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Android L – Rerouting Google…

The thing that will strike you the most in Android L is the new design. Holo, the much appreciated user interface that appeared in Android 3.0 (codename Honeycomb), and which suffered several revisions up until now, has finally got a successor. Android fans, meet the awkwardly named Material Design. The idea that stands at the base of Material Design is not how the software should look, nor how it should interact with the user. Instead, Google’s designers started by asking themselves what software is made of. That’s how they came up with a comprehensive set of guidelines, ready to help any developer build an application.

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That’s an application that’s meant to run not just on smartphones or tablets, but on any type of device that’s powered by Google’s software. Take for example Chrome OS, or the more recently announced Android Wear, Android Auto or Android TV. That’s right, Google’s not trying to figure out how to build an user interface just for wearables, or just for phones, they’re trying to build an a set of user interface guidelines applicable to all types of devices. You’ll instantly know you’re using Google software, and you’ll instantly know how. This is reminiscent of Microsoft’s Modern UI, which spans from Windows Phone all the way to Windows 8 Pro and Xbox One. As you’ve heard multiple times already, this is not a product battle, this is an ecosystem battle between the tech giants.

So how on earth do they think they can cover all screen sizes and shapes, plus multiple input methods? It’s very simple actually, as the guidelines don’t speak in specific, technical terms. They don’t mention which panel should go where, what color it should be. Instead, the guidelines present means of putting the information on the screen. “Sheets” containing said information stack up in vertical hierarchies, while meaningful transitions direct user’s focus and give elements importance. Soft shadows, colorful backgrounds and large hero images do make a beautiful interface; one that looks nice, but isn’t very hard to design and build. Animations are a big part of Material Design and this gives Android a playful, fresh new look.

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I cannot ignore the similarities between Google’s, Microsoft’s and Apple’s user experience guidelines, since they tell pretty much the same story: design isn’t about making things look pretty, it’s about making interaction with them seem natural and easy. That’s why all these three platforms are sprinkled with animations, little touches all over the interface and have colorful screens. I for one am very intrigued because all these companies see the user experience in the same way. And they’ve built their software around the same basic principles, but each one has its own look an feel, including Android L.

Its pre-Material Design roots are obvious in this Developer Preview instalment, but that’s not a bad thing. Google’s trying to keep old users happy and avoid having a Windows 8 fiasco. This pre-release version, except its general UI, has only three applications updated in order to comply with the Material Design theme: Calculator, Phone and Settings. As you can see from the screenshots below, they don’t seem to be all that different from their predecessors, a simple color scheme change isn’t enough to call it a new design. But once you’ve looked at the screenshots, go and play the screen captures below, to see just how many animations and subtle transitions happen when the users interacts with the device. Specific ripples appear when the user touches the screen, icons stretch out as they’re about to activate and information appears and hides with meaningful transitions so you know what just happened.

It’s all very nice, but you really have to see it in action in order to understand how different it really is. Head over to the next page if you’re interested.

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