Google I/O 2018: Android grows beyond buttons (sort of)

Android P aims to elevate the OS' existing button-based navigation system to something a little more complex, something not quite as obvious as its existing three-button navigation experience.

Up until now, these three on-screen buttons - the back, home, and multitasking buttons, commonly laid out in that order - have been a staple of Android since the ill-fated Android 3.0 Honeycomb.

Android has also retained its familiar multitasking interface, with the recent-apps windows resembling a stack of cards since Android 5.0 Lollipop, accessible by hitting the little square icon in the navbar. In addition, Android 6.0 added the ability to hold-down on the square icon to toggle the use of two apps at the same time on a single screen, and what's more, since Android 7.1 Nougat, Google introduced a feature where double-tapping the square icon essentially acts as an alt-tab of sorts.

All of this is set to change, as the latest Android P beta - or the second developer preview (DP2), if you will - is set to introduce a partially gesture-based navigation system, getting rid of the cherished little square icon altogether.

Enter the all-new navigation bar, occupied (for the most part) by nothing but a little pill at the center.

The pill still acts as the old circular home-button when tapped - hitting it will take you straight to the home screen, and holding down on it will toggle Google Assistant, just like before.

The difference is with the swipes and gestures you perform with it. Swiping up from it will take you to the recents menu, showing you all your opened applications. Swiping to the right on it quickly will be your alt-tab-esque shortcut, whereas dragging it all the way to the right edge of the screen will allow you to slowly make your way across your list of opened apps - which are no longer in a stack, but are laid out side-by-side - until you release it, taking you to the app you want to be in.

With the square button now gone, if you want to use two apps at once, that is achieved by holding down on the icon on top of an app's card in the recents pane and dragging it to the top or bottom half of the screen to have it occupy that space.

The back button, on the other hand, isn't really gone - it shows up when you're anywhere but on the home screen, and works the same way it did before, with not much being changed on that front.

But what's pretty amazing is that Google says its Smart-Selection feature will also work in the recents pane. What this means is that you can select the text in an app straight from the recents pane without having to enter the app's environment from there.

As always, since this isn't even close to the final beta of Android P, several changes could be made by the time this hits the stable channel, out of which many of these are warranted. This revamped system may seem clunky in places and incomplete when it comes to using the pill to swipe across your various open apps, and could be a step back for when a user would want to multitask between two apps on a single screen, given the absence of the square button.

The changes may seem to be a major departure from the traditional Android interface but, as we've seen with the iPhone X, it may not be an insurmountable change for users.

So for those of you who get a chance to use the Android P beta, do leave feedback with Google on whether the new system clicks for you, and the various ways in which it could be improved for your use case.

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