Android 10 and beyond: Google's most controversial update feels incomplete

Google, as the architect behind the most widely used mobile OS in the world, has a huge responsibility.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in September 2019. It has been republished for relevance.

The tech world moves fast and like clockwork, Google tries to fit it all in Android’s annual update. 2019 was no exception. As people grew more cautious about their privacy, how much time they spend staring at screens, and phone makers explored new avenues to offer users as much screen estate as possible, Google, as the architect behind the most widely adopted mobile operating system in the world, had a huge responsibility. It delivered in the form of Android 10, which addresses a string of new trends and tries to fix what ailed the one before it.

Android 10 fundamentally changes a great deal about Android, but is it enough?

Android 10 fundamentally changes a great deal about Android, but is it enough? Image: Google

An update has no name

Android 10. Yes, it doesn’t have a name that will make you salivate. All the guesswork and analysis pieces have gone to waste. It’s not Android Quiche. It’s not Android Queen of Puddings. It’s 10. Plain and simple. Google is doing away with its decade-old tradition of baptising new Android versions with alphabetical dessert names.

Google says dessert names are not relevant in all the tens of countries Android is present. Therefore, for Android 10, it's adopting a language everyone is familiar with — math.
However, I feel Android’s quirky titles were always a silly and fun practice meant for the OS’ most dedicated followers and geeks. Did regular buyers ever care for what the Android version running on their phone was called?

Representational image.

Representational image.

That wasn’t the only Android 10 feature which has spurred debates, however. The other bit, which has been the centre of criticism is Google’s full-screen gestures which have gone through more than half a dozen revisions since they were first unveiled last year on Android Pie (You see how much better that sounds than Android 9?).

But after using the update’s beta build for over four months and its official public release for two weeks, Android’s most controversial release feels incomplete to me. It’s the first time I’ve hesitated to apply a new Android update on my phone.

Android 10 brings a range of overdue additions, but in my experience, most of them are a constant reminder that Google needed more time to ship this one out.

Life in beta

Arguably, Android 10’s headlining feature is the revamped navigation. There’s no longer a bar at the bottom of the screen holding dedicated shortcuts to key actions. Instead, you rely on a set of gestures to move around — similar to what Apple offers on its iPhone X series and what third-party Android partners have begun to bundle the last year or two.

To return to the homescreen, you will have to swipe from the bottom, swipe up and hold for the app-switcher, and swipe inwards from the left or right edges to go back.

The aspect which has particularly ended up drawing the most attention is the new back system. It depends on the same gesture as a left navigation drawer, a common menu design found on most Android apps. So on Android 10, the left swipe will take you back instead of pulling out the menu.

On top of that, the dramatic change wasn’t introduced until Android 10 was halfway through its beta phrase, giving little time to developers to update their apps. To compensate, Google has included an awkward and inconsistent tap-and-hold gesture which I fail to properly execute more often than not.

There’s also a new gesture to invoke the Google Assistant. The trick is to swipe towards the middle from the left or right bottom corner. If that sounds like a lot of work for your fingers, that’s because it is. The gesture is especially tricky when you’re trying it inside apps. Google should’ve simply replicated Apple’s implementation and allowed users to speak to the Google Assistant by holding the power key.

Digital Wellbeing and Parental Controls on Android Q.

Digital Wellbeing and Parental Controls on Android Q.

The back action isn’t the only fundamental Android feature the new gestures break. The one I’m more infuriated by is that they are not compatible with third-party launchers. When you launch a third-party launcher, Android 10 automatically flips back to the classic three-button navigation bar.

The fact that Google has included all three different sets of gestures in the settings indicates the quandary it is in with them. More importantly, it highlights a lack of commitment and hints that Google may edit it again in the next update.

Has Google considered removing the back gesture from the left side, though?

I have a love and hate relationship with Android 10’s gestures. On one hand, it’s the right step forward and I do like them. On the other hand, I run into its flaws numerous times a day and often switch back to the good ol’ three-button bar just to experience the simpler times.

Joining the dark side still feels very bright

Android 10 also adds an OLED-friendly dark mode that functions as you’d expect. However, even if we put third-party support aside, Google’s apps are still playing catch up.

At the time of writing, apps such as the Google Play Store and Play Music didn’t have a night theme. iOS 13, in comparison, ships with updated in-house apps by default. Plus, dark mode on Android 10 oddly can’t be scheduled for night and day. Third-party apps have come to the rescue but I wish I didn’t have to install an extra app for this.

What’s more, a handful of Android 10’s biggest features aren’t yet quite available. This includes Live Captions — which automatically transcribes any active video and displays subtitles, Slices (announced on Android Pie) — a way for Android to show you relevant quick actions throughout the OS, Smart Reply — which adds three automated responses for every messaging notification, and Notification Bubbles — which will bring Facebook Messenger-like chat heads to all the IM apps.

The features that do work, however, are well executed and usher in a host of thoughtful improvements.

What works on Android 10?

The new privacy setting, for instance, lets you grant location access only when you’re using the app. In addition, Android will now actively tell when an app is accessing your location info in the background.

Further, Google has (finally) figured out share sheets and it’s not a mysteriously slow, cluttered mess anymore. It has managed to make Android’s best feature — notifications — even better. On Android 10, you can prioritise notifications. Therefore, if you get a lot of alerts, you can tell the OS which ones to place at the top of the list. It’s also easier to silence the annoying ones.

Another highlight of Android 10 is something called Project Mainline. With Project Mainline, Google has adjusted a few core components which enables it to push security updates directly through the Play Store. Unfortunately, Project Mainline is an Android 10 feature and not a Play Services update. Therefore, it won’t roll out to older phones.

While performance has been splendid on Android 10, the battery life, at least on my Pixel 3, has taken a toll. Before, my phone was able to generate over three hours of screen-on-time but that has dropped to two on Android 10. This is a little worrying considering the update carries Adaptive Battery optimisations.

Android 10 also doesn’t address a range of long-pending issues. Given that the new gestures force you to use the default launcher, the absence of a universal search is a significant letdown. Plus, you still have to grant third-party apps complete SMS access for automatic OTP verification.

Fragmentation has remained Android’s weakest link since its inception and that’s largely true in Android 10’s case as well. Google has made some progress, though. For instance, the presence of budget phone maker, RealMe in Android Q’s early adopter list is unprecedented and promising.

Android 10 is a crummy first chapter of the OS’ next decade and shows Google is ready to take radical risks to build a mature platform that can keep up with the constantly evolving mobile market. Some may argue that Android — which was once considered the quirky one in the smartphone OS duopoly — is beginning to feel too serious and, well, boring. But this is a bet Google thinks it needs to make for expanding Android’s presence and to build a more comfortable platform for new users.

In the process, however, I wish Google didn’t have to compromise what has brought Android so far.

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