Designing Android apps to fit every screen—and half-screen

Connor Mason
  • Connor Mason
  • November 22, 2016
Designing Android apps to fit every screen—and half-screen

One of the many Android-first features that have placed its top devices above the competition is multitasking, or the various ways Samsung and other smartphone makers have allowed users to use multiple apps simultaneously. On larger devices like the Galaxy Note line—before its ill-fated 7th iteration—the company pioneered picture-in-picture video and split-screen multitasking features that took advantage of the phablet’s massive display. It was a top-tier feature for a top-tier smartphone, and the functionality has been copied by many of Samsung’s competitors.

With Android Nougat, Google is making this split-screen functionality available to all Android smartphones, introducing a new window manager that allows users to place any supported apps into half-screen views. Android apps that are optimized for the new format—often those made by the best Android developers—can be placed into a multi-window mode that allows for fluid multitasking between apps. It’s one of a few new ways Android users can use multiple apps more quickly—and is an indication of the kind of powerful features Google wants its platform to support across all devices.

Multi-window modes and the redesigned Overview window manager help every Android phone deliver the powerful multitasking features that were once reserved for only top-end phones.

These changes transform the idea of what Android apps can be, and evolve the operating system from its one-app-at-a-time roots to a fully windowed experience with much more customizability. Android is striving to be the operating system that supplants Windows and Chrome OS as many users’ daily driver. In order to do that, Google has opted to rethink how apps coexist and interact with one another.

Implementing multi-window mode

When Samsung implemented split-screen multitasking three years ago, only a handful of apps supported the feature. With Google’s prioritization of multi-window features in Android 7, now the entire app ecosystem has an opportunity to jump on board. Of course, Android tablets will benefit the most from this change, obviating the oft-criticized handling of mobile app layouts at larger display sizes. But the exciting thing for Android developers is that, as a halo effect of working to support multi-window mode, every app should look better across every device.

In practice, multi-window mode operates much like split-screen multitasking does in iOS 9 and later. Assuming the third-party Android app is optimized for split-screen layouts, users will see it within their Overview app switcher when arranging their apps. Like iOS 9 on iPad, apps can be arranged at one-third, two-thirds, or half of the screen, with a second app taking up the rest. And similar to iOS’s approach, the top-most or left-most app when in split-screen—depending on the user’s device orientation—takes priority for certain functionality.

Thanks to how Android has planned for different device sizes and display types since day one, there’s very little work to be done optimizing Android apps for multi-window mode.

The good news is, there’s very little work to be done optimizing Android apps for multi-window mode. Because Android apps have handled layouts for multiple device sizes since the beginning, the platform doesn’t share many of the challenges that are solved by tools like Auto Layout on iOS. Instead, Android developers simply need to target the latest API level for Nougat, and their apps will be eligible to work alongside others in multi-window mode.

However, there are some user experience considerations to keep in mind with how the new version of Android handles window management. Developers need to anticipate that their app might not be the primary app on users’ screens, and might be used in conjunction with other apps routinely throughout users’ days. It’s critically important that apps for any platform anticipate the different contexts within which users might be approaching them, and especially for productivity-focused apps that target Android tablet users, multi-window mode is a big deal.

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Picture-in-picture, plus Android TV

Another logical extension of the multitasking theme is into video, and Android TV now supports picture-in-picture video that plays in a little window above other apps. This allows users to stream content from YouTube or Netflix while multitasking in other apps or games on their Android TV, and particularly enhances the content consumption experience on the platform. And for many content streaming apps, this picture-in-picture experience works out of the box.

For video content apps, it’s imperative to make the update to support picture-in-picture, which again comes down to targeting the appropriate version of the Google Play Services API level for Nougat. Android TV is home to a host of apps and games, many of which focus on video streaming content, but many others that aim to make the platform more useful and fun. Now, the most exciting prospect of a smart TV operating system—unifying the second-screen experience and offering context alongside content—is baked into the platform.

Now, the most compelling use of a smart TV platform is baked into Android TV: unifying the second-screen experience and offering context alongside content.

The multi-window and multitasking features represent the maturation of Android as a platform, and also illustrate Google’s enormous ambitions for its operating system. Android is now absorbing features once reserved for full-fledged desktop operating systems like Windows, and approaching the kind of power-user functionality that could make it a viable replacement to some traditional workstations. The introduction of a complete windowed version of Android—accessible using developer tools—also suggest a new direction for Android.

As Google’s ongoing product strategy comes into focus, it’s apparent that the company sees Android as the platform that will support all of its divergent endeavors into virtual reality, laptop computers, wearables, televisions, and more. But as the company continues to make Android more and more sophisticated to support these new product categories, millions of Android users and developers—particularly those focused on tablets—will reap the collateral benefits of Google’s projects.


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