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Exclusive: Matias Duarte on the philosophy of Android, and an in-depth look at Ice Cream Sandwich

Exclusive: Matias Duarte on the philosophy of Android, and an in-depth look at Ice Cream Sandwich

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I'm sitting in an anonymous, fluorescently-lit office on the Google campus where the Android team is situated, a surprisingly bare setting that seems to clash with the rest of the company's, multi-colored, neo-hippie aesthetic. I'm waiting for Matias Duarte — Android's head of user experience — so that we can discuss the latest version of Google's mobile operating system (dubbed Ice Cream Sandwich), and hopefully get a look at the smartphone the new OS will ship with.

I've just had a long, bad, and very early flight to San Francisco, and I'm a little weary, though one of Google's PR reps has kindly given me a strong mug of coffee from a single-cup machine I'm told costs $10,000. The coffee isn't bad.

When Matias gets to the meeting, he walks through the door like he's in mid-sentence, as if he was handing off some direction to someone just outside the room. He comes in with a smile on his face wearing a loud, patterned shirt that looks perfect for a beach in Hawaii (where he's incidentally headed the next day). Matias Duarte is not a big guy, but he's got a room-filling personality. You can tell when he's fired up, and he's clearly fired up today.

The philosophy of Android

Matias is somewhat of an anomaly in our industry. He led major user interface projects at Danger, Helio, and most notably Palm — where he gave birth to webOS — which were incredibly inventive in both design and functionality. At those companies, he took the lead on the creation, design, and implementation of novel and new mobile interfaces. But he's not just a skilled designer. Matias can talk about his designs in a way that people understand. Not only understand, but get excited about. He's effusive, brilliant, and very focused.

Unfortunately his work at those companies couldn't find a foothold, and he seemed destined to toil away on doomed projects until he arrived at Google last year (he left Palm just after the company was acquired by HP) to work with his old boss from Danger, Andy Rubin.

He sits down at the head of the table. I ask him to start by telling me what's been happening between Honeycomb, his first big project at Google, and Ice Cream Sandwich.

"Honeycomb was kind of that emergency landing."

He starts with a qualifier. "Honeycomb was kind of that emergency landing," he says, "You get there, 'phew, okay survived that,' and when we finished that we said 'what's next?'"

"Coming in and being put in charge of the design and UX for this enormously successful platform that now has years of legacy behind it. It's completely unlike getting behind the steering wheel of a zippy, agile little car. It's more like driving an aircraft carrier." He gestures as if he's pushing a button, "Okay guys, turning left! Are we turning left yet?" His point is that it's a big machine.

"There's a momentum that's in there, and that comes from the magnitude of what we're trying to do. It's a platform, it's got to run on all these different form factors, on these different classes of devices, it's got to have a flexibility designed into it that you don't have to worry about when you're doing a completely integrated device." Matias pulls out a laptop and puts it on the table between us. We're working up to something here.

"You want to be sure that your design ideas will survive, and also allow for customization," he says.

"We're designing something bigger. We're designing a showcase product for people that says 'okay, this is what you could build,' but then we're also designing the Lego system that people build those products out of, and we have to do both of those at the same time. And we can't really cheat and cut any corners and do anything with our product that couldn't build out of this system."

I first saw Honeycomb at CES in January of this year. Devices with the software have been shipping since February — yet Android phones have remained stuck, still waiting on the upgrades and improvements promised by the revised OS.

"On Honeycomb we cheated, we cut the corner of all that smaller device support. That's the sole reason we haven't open sourced it."

"On Honeycomb we cheated, we cut the corner of all that smaller device support. That’s the sole reason we haven’t open sourced it."

Matias explains further, "Honeycomb was like: we need to get tablet support out there. We need to build not just the product, but even more than the product, the building blocks so that people stop doing silly things like taking a phone UI and stretching it out to a 10-inch tablet." It's obvious that products like the original Galaxy Tab, with a bastardized version of Android for phones, annoyed him.

"So that was the mission, and it was a time-boxed mission. Any corner we could cut to get that thing out the door, we had to."

Matias flips open his laptop.

"I want to set expectations. Android's growth, because it's got this legacy, has to be an evolutionary growth." He's asking me to lower my expectations — something he repeats throughout our interview. "What I'm going to show you here is something I'm really proud of. But the device I'm going to be giving to everybody this Christmas, the Android phone I'm actually feeling good about people carrying — my Android phone — it's not the end of the journey." His Android phone. Noted.

