Why can't Google get mobile UI right?

By | December 19, 2011
I use a mobile phone as my primary OS for private use since my son took over my laptop. I've recently moved from Symbian to Android, and I can't say that I'm completely satisfied. But the surprise is, the one web platform that makes the Android experience so miserable is… Google.

Let me explain. Yes, I do like the greater selection of apps. That was a key reason for making the switch. I also like the control I have as a user over a rooted OS, and I like (finally!) having GPS available. Even online banking looks great – I've found homebanking apps that work, and even the web UI is usable (big surprise, since banks are usually one of the last to catch on).

So why is Google so unusable? Perhaps due to several reasons, the biggest ones being:

1. Very limited mobile functionality. If I use my phone as my primary client, I expect to be able to interact with the functions I'd use most often on a desktop. This includes sharing websites, writing email, performing financial transactions, and keeping on top of notifications. So: why doesn't Google reader let me share articles with a comment? Why can't I page through my inbox via ajax loading when I reach the end of the page? Why doesn't Plus allow me to add a link to a website and have the article preview show up? Why can't I mention people in plus using the + sign? Why can't I filter content by circle, feed, category, or group? A mobile user is not necessarily only interested in triaging information, but also in light interactions!

2. Very bad stylesheets for desktop client. So when a website doesn't cooperate, I use a browser with a fake user agent (i.e.pretend to be firefox) to force desktop client loading. This gives me the full functionality that I want. Now, with exception of online forums runnung certain ancient fixed-width stylesheets, most sites render in a readable way: columns don't take more width than my little smartphone screen. Not the case with Google sites. You'd also have thought that the new "fat-finger" design and icons make it easier to click with a touchscreen – nope, it's actually harder. Compare all the zooming and non-clickable "fat-finger" buttons to other sites, where having text links makes the browser recognize it as text and let me click, and have stylesheets that actually render the full functionality in a legible way, and I start to wonder what happened. Fixed width websites are a thing of the past!

3. Location services. I want to leave location services turned off unless I'm actually interested in posting them. For example, I don't particularly want my location to be checked in on Plus constantly, but if sharing a picture of a historical landmark I'd be more inclined to do so. Have you tried starting a Google app with location services off? It crashes half the time. And that is quite annoying.

4. Notifications. I'm missing all of the typical desktopish notifications. Email is fine thanks to IMAP support which lets me use a usable program letting me use an alternate interface, but everything else either marks things pauschal as read and does not pop up a notification, or alerts me on every last uninteresting piece of spam. (Recurring theme: provide better information filters!)

5. UI element positioning. This may seem obvious, but I do expect a button at the bottom of a form. I don't like having to scroll to the top to hit "back" or "post". Most other websites seem to get this right…

I sure hope there's a better answer than "please install opera 2 for browsing Google sites, and use any other browser for the rest of the web". (Amazingly, Google does have a proper stylesheet that renders usably in ancient versions of opera. Cheers to the standard browser on my old Symbian.) No. That's just not good enough.

/cc +Vic Gundotra 

14 thoughts on “Why can't Google get mobile UI right?

  1. Sophie Wrobel

    +Armin Grewe Sharing from Reader does work. But it only posts a link, it doesn't embed the post with a preview the way sharing from Reader does on the desktop UI. And that isn't quite as pretty.

    The +Name also only partially works. I do get that popup and can click on the name – it fills out in the text box, but does not add the person to the shared list. It also leaves the name non-linked after I post.

    As for filter by circle, finally found it! 🙂 Thanks for the hint that it exists – it was rather hidden in some sub-menu. I also found the notifications part, but it constantly tells me error trying to save, and the default settings (don't notify on anything) render it rather useless.

  2. Armin Grewe

    May be I'm missing something, but quite a few of the things you complain about in 1) I can do on my Android phone without any problems.

    Sharing from Google Reader with comment? I click on the share button, select the app I want to share with and then add/edit the text. I can post the link to e.g. G+ or Twitter with my own comment.

    Mentioning people via +Name in G+ works in both entries as well as comments. You type + and then start typing the name, same as on a desktop browser.

    Filter by circle in G+? Go to the circles, select the circle and then the "posts" tab. Has been there for ages.

  3. Sophie Wrobel

    I don't expect things to be identical. I don't think a small screen will ever replace my coding workspace. But I do expect to be able to do all the stuff id normally do in a web browser with few exceptions. Commenting and sharing and resharing are some of those, as is following notifications, (think: what wouldn't you want to have to save for later?) And I expect the most useful functions to not only be present, but be available on the main ui in a prominent position. Even banks have figured it out and put the login div at the top of the mobile page and let you do transfers, not just view account balances.

    Further, from what I know mobile phones are the preferred primary computing device in Africa.If they can manage tailored mobile UIs, why can't a US company?

