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Android devices will be living in a 'Material' world

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Google has unveiled a new look for the next version of Android, Android L, dubbed "Material Design". So what, you ask? Well, Android runs on around 70 per cent of the world's smartphones.

Material Design specifies the UX (user experience) for all things Google and “smart” - from the outline to the fundamentals.

Material Design says things such as how there’s a need for an app bar and floating action button on Android on tablets, desktops and mobile devices. Digging deeper, we get into granular issues such as positioning of text and types of fonts.

It sounds light and fluffy – art-school or design-boutique stuff. Classic tech-conference fodder, too – Material Design was announced at Google's I/O shindig in San Francisco after all.

Cast your mind back two years, however, and this kind of thinking was what came from Microsoft when it was first pushing the hated, desktop-free Metro interface for Windows 8.

Google has even wrapped Material Design in the kind of language Redmond used to dress up Metro. Material Design even seems to look like Metro, with purple and green colour bands in flat, 2-D boxes full of text and pictures.

Reg regular Tim Anderson notes the Material Design launch:

I heard expressions like “fast and fluid”, clean typography, signposting, and content-first. Like Metro, it also seems to have a blocky theme (we will know when the next design wave kicks in as it will have rounded corners).

There is a serious business behind this fluff, though.

The new look comes with an added speed boost in Android L thanks to a new runtime, called ART, to make apps on Android run faster than with the old Dalvik runtime.

With faster performance comes an attempt to bring greater consistency and control over apps running on an increasingly diverse population of Android devices.

The objective of Material Design, according to Google is to: “Develop a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across platforms and device sizes. Mobile precepts are fundamental, but touch, voice, mouse, and keyboard are all first-class input methods.”

Consistency and control are the goals.

Material Design is built using Polymer, the toolkit and framework unveiled by Google last year. Polymer is built using Web Components – a draft standard from the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Web Components are already in Chrome.

Google wants, therefore, to have developers build apps that look and feel the same for Android and the web, via Chrome. Which developers?

All developers.

A platform is no good without developers to build apps and, currently, the single biggest platform out there is the web.

Smart phone makers and Microsoft have their own ecosystems of millions but they always want more. Some (Microsoft) have tried poaching from others (iOS and Android developers) while independents like Xamarin have built bridges that make it easier for developers to build apps for different devices without needing to learn each the ins and outs of each smart-device maker’s language or API calls.

The web, though, is the biggest and richest pool of developers out there. Google wants to bring them over, with apps that look like they have been purpose built and feel like they have been purpose built for Android L and web. We used to call that write-once, run anywhere.

This is important to Google as the Android market continues to fragment: think not just smart phones – of which Android has the lion’s share of the market – think different deployments of Android, onto yet more tablets, PCs and wearables.

Different design hurdles for each of these technology pillars would be the kiss of death in attracting developers to Google’s overall goal of Android ubiquity. Difference is the enemy of the customer, too. Customers won’t embrace Android outside of their favourite smart phone if the version of their chosen app on the smart phone behaves in some strange or unexpected way on an Android tablet or TV. Worse, it might backfire, turning them off the original app on the phone.

Consistency is soft power, the carrot in an era where there are no sticks to beat either developers of consumers towards your phone or device. Making everything look the same, though, isn’t easy. It can turn into design fascism – with disastrous consequences, as Microsoft learned the hard way.

Microsoft shot for consistency with Metro, putting the square interface on its tablets, phones and PCs under something it called three-screens and the cloud. Yet Microsoft was wrong to lump PC users in with device users, as it turned out neither customers nor developers wanted Metro on their PC – they hated it.

Apple was smarter: consistency only across the phone and tablet with iOS while keeping the Mac operating system out of the smart design stable.

Google has chosen to be more like Microsoft. Will this work? To its advantage, it doesn’t have the user or developer base in the PC world to upset.

On the down side, web developers have always proved coy about getting pulled into a specific vendor’s technology platform.

Like most other vendor-authored languages and design statements, Material Design may end up meaning most to those already firmly in the camp of its creator and their chosen technology patron.®

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