U-turns ahead: 10 times Google has flip-flopped with Android

Has any platform undergone as much back-and-forth change as Android?

Google Android Flip Flops
Credit: Wikimedia/Smurrayinchester

Now you see it; now you don't.

As any Android fan can tell you, Google's become a bit notorious for changing its mind about Android features over the years. The company has a history of launching new concepts or ideas, promoting them as the way of the future -- and then, a short time later, casually flip-flopping and going back to the way things were before.

I'm not even talking about the semi-frequent axing of standalone Google apps. I'm talking about broad ideas introduced to the platform and then reversed soon after.

With a fresh about-face being added onto the list just this week, I thought it'd be a fine time to look back at some of Android's most memorable U-turns.

Shall we?

1. "We're going to put all your browser tabs in the Overview list!"

With 2014's Android 5.0 Lollipop release, Google made a bold move: It took the ability to jump between browser tabs out of the actual Chrome app and put it into the system Overview (aka Recent Apps) list instead. Each browser tab would look like its own app or process, we were told, and would make sense alongside all the other apps and processes in a single system-level place. We'd get used to it!

Only we didn't. For most people, having tons of tabs mixed in with apps and countless other cards made things more difficult to manage -- and only added to the cluttered and confusing nature of the then-new Overview interface.

This week, Google seems to be admitting the move was misguided: The company is in the midst of rolling out an update to the Android Chrome app that eliminates the option and brings tabs back into the browser for everyone.

2. "Hangouts is going to be Android's single default messaging client!"

After a long and confusing journey, Google finally got its act together in 2013 and came up with a single unified messaging app for Android. Hangouts would be the "single communication app [for] users to rely on," a Google exec said at the time. It'd handle instant messaging, SMS-based texting, and even Internet-based audio and video calls.

At last! Android's rusty old Messaging app was honorably discharged, and Hangouts started to serve as the platform's default messaging application. Until about two years later, that is, when Google Messenger came along and took over the default spot -- splintering things back into a muddled messaging mess.

And that, of course, was only the beginning.

3. "Android tablets are going to have their own specialized interface!"

In 2011, Google held a splashy event at its headquarters to introduce a new era for Android. It revolved around the release of Android 3.0 Honeycomb and a newfound focus on optimizing the platform for tablet use.

Honeycomb established a totally reimagined interface for Android on tablets, with key functions like navigation buttons, notifications, and the app drawer living in corners of the screen in order to provide easy two-handed access. It was a dramatic departure from the standard Android UI and was designed to let the operating system take full advantage of the larger screen space.

Android Honeycomb Tablet UI

The tablet-specific UI was unceremoniously dumped before long, however, when Google's Android 4.2 Jelly Bean brought a more traditional phone-like setup back to tablet screens -- with "consistency and usability" being cited as the driving reasons for the reversal.

At that point, Android's notification panel remained split into two separate parts on tablets -- a configuration that would stick around until 2014's Android 5.0 Lollipop release, when the tablet-based panel finished its transformation and became a single pulldown like its phone-based counterpart.

4. "Widgets should go in the app drawer!"

The Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich era of Android was all about taking the simplification introduced in Honeycomb -- the moves to eliminate hidden commands and make the operating system more intuitive -- and bringing those same concepts to phones in a way that made sense for the smaller screen.

Part of that effort involved moving the option to add home screen widgets from an out-of-the-way and hidden long-press menu into the main app drawer, where it'd be plainly in sight -- with widgets existing right alongside all the regular app shortcuts. The idea was to create a single place for finding everything that could be added onto your home screen. It seemed to make an awful lot of sense.

Android Widgets App Drawer

But it lasted for only a brief two years: Without explanation, Google yanked widgets out of the app drawer and put them back into their former long-press menu with 2013's Android 4.4 KitKat release.

5. "The app drawer should scroll horizontally!"

Android's app drawer actually scrolled vertically -- up and down -- all the way through the platform's Gingerbread era. Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich introduced a horizontal scrolling drawer, where you'd access additional pages by swiping side to side instead.

