The next version of Android sees a radically different user interface – a ‘material design’ that will slowly make its way into all of Google’s products. Some commentators have complained about a lack of new functions – or that this mimics iOS 8 or this looks like Windows 8 Mobile – but it’s a real representation that design is the only real difference between the three main phone platforms. And is the difference that really matters the most.

So why is it called ‘material design’? Most people in the design industry would call this ‘experience design’: how a product and/or service lets you do what you want to do by interacting with both hardware and software (including apps) – and how those let talk with things from the rest of the world whether that be online data (from Facebook and email to what’s in your bank account) or other hardware devices (such as thermostats).

However, 'experience design’ is a phrase associated very much with Apple, but – more importantly – experience design includes product design and unlike the iPhone maker, Google doesn’t design of the hardware. Google’s material design has been crafted to work primarily on hardware designed by Samsung, HTC, LG et al.

Is ‘material design’ a return to skeumorphic design?

Google says that the way you use its 'material design’ resembles the way you do things in the real world, which some initially pointed out shouting 'skeumorphic design’ like a child trying to win points in class, claiming this as some kind of difference between Android L and iOS 8.

The truth is that they’re both as skeumorphic as each other – neither has what ignorant bloggers were banging on about when they rushed off posts last year about Apple killing 'skeumorphic design’ with iOS 7, i.e. getting rid of visual representations that are pulled from the real world: shaded buttons and green baize backdrops. In truth, this is only one aspect of the skeumorphism; it’s really about digital things mimicking the way things work in the real world, not how they look – those are just visual cues to help you understand how it works.

The design of how Android L, iO8 and Windows Phone 8’s interfaces and apps work are largely skeumorphic. Despite it being quicker and easier to include groups, sending an email is intrinsically like sending a letter. The process of playing music on your Galaxy S5 isn’t very different to playing CDs, cassettes or even vinyl – you just don’t have to root through your discs like an old-skool DJ. Messenger is a conversation, just with people who aren’t there and emoticons standing in for traditional non-verbal communication. Your phone’s camera is a camera.

What is 'material design'?

What Google really means by ‘resembling the way you do things in the real world’ is using visual cues and animation to make it obvious how Android L’s OS and apps work – and to make them feel natural. While the overall look is bright and flat, faux lighting and shadow gives elements depth and make it obvious what you do with them. The way them move mimics real controls: they accelerate, move then decelerate, for example like your car’s steering wheel does when you turn it – so you feel like you’re interacting with real objects. Animation gives meaning to what’s happening, it confirms what you’ve chosen to do is happening and draws attention to what you might want to do next.

What Google’s 'material design' also aims to achieve is a consistent visual and interactive across its Android phones and tablet – plus Chromebooks, TVs and other devices in the future. Google’s design site provides 'best practice’ information for developers, so hopefully Android apps will become more coherent.

The potential digital spanner in the works is that Samsung, HTC et al use their own modified versions of Android – and none have said if they’ll be altering their versions to be a dialect of the new Android design language or keeping consistent with what they have now. Samsung especially likes to pretend it’s never even heard of Android – like a French waiter feigning not to understand English – so it can lull buyers into using primarily Samsung apps, services and stories on Samsung phones and taking an Apple-like cut of the proceeds.

I’d speculate that Samsung and the others will move to versions of Android underpinned by 'material design’ – while still maintaing their own brand identities – to provide consistency when the standard set of Android apps that everyone uses (Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, etc) are given ‘material design’ makeovers.

Why does material design matter?

On the road of phone tech feature development, we’ve kinda pulled into a lay-by. I’ve seen one hardware feature so far this year that’s made me go ‘wow’ – the LG G3’s screen. What differentiates a great phone from a duffer is how easily and intelligently it lets you accomplish a wide range of tasks, many of which are really quite complex when you think about it.

Unless Samsung and HTC and whoever make a mess of their implementation of Android L, Google’s ‘material design’ could be the answer for us iPhone users who find Android devices require too much learning to use – as we’ve been spoiled by iOS.

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