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What to Expect from Android Key Lime Pie

By Ryan Whitwam

Android is looking good these days, but it's time for the platform to get a refit.

Android has come a long way in the last two years, traversing the expanse between version 2.3 and now 4.2. Looking at these two landmarks, it’s plain that Google started taking design seriously. Whereas Gingerbread and older versions of the platform were functional, but aesthetically questionable, the 4.x variants are genuinely beautiful. Google has also worked to fill in the feature gaps and build better developer tools in recent years.

Photo credit: Flickr user mor10 via Creative Commons.

With Google I/O just a few weeks away, it’s looking like we will see the next version of Android -- reportedly codenamed Key Lime Pie (KLP). It’s been almost two years since Android has seen a sizeable interface shift, and it could be time for another. Let’s take a look at what might happen in such a revamp.

Android’s UI Future Lies with The Cards

First, a word about version numbers. We simply don’t know what version number Key Lime Pie is going to be. Google might not even know yet. The original rationale for the desert-themed codenames was to delay the selection of a version number until the OS was closer to completion. Some blogs seem dead set on calling KLP “Android 5.0.” It is entirely possible Google will go with version 5, but we have no way of knowing yet. As such, I’m sticking with Key Lime Pie for now.

Without a doubt, one of the things that made Android into a much more attractive OS is the introduction of the Holo design guidelines. Google even created an entire website for designers and developers to use as a reference when making Holo-style apps. It’s been a rousing success -- even apps that use the plain Holo templates look great. However, some aspects of Holo are starting to look a bit old fashioned in the world of interface design.

There are two general categories of Holo -- light and dark. Holo light is still used in most Google apps to some degree, but Holo dark is slowly being deprecated. The overwhelmingly black style was interesting when Google was addicted to AMOLED screens on its first-party devices, but none of the current crop of Nexus devices use that screen technology anymore. I suspect Android Key Lime Pie is going to continue to move away from the darker UI elements, and instead implement an updated Holo fused with Now-style cards.

Google Now was an interesting concept when it was announced last summer. I was a bit skeptical about its true utility, but after spending the last 10 months with it, I’m sold. Google Now is supremely useful, and Google is clearly smitten with it. The card UI from Now has been leaking into other products over time, and that’s a good thing.

The light, modern feel of Android cards is likely to become a dominant aspect in KLP. You can already see how the company is pushing this aesthetic into its apps. The new-ish Keep app, for example, uses cards. I would also venture that it looks wonderful on almost any device. The new Play Store app, finally redesigned after over a year, uses cards. This app is very good looking too.

I don’t expect a complete overhaul of the interface, but the dark Holo design is likely going to continue disappearing from Android. I wouldn’t even be shocked if the system settings page -- the epitome of Holo dark -- got a card-based overhaul.

Lastly, a move to a lighter UI could improve the experience for users living with an OEM skin. Both TouchWiz and Sense use lighter menus and apps interfaces, generally speaking. If Google gets a hybrid card UI implemented, OEMs will have less cause to skin the OS to death in places like the settings page.

Key Lime Pie Features

When Google takes the wraps off Key Lime Pie, we will surely be treated to the usual side-by-side demo, carefully-scripted to illustrate how much faster KLP is when compared to Jelly Bean. Google is reportedly working with version 3.8 of the Linux kernel, which would allow for lower memory usage and more efficient CPU control. These are good things, but not Earth shattering.

There have been rumors for months that Google is working on a unified messaging app that will debut with KLP. The service is reportedly called Google Babble (or Babel in more recent leaks). I am absolutely positive this happening, but I can’t say for sure that it’s going to be exclusive to Key Lime Pie. Not only have there been some screenshot leaks, but the app has been demoed in secret.

Babel will bring together all the disparate messaging services Google uses, including Talk, Google+ Messenger, Hangouts, Drive Chat, and (I hope) more. It’s a no-brainer to merge Google+ Messenger and Talk as there is already a lot of overlap. The same goes for Talk and Hangouts. Google Talk has a video chat function built in, but no one uses it. Google definitely favors Hangouts -- it even uses them to conduct job interviews.

