Google has taken Android from a small startup to the largest mobile computing platform in the world. You can’t do that solely on luck, but that doesn’t mean Google hasn’t made some mistakes. Some have pointed to one issue or another as evidence of Android’s inadequacy. Still, things have worked out, even with a few big errors on Google’s part. So, let’s talk about all those times Google facepalmed with Android, and what it did to fix it.
Google Now on Tap
Google announced a new element to search on Android called On Tap in the lead up to Android 6.0 Marshmallow. The idea was that you’d long press the home button while using the phone, and On Tap would be able to offer information about what was on the screen, as well as offering contextual search results. It was a nice idea, but On Tap ended up being a mess.
The primary issue with On Tap was that you could never tell if the feature would actually do anything useful until you opened it. Too often it would just say there was nothing useful on the screen. After a few attempts, most users wouldn’t bother with On Tap again. Google began throwing everything at On Tap to see what stuck; there were screenshots, map search shortcuts, and news items. None of this helped, and Google Now on Tap was quietly retired early this year.
Google launched the Pixel with Assistant, which took over the long-press functionality of the home button. Several months later, Assistant came to all Android phones running Marshmallow or higher, supplanting Now on Tap. It’s a smarter use of Google’s machine learning power than On Tap, and it plugs into a ton of third-party services.
The Nexus Q
The Nexus Q was announced at Google I/O in 2012, and were handed out to attendees before the general public has a chance to buy one. This $300 media streamer ran a modified version of Android that connected to the user’s Google account to play music, movies, and YouTube videos. However, it didn’t connect to any non-Google services like Netflix. That effectively doomed the device.
This was the first Android device Google developed entirely in-house, and it wasn’t actually bad from a hardware standpoint. It was a small metal sphere with a 25-watt amp and HDMI output for HD video. Still, the software was so limited that Google had to delay the July 2012 launch while it revamped the product. Google did let everyone who pre-ordered the device have it for free, but no further features were added. Google killed the Nexus Q in early 2013 without ever selling a single unit.
This was not Google’s last attempt at gaining a foothold in the living room, and it seemed to learn from its error. In 2013 it unveiled the Chromecast, a $35 device that let users stream content to their TV. It wasn’t much more capable than the Nexus Q at launch, but it was cheap. The Chromecast has become one of Google’s most successful media products.
Android 3.0 Honeycomb
Android circa 2010 did not support tablets, and this is when the iPad was selling like hotcakes. Several Android OEMs like Samsung were hacking Android 2.3 onto tablets with little success, but Google’s first stab at making Android tablet-friendly wasn’t much better. Android 3.0 Honeycomb was announced in early 2011 alongside the Motorola Xoom tablet, but it was extremely limited.
Honeycomb was clunky, unattractive, and wasn’t even open source. It only ran on tablets, so developers had to operate two different versions of their apps if they wanted to be on tablets. Honeycomb was also limited to Tegra 2 ARM chips at first, which restricted hardware choice. It was the exact opposite of what Android had been doing thus far. Google treated this version of Android like a beta test, and that made for an unattractive consumer product.
After slogging on for eight months, Google finally launched Android 4.0, which again unified the phone and tablet versions. It was only then that Google released Honeycomb’s source code. While it was not well-liked, Honeycomb included a few features that would become standard on later versions of Android like tabbed browsing and screenshots in the recent apps screen.
The “App Ops” Permission Manager
Android 4.3 Jelly Bean was a small update to the OS after two previous Jelly Bean builds. In fact, its most notable feature wasn’t even supposed to be included—an advanced permissions manager. See, Google accidentally left a menu called App Ops accessible in the OS. Then, Google blocked access to App Ops in an update sparking a wave of bad press.
App Ops gave users access to manual permission control for apps, which sounded great. However, apps at the time did not support that natively. Thus, deactivating permissions could cause crashes and other unexpected behavior. This should not have been accessible, but it was. All you had to do was find and launch the action for the hidden menu with any number of apps in the Play Store.
Naturally, Google ripped App Ops out in a future OS update, and people were upset. Privacy advocates lambasted Google for removing the option, failing to understand this was a developer feature that was not ready for prime time. Google took its licks, though, and got to work on offering a real permissions manager. When Android 6.0 Marshmallow rolled out, it had proper support for turning app permissions on and off.
Android Wear 2.0
Smartwatches have yet to take off like many in the industry had hoped. Even Apple’s sales haven’t lived up to expectations, as evidenced by its quiet refusal to offer sales numbers for its Watch. Android Wear was due for a big update last year, but it took longer than expected. Google was supposed to launch Android Wear in the fall of 2016, but the developer preview release got extremely negative feedback. So, Google reworked it. Unfortunately, it’s still not very good.
Even when the update rolled out months late, users haven’t been overly pleased. Android Wear 2.0 makes a number of bizarre changes like unbundling notifications and disconnecting do-not-disturb mode on the watch from do-not-disturb on the phone.
Google needed to make the case for smartwatches with Wear 2.0, and it really didn’t. We don’t know yet how (or if) Google will make this one right. There should be a new version of Wear based on Android 8.0 later this year. Well, unless it’s delayed too.
Now read: 25 Best Android Tips to Make Your Phone More Useful