In mid-October, a big yellow truck pulled into the Google campus and parked outside Building 44, the home of the Android team. A couple of dozen frenzied Googlers swarmed the vehicle and pulled out its freight: a huge, cartoonish statue of the Android “bug Droid” in the guise of an ice cream sandwich.
The statue marked another milestone for Google’s mobile OS. Every time the Android team releases a new version, Google installs a physical manifestation of the OS’s code name on the lawn outside its office. Android’s code names are all variations on a theme—desserts in alphabetical order. Android 1.5, released in 2009, was the occasion for the first statue, a cupcake. In just two and a half years, Building 44’s lawn has been graced by desserts representing successively better implementations of Android—from donut, through éclair, frozen yogurt, gingerbread, honeycomb, and now Android 4.0, ice cream sandwich.
The statues, a typically Google-y employee morale booster, tell a misleading story about Android. There is little that’s fun-loving, quirky, or emotionally engaging at Android’s core. The dessert-themed codenames paint a picture of coherence. But this is Android’s most conspicuous shortcoming, and ice cream sandwich only exacerbates the problem. Google’s OS is the brainiest, most powerful mobile software on the market today. But it’s got no heart, and no apparent theme. An operating system is supposed to be the face of a machine—its purpose is to paint a friendly, easy-to-use visage on an otherwise incomprehensible device. In ice cream sandwich, Google’s designers worked very hard to give Android a facelift. They’ve done some fine work, but Android is still neither very welcoming nor very coherent.
I’ve been using Android 4.0 for almost a week on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, a sleek new phone that Google designed as the flagship device for its latest OS. In many ways, the Galaxy Nexus and Android 4.0 come together to form the most powerful smartphone ever built. I found the phone to be amazingly responsive, and it offers a number of out-of-this-world, next-generation features. For one thing, you can unlock it by face: The first time you use this feature, the phone will study your face for a few minutes; from then on, you just look at your Nexus to start it up. There’s also a feature called Android Beam, which lets you send information to other Android phones over a near-field-communication chip. (You need two NFC-enabled phones running the latest OS to test this feature, so I couldn’t do it.) And Android is pushing deeper into the cloud than all its rivals. When I signed into the phone with my Google account, it had access to all my bookmarks from Chrome, the 30 gigabytes of music I’d previously uploaded to Google Music, and all of the photos I’ve got stored on Picasa’s Web albums. Android’s facility with the cloud isn’t new—this has been a feature since the first version—but it’s still the best reason to use the OS.
Google’s overriding aim, in ice cream sandwich, wasn’t to add new features but to make Android’s current features easier for people to find and use. Virtually every screen has been redesigned, and almost always for the better. Google has refined some of the most basic parts of the OS, including how you get from app to app and how you find features in each app. Ice cream sandwich also features a new system font, Roboto, which Google designed in-house. I loved the font; it made everything in Android easier on my eyes.
Matias Duarte, Android’s chief designer, recently told the Verge’s Joshua Topolsky that Android’s redesign was inspired by a round of in-depth “ethnographic research” into how real people use the OS. The research highlighted a persistent problem with Android: The OS was too complicated. Users suspected that they could do a lot more with their phones if only they could learn how, and the complexity left people feeling empty about their devices. “With Android, people were not responding emotionally, they weren’t forming emotional relationships with the product,” Duarte said. “They needed it, but they didn’t necessarily love it.”
This sounds like a stupid complaint about a phone, a device that is supposed to help you get stuff done rather than try to be your BFF. But I suspect that what people mean when they say they don’t “love” their phones’ OS is that they don’t understand it. Is Android trying to be elegant, like the iPhone OS? Does it want to be starkly minimalist, like the beautiful Windows Phone? Does it have its own, completely different take on the mobile interface? I can’t tell. Like previous versions of Android, ice cream sandwich doesn’t settle on an aesthetic: As you go from app to app, everything about the design changes. Its phone dialer and settings page are minimalist, all stark lines and colored text on a black background. But the new People app (a contact list) and the calendar have shaded backgrounds, colored text, and cutesy icons.
Android’s problem isn’t just aesthetic. It’s also functional—ice cream sandwich still doesn’t do a great job of showing off all that it can do. Two years ago, I criticized Android for its reliance on hidden menus: In many apps, key functions could only be activated by hitting a button that exposed new buttons. While ice cream sandwich does away with most hidden menus, it adds a bunch of new, confusing interface elements. In Android’s new notifications tab and multitasking pane, for instance, you swipe your finger across an item from left to right to get rid of it. It’s a handy gesture, but it’s not universal. Swipe a contact in the People list and, instead of deleting the contact, you go to a different tab. Swipe an email subject line in your inbox and nothing happens.
Even Android 4.0’s most-impressive new features don’t feel like they’re part of a well-thought-out vision. The facial unlocking worked well—the phone was mostly able to recognize my face. But the feature also felt pointless and gimmicky; Android already offered several other ways to let me unlock my phone, including by sliding an icon, typing in a pin, or setting a password. Why add another way? How is this feature supposed to improve my experience with the phone?
I don’t want to sound too negative: Ice cream sandwich represents a great improvement for much of Android, and I think it’s a credible rival to the iPhone and Windows. But of the three major smartphone operating systems, Android is still by far the most confusing. It’s also the least likely to inspire joy.