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Google’s new experimental app completely changed how I use my phone

Desert Island transforms your home screen into a text list of the bare essentials—and helped me kick a Twitter addiction.

Google’s new experimental app completely changed how I use my phone

Like a lot of people, I’ve developed a bad habit of checking social media during practically every idle moment. It doesn’t matter if I am at home, at lunch, or out with friends or family. I’ll find a way to glance at Twitter, which inevitably leads to me reading some article or tweetstorm when I really ought to be engaged in the real world.

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Fortunately, I’ve been getting some help kicking the habit from an experimental Google app. It’s called Desert Island, and it replaces the colorful grid of app icons on your home screen with just their names in black text. Your seven must-use apps appear on the main screen, while the rest hide behind a lengthy alphabetical list. By stripping down the home screen to its essentials, Desert Island asks you to reconsider what you’re really hoping to accomplish when you take out your phone.

Desert Island is hardly the first attempt at a minimalist home screen, but it’s the first one that’s worked for me. During a trip to Ann Arbor last weekend to watch the Michigan Wolverines crush Notre Dame in the rain, I used Desert Island exclusively as the home screen on my Pixel 2 XL. By presenting only the apps I really needed—and hiding Twitter out of sight—Desert Island broke my habit of fiddling with my phone at every spare opportunity.

Breaking the pattern

For all the iPhone users out there, one of Android’s most unique features is its support for custom home screens, or “launchers.” If you don’t like the way your phone arranges its apps—maybe the icons aren’t packed densely enough, or you want a more expansive app dock—you can just install an alternative.

Desert Island breaks the app grid paradigm entirely, presenting your essential apps in black text over a white background. The upper half of the screen is mostly blank, except for a readout of the date and time in the top-left corner and a palm tree icon—a nod to its clever name—in the top right.

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Notably, Desert Island does not block or explicitly discourage you from using certain apps. Pressing the palm tree brings up a full app list, and from there you can press a pencil icon to swap out your seven favorites. You can also just ask Google Assistant to open a specific app, and any apps you’ve used recently will still appear in Android’s app switcher menu.

While some app store reviewers have been asking for more friction when opening nonessential apps, to me the current approach is perfect. Most people will likely need more than just seven apps to get by, and complicating the app launching process any further would make Desert Island too impractical for ordinary use.

As it stands, Desert Island introduces just enough friction to make me rethink what I’m doing when I take out my phone. While I still used Twitter on occasion over the weekend—mainly to post a couple of photos and address a handful of notifications—it became more of an intentional decision than a reflex.

Room for improvement

Google can’t take credit for the idea of minimalist app launchers. Earlier this year, I tried one called Siempo, which also tries to restrict app access and make the home screen less colorful. But unlike Desert Island, Siempo explicitly makes you stop and consider your phone use, showing a custom message that you must dismiss before accessing your apps. That extra friction proved overly obnoxious, and I removed the app soon after installing it. Other home screens, such as LessPhone and Decluttered Launcher, have text-driven layouts similar to Desert Island, but they don’t allow for as many essential apps, so they’re harder to use.

Given how well Desert Island has worked for me, it’s too bad Google has relegated it to “experiment” status. The app doesn’t need much improvement, but it’d be nice if the home screen supported dark mode and could show the weather. The ability to uninstall apps from the master list would also be helpful, and I’d like to see some assurance that Desert Island will continue to work properly in future versions of Android.

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The app is just one of several such experiments that Google released last week, all with the goal of curbing screen time. One app, called Post Box, withholds your notifications until specific times of day. Another, called Morph, lets you make different apps available at different times or locations. There’s also a game called We Flip that encourages groups to keep their phones down and a wallpaper called Unlock Clock that puts an oversized counter on your home screen, ticking upward each time you pull out your phone.

Google says these experiments are more about inspiring developers to build digital well-being into their own apps, suggesting that they don’t have much of a future on their own. That said, the company has released some open source code that could help an app maker create something similar to Desert Island. For my sake, and that of other social media addicts, I hope someone takes the idea and builds on it.

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