Let’s be honest, much as gesture navigation has been around on the Android platform for a while now, the experience remains largely disjointed.
This is both as a result of Google’s mostly hands-off approach to matters relating to the platform in years gone by as well as the usual high-handedness by Android device makers. The latter always come up with their own individual ways of doing things which works if one is locked to a particular maker’s devices but which can be a pain as one transitions from one device to another that may not be necessarily from the same maker.
Google is looking to bring some order with the upcoming new version of its mobile operating system, Android 10. That has been clear since the very first developer preview of the system was released back in March and is cemented in the latest one, beta 5, which is currently seeding to compatible devices.
A blog post from Google’s VP of Engineering, Dave Burke, while announcing the availability of Android Q beta 5, notes the need to have “a standardized Android gestural navigation for users and developers”.
Since, as was the case with the last Android Q beta release, beta 5 is limited to Google’s own Pixel smartphones, those that have their devices enrolled in the programme will get the update immediately (if they haven’t, already) over the air. This will thus allow them to test-drive a few new features that have made it before Google officially rolls out Android 10 in a few months.
As part of the new tweaks made to the gesture navigation system, swiping diagonally from the bottom-left or right corners of a device will result in the Google Assistant being launched.
[For those not in the know, screen pinning is a feature that allows users to lock/limit their device usage to just one app, the one that is currently active until it is unlocked – either using a PIN or biometric features like the fingerprint.]
By introducing a new gesture navigation system in Android Q, Google broke a couple of things whose entire operation was pegged on the functionality of the Android navigation buttons as we used to know them – at first the old trio and, lately, the two (or even one depending on what device you’re using) buttons. Since the new gesture system didn’t rely on any buttons at all, what happened to features like screen pinning? That has been a headache not just for users trialling the new operating system but also Google itself. While it worked on fixing screen pinning, Google simply removed the feature from Android Q.
In beta 5, it’s back and it works pretty much the same way but with a slight twist that matches the buttonless arrangement: a simple swipe up and hold unpins an app.
In order to avoid confusion, which has been the order of the day for those who’ve been trialling Android Q, apps that rely on navigation drawers, like Gmail, the Play Store and others, have been a mixed bag, experience-wise. This is because since the system relies on a single back navigation gesture, that same gesture is also the gateway to accessing navigation drawers built into apps.
So, in essence, where one just wants to access certain parts of an app, they end up being taken one step back. To avoid that confusion, Google is introducing a “peek” feature in Android Q beta 5.
What this does is that instead of an action being implemented straight away, a user gets a sneak peek of what’s going to happen. For instance, instead of directly being taken to a drawer or being surprised by going one step back or being taken back to your device’s home screen, the default “back”, when one places their finger on the left-most side of the display, they’ll get a “peek” at what is about to happen. In this case, that can be a drawer opening in the event of a quick swipe or triggering of the back gesture in the event that the finger stays much longer.
That doesn’t sound exactly easy but hey, every gesture navigation usually has a learning curve and this is Android 10’s so get in with the programme. Of course, it’s also possible to disable these all out gesture navigation options and go with the two-button navigation arrangement that dominates in Android 9 Pie or go all out and stick with the tried and tested 3-button arrangement of old.
All these gesture navigation updates work as indicated above with an assured level of consistency only on Google’s own Pixel launcher. If you’re the adventurous type who has a custom setup on your device involving a third-party launcher and what have you then they may not work. They’re broken. Google knows as much.
“Starting in Beta 6, we’ll switch users to 3-button navigation when they are using a custom launcher by default,” Burke notes.
Other features beyond gestures that have made their way to beta 5 include splitting of notifications so that users have an easier time identifying which apps are actively sending alerts and which ones have been “silenced”.
Other features are mostly device specific and those of us who don’t own or use Google’s Pixel smartphones are unlikely to experience them. Where we will encounter them, like on Android One devices, it will probably have something to do with the dark boot animation (if you’ve ever hated that white one) as well as the search bar matching the colour of whatever wallpaper setup you have going (something that third-party launchers have been doing so well for so long).