Matias Duarte, the head of user experience at Android, aims to change the way developers design for the platform.
LAS VEGAS — Matias Duarte is a man who loves a challenge.
It’s part of why he took his current job at Google, leading the Android operating system team as head of user experience. In a nutshell, he is the man tasked with making sure Android looks, feels, and performs as smoothly as possible. And it is not an easy job.
“Designing an open mobile operating system — and doing it really well — that’s never happened before in human history,” Duarte tells me, leaning forward in his chair and sipping from a cup of tea as we spoke in the garish hallway of a hotel on the Vegas strip earlier this week. He is visibly excited, seemingly up to the task when I note how big the challenge is. “I’ve done the closed thing before,” he says, referring to his days at Palm working on the webOS operating system. “And I’d like to think I did it well.”
Logistically speaking, his new gig is a nightmare. Not only does the Android team have to engineer adroit, adaptable code, but they must serve third-party developers who are trying to create apps for a constantly updated operating system. This second task has been especially difficult in the wake of the most recent Android code overhaul, version 4.0, also known as ‘Ice Cream Sandwich.’
Duarte wants to remedy this. On Thursday, Google launched Android Design, a web site created specifically to help aid developers in the creation of applications for ICS. The site offers a comprehensive visual to third-party application developers, giving suggestions on everything from how to implement different visual elements to overall back-end patterns for the OS itself.
In theory, it will help developers better understand just how the Android team thinks about layout and implementation, while simultaneously giving suggestions to interaction designers on how to maintain visual integrity. Basically, it will help both first-time developers and Android veterans make apps look less crappy.
“We haven’t really had a style guide,” Duarte says. “We haven’t really given you a lot of guidance on how to migrate your application from a phone, perhaps, to a tablet. We’ve done so only by example.”
Which has been a chief complaint of developers whenever another version of the OS is released. Developers are forced to reverse engineer the code from the new version and translate that to the previous version of Android to figure out how to move their app to the new software environment. What’s more, Android averages a new version launch about twice a year. It’s an incredibly fast pace in the mobile world, not to mention a pain in the ass for mobile developers who just want to keep their apps up to speed.
cross dozens of manufacturers and hundreds of different types of devices, each with different hardware specifications and sizes. These device makers are free to choose the open-source Android as the operating system to run on their myriad different devices. And on each one, Android and its hundreds of thousands of apps must function, and function well.
Duarte hopes this can clean up Android apps, whether they look like sloppy ports from one version to another, or a rough app from a first-time Android developer. So in essence, the site could serve as a starting point for Android newcomers, a way to foster the fast-growing app ecosystem.
It’s the next logical step for the platform. Typically, developers hoping for app store success have launched their programs on Apple’s iOS platform first, with Android eventually coming second in almost an afterthought. Part of this is incentivized by the bottom line. It’s often said that Android apps can’t make you any money, while iOS is the more lucrative for budding entrepreneurs. The other part is due to the platform’s success across the many manufacturers. It’s far less work to account for the handful of Apple’s device screen sizes and hardware compared to the sprawling device portfolio Android manufacturers offer.
Ultimately, it’s about finishing what Duarte started with the latest software release. As the biggest Android overhaul to date, it’s Android’s true coming-out party, what the team considers the first true version of what the Android OS can be.
I’ve lived with an ICS phone for months, and consider the release the best they’ve offered yet. But the challenge now is getting app-makers up to speed, and making the software for the platform look and feel just as good as the stock system itself. Android Design is the first step on that path. And Matias can’t wait to watch it flourish.
“This is the second part of our Ice Cream Sandwich launch,” he says. As this site goes up, I can feel like it’s finished. Like ICS is truly complete.”
Revisit Wired.com next week for the full interview with Matias Duarte