Google's flat Android plan is not just about Apple

Whisper has it that Google's engineers are considering a "flat" version of Android following Apple's huge success with its own flat OS, iOS 7.

Google's flat Android plan is not just about Apple

[ABOVE: Skeumporphic a-gone-gone.]

Flattering flat

Perhaps the biggest sign of Google's flattering intent is seen in the new Gmail for Android app as reported by Droid Life. While this offers a few new features in addition to being flat, it seems this won't be the only flat design decision by Android's UX teams. Recent images suggest Android manufacturers are moving to embrace flatter user interface designs, while an image circulated on Twitter this morning suggest this flat UI may become part of a future Android version.

Google's Holo design style with its use of white spaces and condensed typefaces was designed for flat simplicity meaning it could be seen as a little unfair to see Google's flat direction as inspired by Apple's design decisions. It is certain some will see it that way, given the growing evidence that suggests the depth with which Google respects Apple's design mobile decisions.

For example:

  • Google's reaction to the 2007 iPhone (according to Android team member, Chris DeSalvo) was to say "We're going to have to start over".
  • Documents released during the current Apple vs. Samsung trial show that before Apple launched the iPhone Google's vision for Android was a simple Java-based button phone which would not support a touch screen.

Adoption of flat user interfaces simply follow historical precedent, in 2012 (shortly after the departure of iOS chief, Scott Forstall) ex-Apple staffer, Justin Maxwell, wrote: "So long, and thanks for all the wooden, scotch-taped, leather-stitched, linen-backed fish".

Maxwell is now the UX lead at Google.

Tomorrow's people

While it is easy to consider it as Apple imitation, Google is simply following a need to de-clutter user interfaces. Apple may have hit the headlines when it fired Scott Forstall and went flat, but Microsoft and Google have also been working toward a cleaner look in the UI in recent years.

Google's apparent plan to deploy a flatter interface in its mobile OS should be seen as tacit approval for Apple's work to put users at the center of the mobile experience.

User interfaces won't be defined by what you see on the display forever, of course. Voice and gesture recognition will become part of the user interface equation -- this absolutely makes sense when the challenge of developing logical user experiences for wearable devices really takes off.

The implications suggest the user interface on all devices will migrate to different paradigms. The challenge in developing interfaces based on mixed metaphors (touch AND voice AND gesture) will be that of developing sophisticated controls that remain logical, elegant and intuitive to users.

In order to achieve this user interface design has no other direction in which to flow: it has to become simple, uncluttered, flat. It must not occupy too much space or demonstrate too much weight -- touch becomes part of a wider holistic user experience and the visual OS needs to be quickly understood within a limited attention span. Images will only tell part of the UX story.

This means Google's move to follow Apple to deploy flat user interfaces in Android isn't just design flattery, but an essential step to prepare today for tomorrow's user interface innovations.

What isn't clear is who will introduce those innovations first.

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