Android’s Consistency and The User Experience
This is a site of power users, and it is fair to say that most of us are more knowledgeable about Android than the average Joe. We tinker and tweak by customizing every corner for endless hours, until we arrive at a comfortable software configuration. In contrast, a large chunk of Android users don’t even use a different launcher – and many don’t know what a launcher is in the first place!
When we get so involved in our development forums, looking for new ROMs and Kernels, reading up on specifications or learning how to optimize our software, we tend to forget that in the end Android has over a billion users. Its market share (in shipments) for Q1 2015 was still at about 78%, and in the past year the platform exceeded 1 billion shipped units. A lot of people have Android phones, and a lot of people will get Android phones. As of now, this is undeniable. The other undeniable part is that most people are not as savvy as us, and many are not even savvy enough to properly operate Android.
It is likely that almost all of us have stories about family members that are completely clueless when it comes to technology. Most of these people tend to be older, and it’d be unfair to criticize their lack of understanding of software when a huge percentage of us grew up with these technologies (many of us through different means and in different contexts). But on top of the older clueless consumer you have the young clueless consumer – a number that is much bigger than one would expect from millennials who grew up with computers.
This leads to trouble in a platform that is so open and free (as in freedom) – and while to us these aspects make Android amazing, to them it mostly does not matter. I am sure many of you were assigned as the default “tech consultant” of your family, or group of friends, or class, at some point. Even people over the age of 20 can lack basic troubleshooting skills, and while following directions of a Google result is a given to any of us, I still personally get Android help requests from people within the 20 to 30 age bracket. Android is not a complex platform by any means – in fact, it’s getting increasingly simplified in many ways. But to most people, smartphones are ultimately about texting and social media and not diving through settings and forums.
The trouble comes with the inherent instability of Android, which comes from how open and more modular it is in comparison to the competition. Things like wakelocks are known to annoy even the biggest power users, and their seemingly unpredictable behavior can mean a quick end to your battery life on the day you need the juice the most. Even after several tweaks, handy software like Amplify and regular maintenance, wakelocks can remain a thing. The difference is that we can find ways around them, mitigate them, or at the very least find the root of the problem and/or get an ETA on a possible fix. Casual users don’t care enough about Android to do the same, and many wouldn’t know where to start… but they still care about their phone’s longevity.
The same happens with software performance. Some apps can see incompatibilities and lack of optimizations that the user might not know about, and that are perhaps as easy to fix as flipping a toggle. Moreover, OTA updates (particularly from big jumps like KitKat to Lollipop) can leave behind incompatibilities in certain files that are not cleared until the user factory resets the phone. Most users don’t know about this, however, and what should be a happy jump to a new OS version can result in overheating, lackluster performance and worse battery life. I frequent device-specific forums and subreddits all the time, and around Lollipop’s release these complaints were common – and more often than not, the factory reset suggestion would then fix them. Finally, you’ve got issues such as Lollipop’s memory leaks which have concrete and tangible effects on the user experience.
Google’s Android is not the most stable nor consistent OS for these and many other reasons, but more often than not these problems are hard to address. The platform has a much bigger number of hardware and software permutations than other devices, and accounting for each possible issue that may arise is near impossible. In this sense, Android’s freedom and immense decision space hurts the platform in achieving a more cohesive, stable and consistent software experience. To us power users, these are not very big deals, but to the casual crowd they are.
I want to make it clear that I am not trying to appeal to casual consumers, nor justifying how they are often reluctant to research their devices before and after the purchase. But the popular opinion that comes out of these users’ experiences does ultimately affect the platform. Throughout my time in the United States, I’ve heard numerous news reports on cable television regarding Android vs iOS, and the topics that often came up had to do with stability and intuitiveness. A lot of casual user reports do not paint Android in a very positive light due to all these sudden issues, and if the user does not understand what a wakelock is and why it is obliterating their battery life, they would be even more prone to criticizing the system altogether.
Regardless of casual consumers, power users also get tired of fending off wakelocks from various applications and/or the notorious Google Play Services. The latter in particular has been known to have severe effects on battery performance, out of the blue, and sometimes these issues do not get addressed for long periods of time. The other day I was a target of random wakelocks, and my device’s battery life took a massive hit for that day. It was not pretty nor fun.
Addressing these issues is not easy, and the sheer scale of Android does not help in almost any regard. The fact that Google is focusing many of its new features and functionality on their Play Services through regular updates means that inconsistent versions have a mostly unskippable detrimental effect to the user experience of sometimes innumerable devices or ROMs. With system updates, you have greater freedom when it comes to knowing what you are getting into, how, when, and on which terms. But Lollipop’s adoption was no cakewalk either, and with bugs such as the infamous memory leaks, Android’s consistency once again took a hit. And because these updates take significantly longer to be developed and roll out, many users can get stuck in an experience they did not mean to buy into – especially casual users that do not know (and are reluctant to learn) how to flash previous firmware.
If anyone intends that Android becomes the be-all end-all OS, they also must consider that the many inconsistencies the platform has on many devices and for many users do affect its overall public image and adoption. Luckily, Google is said to be focusing on battery life and RAM management with the new version of Android. Allegedly, they will cut location check-ins and reduce off-screen activity. This would lead to less power-hungry and more consistent idle times for the base system, but the way Play Services affect battery life may remain independent of these improvements, and thus they could still affect devices. And unless Google figures out a way to have a better rollout for their next version, many of these system optimizations wouldn’t matter to the Android userbase at large – as of May, Lollipop still had not made it to even 10% of handsets.
To improve Android’s image in the popular consensus, as well the user experience of millions of users affected by inconsistencies, Google must address many of the issues that sometimes plague Android phones from time to time. I wish I could have solutions to these problems, but the sheer scope of it all means I can’t begin to suggest a comprehensive way of addressing Android’s inconsistency without sacrificing any of its virtues. Google’s renewed focus gives us faith that they are taking a good initiative for the platform, so we can not wait to see what kind of developments we will see at Google I/O tomorrow. Hopefully we get a more consistent Android for a more cohesive community and a more coherent user experience.
Do you want Google to focus on consistency? What performance inconsistencies annoy you? Let us know!