Gizmos

One Underappreciated Android Feature Changed How We All Use Our Phones

The battery usage indicator is one of Android’s lasting achievements.

Hand holding a Google Nexus S with the battery usage indicator on the screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Rob Monk/Android App Guide via Getty Images and Android.

Google’s Android operating system recently celebrated a milestone. Google introduced it to the world 10 years ago on Sept. 23, 2008. Since its debut, Android has become one of the world’s dominant technologies, powering not just smartphones but wearables and connected home devices, too. It surpassed iOS—and crushed other platforms such as Windows Phone and BlackBerry—to become the world’s most popular mobile operating system. Along the way, it hasn’t just influenced what is on our phones, it’s also played a pivotal role in how we use those devices.

Google has developed features, apps, and services that we now take for granted as part of the smartphone experience. One seemingly small feature that has become more significant over the years is the battery-usage indicator. It has empowered users to be more aware of power-hungry apps, pushed app developers to make more efficient software, and helped start the current wave of digital health measures by increasing users’ awareness of their own app usage.

Battery life continues to be an important issue for smartphone users. Ahead of the iPhone XS’ debut, improved battery life ranked first on a survey of most wanted features. Both iOS and Android have introduced low-power mode, battery-save mode, and various smartphone settings in order to help users gain better control of the feature. Tips on how to extend device battery life remain vital knowledge. Without enough juice, a phone is just a very expensive paperweight. The introduction of battery monitors that showed exactly how apps and services sipped device battery profoundly changed the way we use our devices and the way we think of mobile apps. An app that unnecessarily drains battery life quickly transforms from useful to villain.

Android debuted the battery usage indicator in Android 1.6 Donut in 2009. Its purpose was to offer transparency about what apps and services were using the most battery on your phone. That wasn’t necessarily a new idea. CPU usage indicators had been available on desktop for years, giving computer users insight into which programs and system functions might be causing a PC or Mac to run slowly. With Android, Google gave that idea a simplified practical spin for mobile devices.

With the usage indicator, Android users could see exactly which apps were hogging the most battery. It also gave insight into which apps someone used the most: Barring an app running constantly in the background or a bug that meant it was excessively taxing your phone’s systems, the feature was also a relative indicator of the apps you spend the most time in. It was the first time smartphone users could put a number next to their social media or gaming obsessions, and it helped spark increased awareness around overuse. Now, both iOS and Android offer more detailed tools for monitoring your habits and limiting the time you spend in particular apps.

iOS didn’t add its own battery usage indicator until iOS 8 in 2014—a full five years after Android. Before then, only iPhone users with access to iOS’ developer tools were able to check apps’ effects on their device (which, in spring 2014, revealed that Facebook was sapping iPhone users’ battery life). In 2015, the iOS battery usage indicator revealed that, once again, Facebook was eating up smartphone battery life, but the feature has since spotted battery drain issues in apps as varied as Netflix and Fitbit.

By introducing the idea of the battery usage monitor on Android, Google empowered smartphones users with better knowledge of their smartphone habits and greater insight into how apps affect their phone. It also helped push app developers to build robust apps that didn’t unnecessarily waste users’ batteries. It’s a subtle feature that continues to shape our smartphone experience.