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RIP, apps? Google teases the future of smartphone interfaces

A small new menu in Android 11 hints at Google’s big plans.

RIP, apps? Google teases the future of smartphone interfaces
[Image: Google]

Google is here to question the convenience of your apps.

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It’s treason, I know. Apps seemed like the perfect invention of the smartphone era. Want your smartphone to learn a new trick? Just download the app! But the more apps you have, the more you have to manage them, because every app you download is only competent at one thing.

You can see this problem most clearly in the $27-billion-and-growing U.S. smart home market—which includes tens of thousands of connected products, all jockeying for your attention. Your Nest thermostat is set in one app, while your Ring doorbell is checked in another. God help you if you have Ikea or Philips smart lighting, an August smart lock, or a SimpliSafe security system. Because if so, arriving home on a Wednesday night will involve five minutes of juggling between competing apps just to get into your door with the light on.

[Image: Google]

But with the launch of Android 11 beta today, Google is rethinking its operating system to help. In a new area called Controls, all you need to do is long-press your power button, and when you do, you pull up your credit card, any boarding pass, and a slew of smart-home toggles to activate as easily as hitting a switch. With the tap of a button, you can unlock your door or turn on your living room lights—no need to dig inside apps.

“The reason we designed [Controls] . . . we want it to be the place you use on your phone when you need to interact with the physical world,” says Allen Huang, a group product manager at Google who works on the Android UI. “We see this as the digital representation of the wallet and keys you have outside.”

You get that idea of a wallet through the credit card and boarding pass support. And it’s easy to imagine how the Controls area might one day work to unlock the door to your vehicle as your car keys do today. But for the time being, the main functionality of Controls is aimed at the smart home itself.

In the past, Google backed voice as the modality to solve the app/smart home problem. Its Google Home speakers let you activate lights, ovens, and thermostats with spoken commands. Then its Nest Home Hub introduced a screen, which offered a UI of tappable tiles to supplement voice commands. Now, those tiles are part of Controls. In fact, the Google Home team worked closely with the Android team to bring this new feature to phones.

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So why invent voice technologies just to go back to touchscreens? Huang points to ease of use, explaining that in the case of turning on a light, you might do so dozens of times a day; a quick tap makes more sense than a verbal command—especially if it’s 3 a.m. and you just want to change your thermostat without shouting to the Google Assistant. Some research has shown that the total number of voice commands people use regularly may be on the decline following an initial spike after the release of the Amazon Echo in 2014, while consumers haven’t embraced any voice-controlled app as a breakout hit.

In any case, Controls is a good example of what the future of the smartphone interface looks like. Whereas your flashlight was once a standalone app that cost $1 in the App Store, today that’s a built-in feature of the core UI of every phone. In just a few years it became impossible to imagine downloading an app to make the LED on your phone glow, both because the flashlight became so essential, and because loading an app has nothing to do with turning on a flashlight in the first place. Controls is the next logical step in this evolution, offering a way to bypass the entire app UI. Of course, these shortcuts can’t apply to everything in our lives: 1,000 new buttons on our smartphones are no better than 1,000 old apps. But with the right amount of restraint, these shortcuts found in Controls do make for a convincing portrait of our near future, as a way for your digital phone to continue doing more IRL.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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