nexus 7 and the android experience consistency conundrum

“So now the home screen is locked to portrait mode?”

This was one of the first questions in my mind during the first few minutes of using the Nexus 7, which finally arrived yesterday. After a few hours of use, I have to say: I like it. So what’s this about portrait mode them?

I’ve used the original 7 inch Galaxy Tab, running Froyo (Android 2.2) first, then Gingerbread (Android 2.3), which had the UI locked in portrait mode. I own a Galaxy Tab 10.1, which at the moment runs Android 3.x (Honeycomb, apparently to be updated soon to 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich) and in which the home screen UI is locked in landscape mode. (Note: while the Kindle Fire is an Android device, the fact that Amazon has modified it to the degree that they have makes it unsuitable in my viewfor inclusion in a list of “Android tablets”).

Now with the Nexus 7, running Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), the home screen UI is again in portrait mode. Although we have to use “again” carefully here since the original Galaxy Tab was really just the phone OS/UI installed on a larger slate, and not really designed for tablets.

Why does the home screen orientation matter? The fact that the home screen UI is now locked to portrait mode may seem like a relatively minor thing, and it is, but I think it is representative of a larger issue facing Google with Android in general: they need to decide when something is good enough, and stop making major changes for a while.

In the tablet space Google hasn’t really had a Google-branded flagship device before the Nexus 7, so we could chalk up some inconsistency to that. But Google has released phones under the Nexus brand for a while now, and every iteration has been different. I own and have used a Nexus 1, Nexus S, and Galaxy Nexus, and while these are all great devices, and in my opinion the best Android smartphones for each respective generation, every new device with its corresponding new OS has made significant, and often bewildering, UI changes.

“Primary” UI buttons (ie., the equivalent to Apple’s home button) have gone from hardware to software. Their number and functions have changed. Defaults have shifted significantly with each release (even when restoring settings from the same Google account). The store has undergone significant changes and rebranding. Jelly Bean’s home screen by default now greets you with a magazine’like interface to highlight content from your “library,” also a new concept post-introduction of the Google Play store. Under the covers, APIs have undergone a dramatic (and, overall, welcome) improvement, but every release feels somewhat disconnected from the previous by making major changes to what apps are supposed to do.

Now, don’t get me wrong–Android initially -and for years-, from the UI to its APIs, was inferior to iOS in my opinion (and yes, I’ve developed and released software on both), and with Jelly Bean, and the Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 hardware platforms, Google finally has something that is at least up to the challenge, so continued iteration has paid off in that regard. Additionally, an under-appreciated factor in making drastic changes is that Android’s market share on tablets has been tiny, which gives them an opportunity to evolve more quickly.

Android would benefit from less fragmentation of both versions and experience, and a faster update cycle. Part of getting there requires Google to finally settle on the major features of the Android experience and evolve more incrementally in the next few releases. iOS has a real advantage in uniformity of the experience (both in terms of hardware and software) across devices: if you know how to use one iOS device, you know how to use them all. This hasn’t been entirely true of Android devices until Jelly Bean and the Google Play Store.

The wildcard in this are the OEMs. They seem to be addicted to making unnecessary modifications and customizations that add little value and are actually counterproductive in that they invalidate, to varying degrees, the knowledge that a user may have about Android from other devices. Their incentive is actually to make it harder, not easier, to switch to another manufacturer – another advantage Apple has.

With the Nexus 7 and Jelly Bean, Google has a chance to establish a dominant device and experience that could have the effect of forcing the OEMs to see the value in consistency, and over time perhaps this can also trickle over to the Android smartphone space, something that will improve the lives of developers and users alike.

Here’s hoping. :)