"In doing Honeycomb we made a whole bunch of changes to the platform, so Ice Cream Sandwich is where we say 'huh, okay, how are those changes going to work on phones?'"

He has slides. "We wanted to do more than just bring Honeycomb to phones."

"The question we were asking was not 'what's the milestone for the next release,' but 'what's the vision for how we want to evolve the platform,' and this is the pithy question we asked. Aspirational. Challenging."

What is the soul of the new machine? The words are emblazoned across Matias' laptop display.

I tell him that that's pretty intense. I ask what the new machine is, exactly.

"Android is the new machine. It represents that new type of potential for computer / human interaction. Mobile is exciting because it breaks us out of this stodgy stuff that we've been looking at for two decades," he's worked up, "Two decades of windows, and cursors, and little folder icons!"

"Finally people's minds are being cracked open, so now the question is, what are we going to do with that momentum?"

This isn't a design or product question. It's a philosophical question. What is this thing? What is it supposed to do? How will it do it? How do we get there? I ask him if it was the first time anyone at Google had ever asked that question.

"I don't think anybody ever asked about the soul," he answers in a very matter-of-fact way, "This was my question, it was the question I challenged the team with."

"I think people had very clear and concrete visions about Android and its strategy, but from a holistic design perspective — not just the look and feel — what does it mean in your life? Why are we doing the things that we're trying to do. That was the question I wanted to ask."

This question sparked deep user studies at Google on mobile phone use, what Matias described as "Serious baseline ethnographic research which hadn't happened before." He tells me that the company spent a great deal of time and effort watching how and why regular people used their smartphones. Not just Android phones, but all smartphones. The company even had employees "shadow" users, visiting them at their homes and workplaces to watch how they interacted with their devices. Matias wouldn't share numbers, but intimated that the study was a significant undertaking.

"A lot of what we found confirmed what I thought for years. At Danger, we had this idea that smartphones were not for a certain kind of person. They were for everyone. Smartphones were the way phones were supposed to be."

"What we heard from everyone we talked to in the study was that they love these things [smartphones], they are a part of their lives. They're incredibly passionate about them. They can't live without them. That was awesome. But we also heard a lot of things we didn't like to hear."

"With Android, people were not responding emotionally."

"With Android, people were not responding emotionally, they weren't forming emotional relationships with the product. They needed it, but they didn't necessarily love it."

Matias says that the studies showed that users felt empowered by their devices, but often found Android phones overly complex. That they needed to invest more time in learning the phones, more time in becoming an expert. The phones also made users feel more aware of their limitations — they knew there was more they could do with the device, but couldn't figure out how to unlock that power.

It was a wakeup call at Google.

"If these are the things we don't like to hear, what are the things we want to hear?" Matias says.

"We want to create wonder. We wanted to simplify people's lives. Right now, there's a common trap that can happen when you load up too much power into a piece of software that's not that intelligent. Like the junior assistant that you hire, who instead of helping you by taking work of your plate, makes more work for you. We wanted that really senior assistant that really knows how to help."

"We wanted to focus our effort on making people feel more amazing, like they're super-powered. You put on your suit of techno-magical armor and now you can fly and shoot the bad guys. We want our products to make them more empowered."

I ask him if Google wants the products to just feel amazing, or actually be amazing. "We want to do both," he replies, then flips to the next slide on the laptop.

Inside the machine

"A huge component of building wonderland is the way it looks and feels and sounds, and one of the first things we did was focus on the thing you interact with the most, which is the typography."

The company has created a new typeface for Ice Cream Sandwich dubbed Roboto, designed in-house at Google, something the company has never done before. It's clean and modern, but not overly futuristic — not a science fiction font. Matias says that it's been designed for "high resolution mobile displays" as "a complete typeface, in a great many more varieties than have existed for Android before." He adds "It's a modern typeface, it's trying to take a point of view and is not ashamed to do so."

Then he pulls a dark gray slab out of his pocket and flicks on the screen. The Galaxy Nexus.

The phone is huge, but not oversized compared to the Galaxy S II I've been testing on AT&T. It has a curved housing that gets smaller towards the top of the phone. The glass on the screen is arched as well. I tell him it looks like a teardrop shape. "It is kind of a teardrop shape," he agrees. It has a gorgeous Super AMOLED display, 4.65-inches at a 1280 x 720 resolution. It's the nicest display I've seen since the iPhone 4. Maybe even nicer. Text looks smooth — you don't see pixels, even at the large size. Matias says it's got a higher pixel density than the iPhone, but when I do the math, it turns out he's wrong. Still, it's higher than most devices on the market — 315 ppi. "We collaborated very heavily with Samsung on this," Matias tells me.

