougher to quantify. At nearly every turn, Apple has trumpeted just how many of its iOS users were on the most recent version of the operating system, while Google has shied away from the topic altogether. As of today, a staggering 89 percent of all iOS devices globally are on the most recent version of the operating system (iOS 7). Conversely, only 14 percent of all Android devices are using the latest build (v4.4).

That’s a lot of numbers, but what it means is this: for the tens of thousands of people developing software for each platform, it’s far easier to create a seamless, unified program for iOS. Put simply, developers have a much better idea of what they’re building for on Apple’s platform. When building for Android, there are far more variables and unknowns. Imagine trying to organize an ice cream social for a group where 89 percent of the audience enjoys a particular flavor. Now, try doing the same when hundreds of millions of attendees will show up with fractured tastes, even a wide range of eating utensils.


“Fragmentation” has largely defined the Android experience, much to the chagrin of its most ardent supporters. Arguably, Android’s largest weakness is also its most notable strength — customization options are nearly endless on Android. Still, the dearth of standards have perpetuated an environment where almost nothing is certain. This creates a challenging workplace for developers; in turn, most Android apps are slower, buggier, and less sexy than their iOS counterparts. Exceptions exist, sure, but on the whole, Apple’s app library just looks and feels more polished.

That’s about to change.

At Google’s annual developer conference held last week in San Francisco, the company introduced a concept entitled “Material Design”. The ins and outs are fairly complex, engineered to only be truly grokked by developers, but the end result for users such as yourself should be a far more uniform, more beautiful Android experience.


Responsive UI


Unified Typography


Fluid Motion


Natural, Dimensional Surfaces


Animation at All Scales


For starters, Material Design endeavors to tackle the fragmentation issue head-on. Finally, the initiative lays out a standard set of rules by which all Android apps must meet. This will ensure that an Android app looks and feels similarly, regardless of whether you’re using an HTC One smartphones, a Galaxy Note phablet, or any Android tablet.

That’s important, but it’s about to become even more so. Google also announced that Android would extend into more areas in 2015, including televisions and automobiles. We’re living in a world where smartphones are going to drive more, not less, interactions in the years ahead, so Google’s making a conscious effort to get a handle on Android’s design before it ends up in places like your center console. In essence, Google’s Material Design will make sure that the Google Maps experience in your new car will feel a lot like the experience on your phone, tablet, and watch. The more familiar the user experience across systems, the more you’re apt to get settled into the Android ecosystem — which, make no mistake, is Google’s primary objective here.

So, here’s what you can expect now that Material Design is in place. For starters, Android apps are going to look sexier, and they’re going to feel more fluid in use. Material Design dictates that all apps lean on “tactile reality”, which means that each shape, menu, shadow, and corner will be rendered as one would expect to see in real life. Your expectations of how depth and shape are perceived in reality will now be translated into the world of Android, and every single app developer will be expected to comply.

To boot, forcing developers to follow a set of rendering guidelines will prevent certain apps from becoming “resource hogs”. Today, developers can create apps that eat up an inordinate amount of processing horsepower in order to achieve niche design goals (such as superfluous motion and animation), and users have no way of knowing what’s slowing their phone down or why a certain app feels sluggish. By streamlining what can and cannot happen on the design side, Google is striving to make each app responsive and optimized for the platform that it runs on. Apps also going to be more similar across various platforms — no more loading up an app on your tablet and having no idea why it looks so starkly different from the phone.

Android apps are going to look sexier, and they’re going to feel more fluid in use.

In the longer term, expect more applications to arrive on the Android platform altogether. For years now, many apps have been surfacing first on iOS, and only later on Android. Developers appreciate the uniformity and predictability that iOS provides, so they generally lend their talents to Apple first (and oftentimes, exclusively). Now that Android is offering that same benefit, developers have no excuse to treat Android as second-class.

Finally, expect Apple to not rest on its laurels. iOS has enjoyed a competitive advantage in design since the operating system’s inception, but that advantage is now gone. All in all, an intensified design rivalry between the two largest mobile platforms is going to be great for consumers. The healthier the competitive environment, the more impressive the products will be from the players embroiled in it.

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