The main concern with Babel is that it won’t go far enough. Some reports claim the app won’t pull in Google Voice or stock text messages. I sincerely hope Google has managed to integrate these services with Babel, because this is where it can make the biggest impact in the way most users interact with messages. As an aside, it’s possible Babel is an internal codename/joke, and the final service will just be branded “Talk.”

There are also plenty of unsupported rumors, and I hope some of them are real. Of particular interest is the possibility Google will include a performance profile mode in stock Android. This is a feature most OEMs have built into devices to lower battery consumption in various situations by reducing CPU clock, lowering brightness, and so on. I would very much like to see this added at the AOSP level so everyone can standardize around one system for this important feature.

The user profiles implemented on tablets with Android 4.2 are also rumored to get a refresh in KLP. The idea is that profiles would expand to include a guest account that you could enable and use to block access to sensitive data like SMS, social accounts, and email. Again, this would be very neat, but I’m less sure it will happen.

Personally, I’d very much like to see Google take another look at how two recent feature additions work. The Quick Settings panel and lock screen widgets are nice ideas, but the implementation is annoying. Quick Settings buttons are sometimes toggles, and sometimes links. You long-press some, and just tap others. This is a ridiculous mishmash of ideas, and Google needs to standardize. As for lock screen widgets, they simply need to be better. It has a ton of potential, but Google failed to include anything really useful. Third-party apps like DashClock make the lock screen so much better (and it was built by a Googler), so I hope Mountain View ups its game here.

Will You Ever Get a Taste of Key Lime Pie?

For the overwhelming majority of Android users, it’s going to be months before there is any hope of seeing Key Lime Pie updates. If you are one of the lucky few that uses Nexus devices, you’ll probably have an update within a few weeks of the announcement. Without carrier or OEM interference, Google can push software to these phones and tablets very quickly.

If you don’t want to wait, you could pick up a device that will run Key Lime Pie from the Play Store. The Nexus 4 will almost certainly still be the flagship phone (I don’t put much stock in those Nexus 5 rumors), but if you’ve already got a phone on contract there’s always the Nexus tablets. In fact, there might be a Key Lime Pie launch device that replaces the Nexus 7 at Google I/O.

If you have a 2013 flagship phone from HTC or Samsung, it is likely you will see an update to KLP sometime later in 2013. International variants tend to be updated first, with the carrier-locked devices following a few months later. You can always count on one major OS update on a top-of-the-line phone.

If you have a last-gen flagship or any mid-range Android phone, get ready for a long wait. OEMs and carriers only devote so much time to developing and testing new device updates. It’s much more in the interests of carriers to do small security and reliability updates on older devices. A phone like the HTC One X or Galaxy S III will probably get a KLP update, but it’s going to come later.

Motorola devices are in a bit of a gray area right now. Even though Google owns Motorola Mobility now, most of the manufacturer’s top phones are on Verizon. Big Red has a reputation for holding back updates while it obsessively tests them. Even Google’s LTE Galaxy Nexus experiences long delays in updates on Verizon. New Motorola phones are coming soon (maybe even at Google I/O), so that’s where most of the Key Lime Pie attention will be focused. If you’re rocking a RAZR HD, be prepared for a longer wait.

If you simply can’t wait for Key Lime Pie to arrive on your device, and buying a new one is out of the question, a custom ROM might be your only hope. Developers will begin plugging away on the open source code soon after it is released. It might take a month or so, but mostly bug-free builds of KLP will be made available to ROM flashers on a variety of top devices.

Android is due for a refit in 2013, and Key Lime Pie is the best opportunity for that to happen. Google is likely going to expand the card UI from Google Now into more apps and perhaps even into the OS itself. It’s going to be faster, smoother, and more feature rich. Some of this will show through OEM skins, and some of it won’t. If Mountain View can unify messaging, though, that’s going to benefit everyone. It might be an update worth drooling over, but we won’t know for sure until Google I/O next month.