The phone has no hardware buttons on the front, unlike all previous Android devices. There are three, persistent, on-screen buttons which surface along the bottom of the display — back, home, and a multi-tasking switcher.

Inside the device has a dual-core, 1.2GHz TI OMAP CPU, 1GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel camera, and it will be an LTE phone here in the US. Matias won't say the carrier, though it's obvious that it will be Verizon. There's a pentaband version for international markets.

The device is also equipped with NFC, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and a plethora of sensors, and has an RGB notification light beneath the screen.

The phone is made of plastic (the screen is presumably Gorilla Glass), but feels incredibly solid. Google reps say that there's an internal aluminum chassis that makes the phone stronger and more rigid.

The camera — though lower in resolution than Apple's iPhone 4S and several other devices on the market — takes incredible looking photos. Matias shows a few shots he's taken with the phone, and I have to double check with him that they weren't downloaded from a point-and-shoot.

But the device is only half the story. The interface of the phone is completely new. It looks a lot like Honeycomb, but also shares much in common with Google's new aesthetic that it's been pushing for its web products. It's clean and modern, and the company has removed the overly masculine, Tron-like feel to the OS.

"Across the board Google and Android is taking design a lot more seriously," Matias says, and points out that Roboto is used throughout the system. "There's this thing that's happening right now in user interface design that I find kind of shackling. The faux wood paneling trend, and the airport lavatory signage trend." He laughs when he says this and pulls up a slide on his computer, a split screen of an Atari 2600 and... airport lavatory signage. It's an obvious dig at both Apple and Microsoft.

"The biggest problem behind these trends is not anything about the aesthetic quality about them, but rather the framework that they impose on everything else," he opines. "Right now if you look at all of these applications that are designed in this real-objecty, faux wood paneling, faux brushed metal, faux jelly button kind of thing... if you step back and you really look at them, they look kind of juvenile. They're not photorealistic, they're illustrations."

He's on a roll now. Clearly Matias has spent a lot of time thinking about what he doesn't like. "If you look back at the web, people did the same thing. All these cartoony things hanging off a page. If you tried that today, people would be laughing, unless you were doing it in a kitsch, poking-fun-at-yourself, retro art way."

But what about Microsoft and their "authentically digital" design? "The problem with going too starkly systematic, forcing everything into this completely constrained, modernist palette, for both of them, you're not leaving any room for the content to express itself."

"The incredible diversity of applications and content providers... that's the reason people have these machines. Not for the five bundled apps and the beauty of the OS — they have them for the hundreds or thousands of games, or books, or movies."

"We've taken what Honeycomb has done and pumped up the snooty design quotient, and we've toned down the geeky nerd quotient."

"Instead, I offer the web. Here there's beautiful examples of very customized, very different feeling websites." Matias flips through slides in his deck, a variety of websites, some news-focused, others which are services or shopping sites. "These look completely unlike each other, but people understand how to use them because the right things are standard conventions, and other things are flexible."

"That's what we tried to build with the Ice Cream Sandwich convention. We started throwing in a few hints in Gingerbread, and took it further in Honeycomb. We tried to create a palette and a language and a sense of being that's clean and modern and graphic, but isn't a straightjacket." He adds, "We've taken what Honeycomb has done and pumped up the snooty design quotient, and we've toned down the geeky nerd quotient. We've made it a lot more accessible. But we haven't taken it in a new direction."

The soul of the machine

The new software is striking. I'm in love immediately. Everything in the OS has been touched by the designers at Android. Nothing looks the same.

Along the bottom of the homescreen you have a "favorites tray," which can be customized, in the center is a button to get to your applications. Google search is always present on homescreens in the launcher, kind of like "Just Type" in webOS. When you want to create a folder now, you simply drag an icon onto another icon, similar to iOS. Inside folders, app icons will rearrange themselves, also like Apple's software. Widgets can scroll and be resized, as in Honeycomb. Everything is smooth and fluid; new animations have been added throughout the system.

