Smartphone / Tablet

Soo!… Should Android M be a milestone for Firefox?

Google once again gathered the developers of the world for their annual developer conference widely known as Google IO. It’s at these conferences that they would previously release the latest iteration of Android, right up until last year where they switched a model that would only unveil the latest iteration and release a preview. Of course being that it’s a developer conference, this is more about letting the developers know what they’re gonna be working with. It was at Google IO 2014 that we were introduced to Material Design. Google IO 2015 has just gone, there was no overhaul of the design language, just refinements. Material Design is here to stay, Matías Duarte said as much in his talk of the conference. There was also excitement in regards to changes in the Android Platform, despite this not being the only developer interest at the conference, Android was by far the biggest and it rightfully took it’s seat centre stage.

Mozilla do not have an Android. Yes, they have an operating system in Firefox OS, but what I mean is of the size and scale of Android whereby there are over a billion users. Users that are enabled to have an everyday because of its existence, by doing things ranging from taking a phone call all the way up to paying bills. Mozilla doesn’t have anything like that. It’s partly why Mozilla doesn’t see the press that Android does compared to Firefox OS or even Chrome does compared to Firefox.

Mozilla like so many of the attendees at Google IO over the many years would simply be another name. Another developer looking for an opportunity to get the march on their competitors. It’s not because of Google IO, but Google IO certainly helps put the focus on a key point of Android. Android Design and Android Development is a community. Of course there are lone wolves but that doesn’t take away from the culture. Those that refuse to acknowledge the existence of that culture are those that put out sub-par products. It’s those very same sub-par products that so often get mocked on the social media streams that those developer and designer communities inhabit. But it’s also within those streams where great design is celebrated. It’s here where any ambiguity about the Material Specification is washed away, it’s here where designers can flourish and be celebrated.

Bidding a happy birthday to Material Design, you only need look at Firefox and it’s current Graphical User Interface to surmise that Mozilla doesn’t care about design and most certainly not Material Design. This isn’t about failure to get some of the bigger more subtle things right. It’s about getting the little obvious in your face things right. Like the fact they still use square dots for their overflow menu or that menus from said glyphs still open underneath as opposed to over the item. It’s once you start looking at those items that items like the size of the toolbar (professionally known as the Action Bar) or the spacing of items become more apparent. Firefox for Android looks akin to someone building an app for Windows 3.1, updating it to work on Windows 7 and then only updating half of the components to look modern.

In fairness to Mozilla, with Firefox they have a gigantic spread of users. Mozilla works on those forgotten platforms versions that cover 48.4% of the billion users who check Google Play. Those cited have devices running an Android version older than Jellybean (4.3). Upon the release of Android M internally known as Macadamia Nut Cookie (MNC), those users will be three platform versions behind that featured on the flagship devices of the big Open Handset Alliance manufacturers. This is standard fare for Mozilla, with their desktop software they have users all over the globe running Firefox on computers that should’ve long been put out to pasture. But they don’t have to look bad doing it.

Putting the desktop comparison aside, Android is a unique situation for Mozilla to find itself. Its biggest product showcase up until Android was Windows and with Android not only did that shift to mobile, it’s shifted to a platform that has a modern and very popular browser in its own right pre-installed on all the devices it ships with. Where with Internet Explorer there was the fact it was a genuine nuisance, Chrome has yet to frustrate that volume of people in the same way. This time it’s not enough to best the platform native, this time Firefox needs to also best the most popular kid in the yard. You only need to look at the Frankenstein’s Monster of the current design to see that they’ve not decided on winning everyone over with their good looks. Nor are they targeting the audience where many of their original fan-base graduated to from web design, the app developers. No, they’re attempting to rely on familiarity hoping to pick up those that have it on their desktops, “so why not?!”.

In all Firefox has shrunk away from the free press available, refusing to be at the forefront of platform design and refusing to the be at the forefront of platform development. Their users are lagging in a fashion that is equal to the enthusiasm shown as a product. While  a proposal was put forward for Firefox to branch with Lollipop in order to allow Firefox to commit to Material Design going forward, the idea was shot down. Developers baulked at the prospect of all the work that entailed. Having just done it for Gingerbread, memories of the headache, frustration and time still loomed. Sadly the excitement and pride gained from finishing the task sat a distance second.

Android MNC is here to raise the branch question once again, but this time it’s not going to be possible to say no. As stated, Google has doubled down on Material Design. if there were a few stragglers and fence sitters uneager to commit to Material Design, Google IO 2015 let you know it was here to stay and would be the foundation of Google’s Design going forward. With Android MNC, Mozilla has the opportunity to get their little girl dressed for the prom with the best outfit they can make. It is unacceptable to have a product’s design targeting something great three years of iterative design ago. But there were also some other things that make Android MNC exciting as an opportunity to branch Firefox and target those new APIs. Here are some of the highlights mentioned at Google IO 2015:

  • Run-Time App Permissions
    • Gone are the days whereby a user gives all or nothing before installing the app. Now apps will only ask for specific permissions the first time they use them. Reducing the scary permissions shown when installing Firefox
  • Voice Interactions
    • Enabling follow-up questions, now the system can allow you to refine what you meant.
  • Fingerprint API
    • This could very well finally be the first nail in the coffin of the password, but would certainly unlock the power of Firefox Sync’s password storage
  • App Standby
    • Putting apps into low-power mode when the phone is at rest.
  • Now On Tap
    • Unlocking the ability to query any screen that appears on a device.
  • Data Binding
    • Simplifying the thumbnail screen
  • Android Design Support Library
    • Cutting back on the heavy lifting required to achieve Material Design
  • Notification
    • Despite always feeling like an afterthought in Firefox, some of the new APIs such as being able to create dynamic ones really are inspiring.
  • Text Selection/Floating Palette
    • Text selection hasn’t been the greatest friend to Firefox, with some issues persisting frustratingly. However in a bid to achieve greater single thumb use, Google has taken the contextual Text toolbar and made it floating, bringing all options in use and giving Mozilla left reason to persist with Firefox’s custom implementation.
  • Text Processing
    • Enabling in-line translation.
  • App Linking
    • While feared as the final nail in the coffin of third-party clients. It does enable Firefox to solve some problems it’s featured. Like bypassing the Tab Queue with a custom protocol. Speaking of custom protocols, how about ABP getting its own and finally allowing the system to recognise ABP://
  • Direct Share
    • Allowing apps like Tapatalk to finally enable sharing to individual threads rather than just forums.
  • Custom Chrome Tabs
    • Something similar was proposed to Mozilla a while back, Chrome may have the jump, but Firefox can deliver an alternative and hopefully better experience.
  • Material Icon Library
    • The resources for replacing the square dots with modern circle ones.
  • App Invites
    • It’s silly but why not allow users to invite their friends to use an app?

Matías Duarte also hinted that the Material Design Showcase will be back around next year. At Google IO 2015 apps were celebrated for a variety of reasons. Six of the eighteen winners got individual credit and I imagine that developers the platform around are thinking about how to get on the list next year. This is more free press that the efforts that have gone into making Firefox what it is deserve. I hope that Firefox will be synonymous with Android N.

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