Android Intelligence Analysis

How Apple (yes, Apple!) could revive Android's missed opportunity

Android widgets seemed to be on the brink of extinction — but in a crazy twist, Apple's late adoption of the concept could end up bringing them back to life.

Android Widgets - iOS
Google/Apple/OpenClipart-Vectors (CC0)

Android Intelligence Analysis

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Gather 'round, gang, 'cause Granpappy Writerman's got a saucy little story to share.

The other day, y'see, I was sitting and staring at my computer screen — as one does — when a page came along that made my mouth go agape. Agape, I tell you. Agape! And it wasn't just because it was dangerously close to lunch time and I detected the scent of hoagie in the air (though if we're being completely honest, that might've had something to do with it).

No, siree — the main reason was that I had stumbled onto an official Google announcement of a fancy new phone widget for its Photos service...on iOS.

Now, let me remind you: Google Photos has been available on Android for five years. That means Google has had five years in which it could have created and offered a similarly lovely widget for those of us using that platform — its own forkin' platform, in case you've forgotten, and the most popular computing platform in the world — and yet, whaddya get when you try to find a Photos widgets on Android right now?

I'll tell ya what: bupkis. Nada. Nothin' at all, except for maybe an implied "eff you" suggested by the absence of any Photos widget, five years and running — while the iOS version was proudly announced just weeks after that operating system added widget support onto its list of features.

The iOS Photos widget looks nice — as does the also-not-available-on-Android new "recent songs" widget for YouTube Music, not to mention the extra-spiffy new multifunction search widget added into the iOS Google app — but that's not even the point or the cause of my aforementioned mouth-hole agapery (hey, if Google can do all of this, then I can invent a word, damn it). The real issue is that Google has all but given up on the idea of widgets for Android.

But maybe, just maybe, with Apple now supporting widgets for the first time and Google galloping over itself to churn out high-quality offerings in that domain, there's a chance that could change.

The Android widget about-face

It's easy to forget now, but widgets were once an important part of Android. They've been a core piece of the Android puzzle since the platform's earliest days, in fact, all the way back in the ancient Android 1.0 era of 2008.

For a long time, widgets served as a differentiating element — y'know, compared to iOS, where they were pooh-poohed as an unnecessary and "inelegant" extravagance up until extremely recently — as well as serving as an efficiency-enhancing value addition in and of themselves. 'Twas a time, even, when apps were laughed away and lampooned if they didn't include a thoughtfully created widget as part of their Android package. And you'd better believe every one of Google's own apps had a carefully constructed widget of its own.

Somewhere along the way, though, things changed. Google stopped emphasizing the availability of widgets at the platform level, for one, and the company also seemed to stop putting much thought into (or sometimes even supporting, at all) widgets within its own applications. Perhaps not surprisingly, third-party developers followed suit and also mostly stopped caring, and as a result, widgets have slowly but surely started to feel like an occasionally considered afterthought on Android instead of being the integral part of the platform they once were.

Now, don't get me wrong: There are still plenty of exceptional Android widgets out there. But when you download a new Android app, it's anything but a given that it'll have a standout widget associated with it. In my experience, it's often more the exception than the rule that a third-party app will offer a widget at all these days. Quite frankly, I'd been wondering for a while if and when we'd see a new Android version come along that'd quietly drop support for widgets altogether — a move that'd be slightly shocking if this weren't, erm, Google we were talking about.

I mean, think about it: When was the last time we saw any evolution in the Android widget experience? Way back in 2011, with the Android 4.0 release, Google introduced support for scrollable, resizable, and interactive widgets on phones and redesigned most of its own homemade widgets to take advantage of those new powers. It represented a huge leap forward from the previous Android widget experience and opened up a whole new world of productivity-boosting possibilities, with apps suddenly allowing you to find and interact with specific info on your home screen instead of simply showing you a static view.

Android Widgets ICS JR

The last great Android widget innovation — in Android 4.0, a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich.

In that same Android version, Google moved widgets from being out of sight and often out of mind and made 'em a permanently visible part of the app drawer — existing as a separate tab alongside all the standard app icons.

Android Widgets ICS App Drawer JR

Widgets in their (very short-term) high-profile home, right inside the app drawer.

That was 2011. What's happened since then? Well, two years later and without explanation, Google yanked widgets out of the app drawer and put 'em back into an out-of-sight, out-of-mind long-press menu. And the actual widget framework has basically remained stagnant, without any more meaningful adjustments, advancements, or changes in what it's able to accomplish, ever since.

And now more than ever, it's painfully clear how much we've missed out on as a result.

The Android widget revival?

There's no denying it: With Apple's latest iOS release this year, we're seeing what could have been here in the land o' Android — what could have been, that is, if Google hadn't given up and effectively stopped caring about Android widgets a whopping nine years ago.

Just look at what's happening in iOS right now: Widgets on an iPhone can be stacked on top of each other so you can place multiple widgets in the same space and then swipe between 'em for space-efficient access. Apple device-owners can even enjoy a special Smart Stack widget that automatically predicts what widget is likely to be most useful at any given moment — based on typical app usage for the time of day or location — and then brings that widget to the top of its swipeable stack. And developers big and small are scrambling to come out with their own efficiency-enhancing widgets, many of which look pretty darn incredible. Some are even from apps that have long existed on Android without any attempt at widget support there (here's lookin' at you, Rachio and Pocket).

Now think about if Google had been actively developing the Android widget experience all this time instead of more or less abandoning it after 2011. We could have this same sort of stuff — and so much more! — at our fingertips right now. One can only imagine the reams of interesting ideas Google and the companies around it might've cooked up over all these lost years.

It's a missed opportunity, without a doubt — but it isn't too late. While it's silly that it'd take Apple's embrace of widgets to kick Google back into gear, we've certainly seen similar things happen before. Widgets are suddenly a high-profile, buzzworthy feature on iOS, and if there's one thing that motivates Google to act fast, it's avoiding the perception that its operating system has fallen behind the curve in some significant measure.

And all sour grapes — er, maybe sour apples? — aside, at the end of the day, the end result is all that matters. As with almost every instance of cross-platform copycatting that we see 'round these parts, a competitor embracing an idea and pushing it forward only makes everyone else step up their game, catch up with what's happening, and ideally find new ways to make their own products stand out further. And that means we, the humans and/or frog-person hybrids that actually use these devices on either side of the operating system spectrum, end up winning in the end.

As we speak, developers — including, ahem, Google — are hard at work devoting their attention to thoughtful widget creation. Mainstream phone-owners are in the midst of becoming aware of what widgets can do for them, thanks to Apple's ongoing marketing and promotion. Now it's time for Google to pick back up with what it started — with the advantage it had 12 years ago and then squandered by letting it fade away, mostly unattended — and start treating Android widgets as the priority they once were.

I'll tell ya what, Google: Do this, and we'll all pretend not to make the connection between Apple's adoption of the feature and your sudden renewed interest in it after all these years. Deal?

The truth is that reviving Android's widget system and turning it back into an asset would be an objectively smart move for Google to make. It'd bring fresh value to the Android ecosystem, create extra money-making opportunities for developers, and provide new productivity-boosting possibilities for us humble Android phone owners. It might be playing catch up instead of leading the way at this point, but even so, it's better to do that than to give up entirely.

Your move, Google. We're waiting — and we have been for a good, long while.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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