In the grand tradition of tech companies shamelessly imitating one another, the next version of Android includes a straight-up copy of the gesture navigation Apple introduced with 2017’s iPhone X.
With “fully gestural navigation” enabled on a Pixel phone running the Android Q beta, Android’s traditional home, back, and recent apps buttons disappear, and in their place is a narrow horizontal line along the bottom of the screen. Swiping up from that line in any app returns to the home screen, while swiping left or right switches between recent apps. To scroll through a full list of recent apps, you can swipe up and hold your finger in place for a moment.
While Android Q’s new navigation has a couple extra gestures to accommodate the system’s back button and app tray, it’s otherwise a clone of the system Apple established a couple years ago. And that’s too bad, because even the iPhone X’s system could use improvement. With Android Q, Google blew an opportunity to build upon what Apple came up with, and just copied it instead.
Last year, with Android 9 Pie, Google tried to come up with its own unique gesture system, and it was terrible. Home and back still had space-hogging dedicated buttons along the bottom of the screen, and shuffling between recent apps involved holding the home button, then carefully sliding left or right until the desired app scrolled into view.
While Android Q makes some modest tweaks to this system, which remains available as an option called “2-button navigation,” the new “fully gestural” system is a vast improvement. Swiping up for the home screen is easier than pressing a home button, and while the classic Android back button is gone, its replacement is even better: You can now go back to the previous screen in any app by swiping in from either edge of the display. (I will continue to defend the back button as a dead-simple way to get out of menus within apps, and it’s even more effortless now.)
All of which is to say that mimicking Apple’s gestures was the right move, at least to some extent. It’s a better system overall, and it’ll also make switching to a Pixel phone easier for anyone who owns an iPhone X, XS, or XR. It’s just too bad Google didn’t come up with any ways to improve the experience along the way.
The system for multitasking, for instance, could still be a lot better. Even on an iPhone X, the swipe-and-hold that brings up the apps list feels clumsy, and swiping along the bottom edge to switch between recent apps can become disorienting. After enough swiping, it’s easy to forget the order in which your apps are arranged. Part of me yearns for the vertically stacked menu that Android used to recent apps before last year’s Android 9 Pie upgrade, as it required a lot less scrolling to see which apps you’d been using. A gesture system built around this menu would be both distinct from iOS and more useful. And maybe there’s a better way to handle quick app switching with a horizontal swipe, so you have a clearer sense of how those apps are ordered.
Apple itself isn’t innocent of cloning navigation concepts from other companies. When iOS added Notification Center in 2011, it used the same downward swipe that debuted with Android’s notification shade two years earlier. When Apple eliminated the physical home button on the iPhone X in 2017, it was following a trend started by phones with buttonless front panels like Google’s Nexus 5 from 2013. Apple also copied subsequent Android innovations such as raising or tapping the phone to turn on the screen, along with the home screen swipe gesture that had floated around for years in third-party Android apps. Some of the iPhone X’s multitasking gestures even originated on the Palm Pre’s WebOS software in 2009.
What Apple did with iPhone X was combine all those disparate concepts and refine them into a better whole. It enhanced raise to wake by adding Face ID, turned the act of scrolling between recent apps into a single, fluid gesture, and used an upward swipe for the home screen to tie the whole gesture navigation concept together.
Instead of building on that concept with Android Q, Google copied it wholesale. So while users are getting an improvement over what they had, we’re all missing out on the possibility of something even better.