Things stayed that way up through an update released alongside last year's Android 6.0 Marshmallow OS, when Google decided it was right before and went back to a vertical scroll.

Déjà vu much, Monsieur Marshmallow?

6. "We're going to put widgets on the lock screen!"

Lock screen widgets were all the rage when they came onto the scene with 2012's Android 4.2 Jelly Bean release. Widgets were useful on the home screen, after all -- so why not also make them available one step higher?

Android Lock Screen Widgets

By Android 5.0 two years later, lock screen widgets were but a mere memory. And in this case, I don't think too many people were choked up over the change.

7. "The Contacts app is going to be called People!"

In Ice Cream Sandwich, Google curiously renamed Android's Contacts app to People -- confusing countless people who couldn't figure out where their contacts had gone.

With Lollipop, the company had second thoughts and quietly traded the "People" name back for "Contacts."

Ah, People. We barely knew ye.

8. "Android is going to have its own native video editor!"

The inclusion of a native video editing app starting with 2011's Honeycomb release was a big deal for Android -- especially since there weren't many great third-party options for that function at the time (and also since, you know, That Other Mobile Platform™ had gotten its own high-profile native editing client the year before).

But Google's Movie Studio app seemed to be abandoned pretty much immediately after its birth. The app never got much in the way of updates or improvements, and after shipping sporadically with Android devices through 2012's Nexus 4 phone, it just kind of silently evaporated -- never to be replaced or discussed again.

9. "Bottom tab bars are bad, mmkay?"

Design can be a fickle thing, and Android is certainly no exception. Google's Material Design brought a distinctive and consistent visual language to the platform starting in 2014 -- but this year, things took a surprising turn.

Initially, Material Design had actively discouraged the use of bottom tab bars -- the iOS-like rows of commands that appear at the bottom of the screen within an app.

This was no subtle suggestion, either; Google's official design guidelines were adamant about the platform's stance on the bars:

Google Android Bottom Tab Bars

But something changed. Over the past several months, bottom tab bars started appearing in Google's own Android apps. And sure enough, this spring, the company's design guidelines were updated to encourage the use of bottom-dwelling boxes in Android applications.

"Bottom navigation bars make it easy to explore and switch between top-level views in a single tap," the documents instruct.

Well, all righty, then.

10. "All Android devices will be encrypted -- period!"

Google made a lot of noise about requiring all new devices to be encrypted starting with its Android 5.0 Lollipop release. It was a significant proclamation that got a good amount of attention when it was announced.

But then, once Lollipop was out in the wild, people started noticing something strange: New devices were shipping with the software and without encryption. Google had apparently backed away from its decision -- as a result of "performance issues on some partner devices," as the company eventually explained.

D'oh.

Google did come back around to this one, though: The mandatory encryption requirement crept back into Android's guidelines with last year's Android 6.0 Marshmallow release.

So what gives?

Looking back through all these instances, it's hard not to wonder what's going on -- why Google so frequently goes back and forth in an almost random-seeming manner with relatively significant decisions about how its platform works.

The answer, best I can figure, is actually quite simple: Google is Google. Within Android and without -- and for better and for worse -- the company has always shown a willingness to try things and then change course a short time later if it decides it doesn't like the new direction.

Google Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer acknowledged the trend during my chat with him on my Android Intelligence podcast earlier this year.

"From a product devopment perspective, I think it's a great thing to be able to experiment and try new things and see what works [and] what doesn't," he said.

He went on to note that too much back and forth can definitely have its downsides -- namely on consumers who just want things to work consistently and without superfluous change.

"We're trying to find the right balance of how to iterate but also provide stabililty so that we're not causing whiplash," he told me.

It's an admirable goal. And who knows? Maybe to some extent, experimentation is better than stagnation -- even if it does come with the occasional flipping and flopping.

Then again, maybe it isn't.

Oh, hell. I can't decide.

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