    +Leander fruhmann I can't work with a tablet. reason bring the screen size, my son interferes once the screen is larger than 3" (I do have a tablet, and its harder to use with him around). I'm also running the latest version of gingerbread, so I doubt its an update issue. And google does have a problem with wysiwyg text boxes on mobile if i use any browser other than ancient opera – interestingly only google, my blog and all non-google websites do render a plain text input or the wysiwyg input element.

  4. Karsten Wegmeyer

    i agree with you +Frédéric Bazin if you reduce an OS to its (monolithic) Kernel.

    It's the opposite of what LINUXer say. They say Linux is the Kernel and they do deliver the OS around. But, you are right, Debian shows us that you only have to switch the Kernel to BSD to convert a Debian Linux to a Debian BSD. You can reduce an OS to it's kernel if you want. From my point of view it's the whole environment that has to count in, but both points of view are common. It's a matter of personal preference.

  5. Frédéric Bazin

    +Karsten Wegmeyer I understand from the architecture perspective android looks much less than of an OS than iOS but I still don t see what 's missing.

    Adding device drivers can be done on the linux Kernel when necessary and it's been successfully done many times thanks to cyanogen. But also, I did not see much of iOS kernel extensions on the market.
    Linux is just a component of Android.

    I quite agree with most of your comments but I dont see your point in Android not beeing an OS and especially beeing less than iOS.

  6. Karsten Wegmeyer

    well iOS is a compete OS. Thats why you do have a lot more but a kernel plus a VM. Thats a reason too, why Apps are much more complicated to create. They have to be done low level in Obj-C and you do have to care for the restricted resources.

    Dalvik isn't a complete OS to me, as you can't add Kernel Drivers to the system which is necessary to add features or devices.

    Dalvik is a VM that behaves like an OS and it offers a lot of features of an OS. But it lacks in Kernel extensions, it is a reduced OS – well reduced to the Max for sure – i like Android!

    What i would have liked to see is a OS X being the base of iPhones and Pads. Unfortunately we will see iOS with it's restrictions to become the Desktop OS!

  7. Frédéric Bazin

    +Karsten Wegmeyer I agree that Apple shift to app store desktop raises questions.
    I don't see what feature are missing from Android that iOS has. Can you tell me?
    Also fragment is certainly a burden for writing native/java apps but the impact on web experience should be limited, I suppose.
    I agree that mobile OSes still lack feature to compete with computers though it should not affect web browsing at all. And I am eager to believe that sometimes mobile OS even offer better environment for apps than desktop.

  8. Karsten Wegmeyer

    +Frédéric Bazin i do go with you as the iPad is concerned. I am an Apple User and i am moving anway from Apple. Apple has learned tu use the restricitions of smartphones in making money and they do start to move over those restrictions to the desktops to make there more money too.

    i love OS X as a desktop unix, but with this new Apple company in the background it won't stay the same.

    Android is clearly Linux-Kernel plus a special Java VM orientated to give small Apps a base. It is not e full OS as iOS is or could be.

    Caused by the fragmentation there are too many versions and subversions that all are modified by the OEMs ( if i may call Sony,Samsung , Moto and HTC so). Starting up with ICS there is a new chance to close the gap Sophie mentioned, at least as Pads are concerned. A full featured OS based on Android might be possible – that OS must be much bigger though.

    We will see what future may show up. If you do look for such a combination today the Atrix is in fact a solution ( i.e. with a full featured Firefox and i.e. an HD TV as Monitor). There are even people who showed that you can install and realy use Ubuntu on an Atrix.

  9. Frédéric Bazin

    +Karsten Wegmeyer I thought like you before. But it seems to me that Sophie is making reasonable demands.
    The issue is not the device but the prejudices of mobile web and app developers, i.e. It's not worth wasting time implementing full feature mobile experience because every users should have a desktop. Also see my comment about IPad, 9 inch display but still the same restriction as a mobile phone !

  10. Karsten Wegmeyer

    well the answer is quite simple: A Smartphone with a 3.x or 4 inch Display isn't a Desktop at all and it can't be one. When you try to move over, you have to adopt your Usage too. You can't leave a Desktop and expect a by far smaller device to act identically, if you ask for my oppinion!

    Android might not be your choise. Well there still is WebOS, there is iOS and you might use Windows Phone. But all of them stay what they are. Small and restricted portable devices.

    When you are interested in a portable Desktop Motorolas Atrix and the Lapdock might be a solution to you. I never used the Webtop-Feature myself, but i read of many people liking to use it as a Desktop-Replacement having Android with them when they move around and having Webtop with the Lapdock when they intend to work.

  11. Frédéric Bazin

    Very interesting review, I had accepted the fact that advanced feature were bound to computers and did not dare fighting to go 100% mobile. You are right , there should be no compromise.

    I just checked IPad version hoping to find better alternatives as screen format should allow full featured apps.
    It's not better or even worse. With G Reader I can only share through email.

  12. Sophie Wrobel

    Sigh. I can't edit posts or comments either. Small corrections (correcting the autocorrect, changing a single number in a spreadsheet, etc) would have been expected and a fairly common use case too.


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