spoke to The Verge's Joshua Topolsky about the emerging design ethic for the mobile operating system, which Google hired him to help create. At that time, Duarte told Topolsky that there's a special difficulty in maintaining a single design ethic that must be applied to multiple variations of an operating system simultaneously. "You want to be sure that your design ideas will survive, and also allow for customization," he said.Last month, Android's user experience lead, Matias Duarte,
Topolsky's story inspired Slate's Farhad Manjoo on Monday to write that even Android 4.0, whose design was influenced by Duarte's contributions, does not have a consistency of overall experience that evokes an experience, as Duarte described it, of "love." "Of the three major smartphone operating systems," Manjoo wrote, "Android is still by far the most confusing. It's also the least likely to inspire joy." (For those of you keeping score at home, the #3 system on Manjoo's list is Windows Phone, not BB OS.)
"There's a dichotomy. Specific implementations of products that consumers ultimately use are generally the product of many cooks being in the kitchen: the carrier and the handset maker being the two most prominent," explains the Executive Director of Industry Analysis for NPD Connected Intelligence, Ross Rubin, in a discussion with RWW this afternoon. "But Android as an offering from Google is really beholden to nobody. And as a result, it's been able to be adapted to a wide range of experiences, and that's ultimately what consumers fall in love with. It's the experience, not any particular element of it such as the consistency of the user interface - that's a component. Consumers may have a strong emotional reaction to having a first-class Gmail client, if that's where they're living their lives."
Divvying up the joy
Variation of implementation is no stranger to the iPhone, added Rubin, especially with respect to all the games that don't have to follow a standard usage model. In fact, if they did, they wouldn't be unique and valuable. Individual PC games over the last three decades have had highly stylized usage models; when they look and feel like Windows, frankly, they're no fun.
"Certainly what Microsoft has tried to do is simplify the experience, and one way they've done that is maintaining more consistency among the various handset brands, setting a higher bar for minimum specifications in terms of screen resolution, camera resolution, etc. But what Microsoft is doing now is expanding the degree of supported hardware to appeal to a wide audience."
Perhaps the increased degree of consistency and attention to specifications that Microsoft has shown with respect to Windows Phone 7 should mean it loves its phones even more than Apple. But maybe it's easier to talk about love as a component in the context of Apple.
Rubin concedes that UX consistency implies a certain degree of forethought, which some may rightly conclude comes from care. But Google, he adds, may be a world leader in forethought. "They're putting more forethought into supporting a wider range of devices and scenarios. You could argue that what they should be thinking about is the end user experience, not what's important to their licensees. Historically, that's where Apple has focused; and increasingly, it's where Microsoft is focusing."
Android remains in a transition period ("maybe one that it will never exit," quips Rubin). Currently, it's adapting lessons learned from the Android 3.2 "Honeycomb" tablet platform to the forthcoming 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" platform, which will tie together both form factors. That's an added element of consistency that Slate's Manjoo may have neglected, says Rubin. "Now that everything is unified on the same software release, [Google] can bring together all of the mobile devices instead of just some of them reaping the benefits of that greater consistency."
Would consistency mandates constitute affection or punishment?
I suggested to Rubin that, if four years ago, Google had published a massive set of software and hardware specifications for how Android phones and apps must look and feel - how buttons must appear, how sliders must work - the degree of consistency the company would have been perceived to enforce would not have evoked feelings of "love," but rather quite the opposite. "Fragmentation is a high-class problem," NPD's Rubin responded. "You need to have a large number of devices out there in order for the issue of them having such significant variation to register with developers. If some of those form factors are shipping in such low volume, then it's not a priority for developers."
Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook, both of which are Android-based, don't rely on Google's services or Android Market, he reminds us. But both manufacturers allow Google's developers to leverage their knowledge in developing for their tablets. This kind of "sub-ecosystem" established by B&N and Amazon speaks to the wide range of Android flexibility, says Google - something never before seen within any Linux-based platform heretofore.
In the end, I asked Ross Rubin, is "joy" - the missing element in Manjoo's story - only a prerequisite for an Apple phone, as opposed to a phone that a guy like me would use. (I can be happy enough using a phone without feeling I haven't received my daily dose of joy.)
"What Apple has been very good at is reinforcing each element of the experience with the other elements," he responds. "The design of the device reinforces the design of the software, which reinforces the design of the retail experience. And it's all a virtuous circle, so that if you're looking for a well-curated experience, something that is torn down to its essentials but executes those essentials with very high quality, then you're going to get a heavy reinforcement of those attributes through the entire Apple product experience. But there's a wide array of experiences. You have to believe that a phone that can execute well on providing video chat between a grandparent and grandchild is going to provide a lot of joy to that grandparent. You can't underestimate the value that compelling content and services have to play."