The multi-tasking icon pulls up a list of app snapshots similar to Honeycomb, but those applications can now be killed by swiping them to the right — like vertical cards. Gestures are all over ICS. "Gestures are much more fun than hitting buttons. Touching and moving things; way better than buttons," Matias says while moving around the device. Even the calendar app didn't escape the touch treatment; you're now able to pinch-to-zoom on your schedule to expand or contract the view, which seems incredibly helpful.

The notification window is now slightly translucent with a glowing dot when you pull it downward. Notifications can be swiped away one at a time, mirroring webOS 3.0 behavior. You can access your notifications on the lock screen if you're not using a passcode, and you can jump quickly to your settings through the window shade.

Applications like Gmail have been completely redesigned. Gone are hidden menus — they're now replaced by contextual menus which change with your selections, similar to Honeycomb. But on the phone things feel more complete, easier to reach, they make more sense. "We've taken all the hidden stuff away," Matias says. You can swipe left to right to move backwards and forwards through your messages. There's a new inbox selection chip at the top of the screen, but still no unified Gmail inbox. "It's harder than you think," he tells me.

In Gmail, Google Talk, and elsewhere, there's a real push to use left-to-right swipes to move from place to place — very similar to the recent versions of the Market and Music applications Google has released.

The keyboard and text selection has been hugely improved. You can now long press anywhere on the phone to select text, and you get a contextual menu for copy, paste, and sharing options. Matias says he'll put the ICS keyboard up against any other virtual keyboard on the market in terms of accuracy and correction.

There are new apps and features too. A "People" application works as your contacts list and a way to gather all of your friends social network activity. There are APIs which developers can plug into to harness the app's power. It's somewhat reminiscent of Microsoft's people panels in Windows Phone 7. I ask Matias if this is a replacement for the address book. "The concept of an address book or contacts feels so lame and dated, it's like 'an address book is this little thing with this faux leather cover!'"

Using NFC and something called Android Beam, you can tap two Galaxy Nexus' together and send files and links. It's accompanied by a "warp field" animation which shows the file snapping over to the other device.

The camera and gallery apps have changed too. You're now able to edit and filter photos you take within the gallery application, and there are a whole slew of Instagram-style tweaks you can make to images. You can tap-to-focus in the camera app, it has face detection, and can do panoramic shots as well as burst mode, and the company boasts that the camera has zero shutter lag. Photos can be snapped instantaneously, which makes for a nice response to Apple's on-stage taunting of Android phone camera speeds.

Even the sounds have been changed. The lock sounds and keyboard sounds are now much more digital, instead of trying to replicate real-world objects. The company has also improved its voice input significantly, offering near-realtime dictation, and making it easier to correct listening mistakes.

But there are deeper changes. Matias tells me that starting with Android 4.0, users can uninstall any application they like, such as the native browser or email client — and that seems to go for carrier software as well. In phone settings you can also control your data usage in a very specific manner. Google is providing tools to set data limits systemwide or for specific apps, then give you warnings when you're about to cross a threshold. You can also restrict the amount of background data certain apps use, and see usage history. I ask Matias if this is one of the features that will make users feel amazing. "This is a make-your-wallet-amazing feature," he replies with a laugh.

Matias also told me that a new style guide was being prepped for developers with lots of off-the-rack pieces that would make it easier for third-parties to create the same kind of streamlined, beautiful applications I saw in Ice Cream Sandwich.

Piece-by-piece, it's impressive. But when taken as a whole, coupled with a world-beating device like the Galaxy Nexus, it's a heady mixture.

Piece-by-piece, it's impressive. But when taken as a whole, coupled with a world-beating device like the Galaxy Nexus, it's a heady mixture. My impression from seeing all of the new work at play was that Google is really starting to take the experience seriously. This is the first device from the company that really feels completely cohesive and coherent in all the ways a great smartphone should. Maybe Matias' advice throughout our conversation to lower my expectations worked, because I'm impressed by what Ice Cream Sandwich represents.

It's clear that Matias is making his mark on a company which has historically been driven by data, not design. I ask why he came to the company in the first place.

"I came here because they're winning, but also because I could not stand the thought of there being another decade of being trapped in one paradigm, of being trapped in the past just because somebody manages to grab maximum marketshare, and then that's the thing everybody uses with incremental evolution."

"I thought 'okay you know what, I've tried to win so many times before,' and it's been shown that it doesn't matter how great a product you have and how revolutionary the product is... distribution and marketshare are the things that matter." Matias smiles, "Now I'm going the other way around."