Google I/O is almost upon us, and that means, presumably, some updates to Android. We might not see a full-on update to a new version (5.0) announced at tomorrow's keynote, but we do expect some changes. And while the wishlist might not be as long as it has been in years past, there's still plenty left to do. Here's what we're hoping for.
More than anything, we’d love to see Google’s rumoured Babel chat initiative do what it has promised: unify all chat under one roof. That means your SMS text messages, be they from your carrier’s number or any Google Voice account (throw in MMS for Voice while you’re at it), Google Talk, Hangouts, and any other partners Google brings in. Given Talk’s inclusion in Microsoft’s Outlook.com starting this week, we’re hopeful that will include some outside services, like Messenger, Skype, AIM, or even Facebook.
Clean Up the Notifications Bar
Android is beautiful now — or it can be if you want it to be — and it’s always had a Spartan efficiency. Except for one spot: that awful notification bar across the top of the screen. As notifications come in, the icons of the apps they represent slide in one by one. Except, if you get multiple notifications from the same app, or have multiple accounts in the same app, they’ll often double or triple up, leaving you with three icons for Gmail, two for Facebook, and four for Google Talk. Great. Android does a fairly good job of organising your notifications in the actual drag-down, so eliminating the duplicates would be a good start. But more broadly, it could look at taking a cue from Windows Phone’s lock screen and assign a position to individual apps.
Smarter Software Back Buttons
Back buttons are problematic. But they’re also useful at times. In a browser, that’s a simple function. But for phones, it’s become hugely complicated. While Android isn’t as bad as Windows Phone on this, it still has the issue where apps often have two back buttons in play (Android’s, and the contextual top-left one built into many apps). That’s confusing on its own, but it’s even worse when tapping the Android back button two times sends you back through the app you’re using, but then the third sends you to another app entirely, but doing the same thing with the other just sends you to the homepage, and maybe a menu.
The fix is to either eliminate the Android back button all together, and mandate that all software apps have a perpetual back button that only applies to the app itself. Going back to the previous app can be done by multitasking, which is smooth in Android now anyway. This is a big navigational headache, and cleaning it up would be a big step for Android.
Improved Google Now
We love Google Now, but there's still a bunch of room for improvement. For starters, we need more control over what cards pop up and when. It could be kept as sparse and intuitive as it already is by default, but within the settings for each card it would be nice to be able to make tweaks, like changing when you would like to arrive at the airport for a flight. There should be a manual override for when you want more granular control. On the search side of things, Google Now needs better context awareness. It should know that when you search for “indie cinema nearby” you don’t want a web search, you want to see a map with relevant results highlighted.
Android still does not have a built-in way to remotely wipe your device, or to find it if it’s lost. That functionality is only available to Google apps administrators. It’s crazy that it's not for the public. Sure, there are third-party apps and services that will do this (generally for a fee), but this should be built right into Google, and easily accessed from the web.
Switching out your default apps is one of the things nerds have loved about Android for years, but for the less patient, it's still not easy. When you click the icon for messaging a contact, Android asks you which program you'd like to use, and if you'd like that to be your default. Which is good! But you have to do that for Every. Single. Contact. The same thing is true for associating files with apps. A simple, one-time “Would you always like to view PDF files in Quick Office?” would do.
Lock Screen Notifications
This is one of the only things that's better about iOS notifications. It would be great to have the option to display your notifications right on your lock screen, so you don't have to go through the hassle of opening everything up to see who just sent you what. Further, it should be a “Swipe right to open, swipe left to dismiss” sort of thing.
Better Map Tweaks
Google Maps may be the best map app (in our opinion), but that doesn't mean it couldn't be better. For starters, turn by turn navigation should auto-correct in real time with changing traffic patterns. There also just needs to be more consistency in the UI. Sometimes, if you're in map view, the back button will take you back to the directions list. Other times, it will undo the search you just did, or even weirder, take you to a previous search. Most importantly, there should be a way to adjust your route while in navigation mode. For example, if you need to find the closest gas station or restaurants, you should be able to do a voice search within Maps, have it guide you to your choice, and then back onto your route.
Google Voice Integration
While not technically a part of Android, it would be nice to see Google Voice — which is used by tons of Android users — better integrated into the system. For instance, GV users still can't receive MMS within the app. Google put a bandaid on this recently by forwarding the image to your Gmail inbox as an email, but more problematic is that we do not receive group text messages from our friends with iPhones. And, let's be realistic, we all have a lot of friends with iPhones. They don’t get a message that it wasn’t received, either, so people think we’re jerks for not responding. The app is also just buggy. It crashes often, and it doesn't work with the proximity sensor on most phones, so when you try to listen to your voicemail you exit out of the app (or call somebody) with your cheek. Very annoying.
Google Music Basics
Google's music service is great, but it gets some of the basics very, very wrong. For starters, there's no gapless playback! That's music player 101. It screws up albums that are made with tracks that blend seamlessly into each other. Also, songs you have stored in Google Music can only be played via Google Music. Android should be able to use them at least within system apps, so you can make your favourite song your ring tone or alarm tone.
Podcasts, Any Podcasts
How is this still a thing? Google support for podcasts has been abysmal for a long time now, going back to the abandoned Google Listen, but it seems like Google’s just given up on them all together now. People still listen to these! And even Windows Phone has a way to search and subscribe through the official store! Yes, there are podcast managing apps out there. It’s Android; there are apps for everything. And for many of you reading this, that is more than fine and this is not an issue. But that’s so much beside the point for many others. It’s about integrating something very simple and basic into the Google ecosystem, and it's crazy that Google hasn't done this yet.
One of the things HTC got really right in its HTC One software was bringing back profiles. Blackberry users of olde will remember. The One comes pre-set with profiles for Normal, Silent, and Vibrate. You can drop a 1x1 widget onto your homepage, so you can see what mode you're currently in and to toggle between the three of them. It's wonderful, and it should be standard in all Android phones.
BlackBerry 10 got one thing very, very right. Work/Life balance is harder than ever with smartphones tethering us to the office all day, so two totally separate profiles on your phone to wall you off from that life is kind of amazing. More and more, companies are giving employees the option of top tier Android phones or iPhones instead of just BlackBerries, so this would have a built-in audience. And even for those of us who don’t have official “work phones," a barrier between you and the office sounds pretty good.
Sync Android Through Chrome:
Maybe it’s not time for Chrome and Android to Voltron into a single entity just yet, but we can still lean on Chrome’s ubiquity to finally give Android a real home on your computer. iPhones have always had iTunes, and even Windows Phone has its own app on Windows and Mac. Android, though, still uses antiquated-looking apps, with no way to manage all the information on your device from your desktop. Why not build an official Google Phone app for Chrome that manages this? Chrome’s existence on every platform would give Android a home base no matter what kind of computer you use.
Pipe dream. Never going to happen. For a variety of reasons. But still, if there were one thing we wanted fixed, it would be ditching the skins, or at least reining them in, and making sure that updates are pushed out faster, from manufacturers and through carriers. Speed up testing, cut down build times, and make sure every phone will be able to carry every update from day one.
What do you want fixed in Android? Tell us in the comments! You can also watch a live blog of I/O at our sister site Gizmodo starting at around 2am.