If you’re an Android user, there’s a chance that earlier this week your phone or tablet alerted you about a new update to its operating system. Yearly system updates are a part of the modern smartphone experience, and like clockwork Apple and Google typically issue them every fall.
The newest version of Google’s Android OS, codenamed Lollipop, is something a little different. Lollipop isn’t just an update; it’s Google’s vision of how we should interact with the Web on our phones, tablets and computers.
In 2007, Google and other members of the Open Handset Alliance unveiled Android. Unlike Apple’s iOS, Android was “open source,” meaning that any cellphone manufacturer participating in the program could put Android onto their devices. Companies like Samsung, HTC and Motorola added their own customizations to the OS that often left no two phones looking or functioning exactly the same way.
Over the years Google has incrementally refined Android, adding standard features like copy/paste and Google Now one dessert-themed codename at a time.
Unlike its recent predecessors Jelly Bean and KitKat, Lollipop represents a major shift in Google’s priorities. Android, for the first time, feels like something that anyone (nerds and non-nerds alike) would want to use.
The way Lollipop looks is the most immediate change you’ll see after updating your phone or tablet. Similar to Apple’s major redesign with iOS 7, Lollipop is lighter, brighter, and more whimsical.
Where Apple’s new look focuses on transparency and layers, Google is betting on a style metaphor it’s calling Material Design. Material Design is built around the idea of treating the virtual space within your smartphone as if it were a physical object.
“What if pixels didn’t just have color, but also depth,” Google’s Vice President of Design Matías Duarte asked at Google’s 2014 developers conference. “What if there was an intelligent material that was a simple as paper, but could transform and change shape in response to touch?”
Android Lollipop slides and shifts as if it were built out of a stack of digital cards. While there is space and movement to Lollipop’s animations, they’re built around a set of physics meant to reflect how you’re interacting with your device. Transitions on the screen are restrained and designed to remind you where things are coming from within the phone. More so than any other version of Android, Lollipop is built to be as simple as it is customizable.
Lollipop’s design sensibilities also come with a definite shift in how Google is letting manufacturers customize Android. While Android is technically still an “open” platform, Google has become more specific about what changes can be made to the OS. Heavy skins, as they are traditionally called, are being toned down in favor of an Android created in Google’s image.
Google has designed Lollipop so that every time you pick up your phone, you’re getting the exact information you’re looking for. Intelligent algorithms prioritize your notifications based on your behavior, for example. Rather than present your texts, emails and missed calls as a uniform block of alerts in chronological order, Lollipop organizes them based on how you’ve responded to those people in the past.
Lollipop is immersive, but it isn’t meant to suck you into your device’s screen. While its playful colors and fluid motion may be a delight to the eye, the system’s top priority is getting you in and out of your device as quickly as possible and giving you the information you were looking for.
The most interesting aspect of Lollipop, though, isn’t on your phone. Google’s commitment to Material Design spans across its entire array of products. Google Drive and Google Docs have been purposely updated with Material Design to look and feel similar to Lollipop. Android Wear watches like the Moto 360 and the Asus Zen feature miniaturized versions of Lollipop’s signature card interface. Polymer, Google’s set of Web tools built using Material Design, work on mobile devices as well as desktops.
Lollipop on your phone isn’t just a new coat of paint; it’s an introduction to the future of Google’s Web.
Charles Pulliam-Moore is an intern at NPR’s Code Switch who has a not-so-secret passion for mobile gadgetry. He tweets about tech, culture and the occasional pocket monster @CharlesPulliam.