This fall, smartphones are going to be better than they've ever been. That's true every year, but iOS 5 and Windows Phone 7.5 are looking pretty fantastic. What about Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich, though?
We know a little bit about Ice Cream Sandwich, which seems focused on fixing a lot of the nagging issues in the Android world, like unifying its phone and tablet software, reducing fragmentation, and adding support for some neat integrations with other hardware in the real world. But that may not be enough to keep it from getting outclassed by the Cupertino Crusher and the scrappy Seattle upstart. It needs to be awesome.
Make it Pretty
Truth: Android's user interface is not particularly intuitive. That's okay to a point, since Android swaps some of that for greater customization. But consistency's a huge problem. (I have way too many friends who've had an Android phone for months and still barely have a handle on the basics.) For example, within an app, the back button doesn't always do the same thing. Sometimes it takes you up a level within an app, sometimes it switches you to another app you were previously in, and sometimes it just quits to the homescreen. Constantly, accidentally closing out of an app while you're in the middle of doing something is maddening (and it happens all the time, even to advanced users).
WP7 is gorgeous. It's sleek, smooth, modern-looking, and consistent. iOS is beautiful in the same sparse way that Christian Bale's apartment was in American Psycho. Android is neither. It's function over form, and it frequently looks cluttered and disjointed, with parts of the OS completely incongruous with rest of it (although you can install some snazzy home replacements like SPB Shell 3D). Honeycomb's aggro-Tron interface might appeal to nerds, but it's not going to go very far with normal people.
Bottom line, Android needs to look lickable and it needs to be totally consistent.
More Powerful Notifications
Android may have done them first, but iOS 5 is about to do them better. iOS 5's notification system is almost a direct rip of Android's, but it offers more control over how notifications are displayed/removed/opened/sorted. The webOS notifications for the TouchPad offer that same kind of granular control, so Android needs to do better, too.
Let my Android Be Free
If hardware manufacturers are going to insist on foisting their (mostly terrible) overlays on top of Android in an attempt to differentiate their devices, give customers the ability to turn them off and use Android the way Google intended it. At the very least, manufacturers shouldn't be able to replace a stock app with their own. For example, Samsung's music player on the Droid Charge is God-awful. It doesn't even have a widget. Yet, you can't just use the stock Android player (which does have a widget) because Samsung removed it. Ridiculous.
Build More Stuff In
Android, stop making your users rely on third-party apps for features that should be built-in. We're talking basic stuff here, like voice recording or a half-decent calendar widget. There is a reason that third-party launchers (like LauncherPro) are so popular: they are orders of magnitude better than the stock launcher. Same goes for Handcent SMS vs. the stock messaging app. Why not just buy some of these developers so you can include the functionality your phones should have straight out of the box?
Surprisingly, Google's own Gmail app lacks some of the basic functionality that Android's generic Email app has.
You can't save attachments (other than JPEGs)! You can open PDFs, but you can't save them. That's insane. Nobody wants to re-download the same document every time they move out of Gmail. Android is one of the few mobile operating systems that has an open file structure, so why not take advantage of it? Let the people save their attachments. (Correction: As of the Gmail app's most recent update you can save other file types, such as PDF and MP3.)
We Need More Media
The third-party program DoubleTwist gives you kind of an iTunes-like interface for transferring media to and from your Android device via USB or Wi-Fi. Trouble is, it's far from perfect. In fact, it's buggy as hell (especially over Wi-Fi). The sad thing is that it's still the best media-syncing option Android has. On the audio side of things, Google Music Beta has potential, but development has been excruciatingly slow. Google needs a desktop app with powerful, intuitive syncing capabilities. It could even be browser-based, just as long as it works.
Do we even want to talk about video? The video experience on Android is very clunky. It's basic without being intuitive or easy. Make it not suck, or at least on par with the iPad.
More Social Yo
The Google+ app on Android is good. The way it can auto-sync every photo you take to a private folder in the cloud is genius. They should take it further. WP7 Mango will have social networking deeply integrated into Contacts. Not only should Google do the same with Facebook and Twitter—taking what it already does a step further—but it should be the first to really get Google+ deeply integrated. In fact, if it really wants to give Google+ a boost, they should give every Android user an option to open an account with the press of a button.
Lock it Down
Slowing up Android's adoption in the corporate world is the lack of true enterprise-level security. While that's not a big deal for me personally, what Android does need for regular users—not Google Apps accounts or admins—is easy-to-use remote wipe and location tracking powers for lost phones, a la Find My iPhone and Windows Phone's phone tracking feature. Seems like a massive no-brainer for Google, out of anybody. Oh, and Android needs software and hardware data encryption, including SD cards (for devices that have them), and a better system for protecting against malware.
Wrap It Up, B
Android is a fantastic platform in a lot of ways, but it also has weeeeird holes all over the place. Yeah, power features have pushed Android closer and closer to par with iOS, especially for nerds—but with the latest iOS and Windows Phone, Ice Cream Sandwich needs to deliver some major awesomeness. With sprinkles on top.
Image credit: Shutterstock/Tony Oshlick and kaband
You can keep up with Brent Rose, the author of this post, on Google+ or Twitter.