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The real reason Android P uses gestures

Hint: It's because of one button.

Google's Android P beta software brings radical change to the way that you'll navigate an Android phone. As with the iPhone X, Android P is all about gestures. Case in point: You swipe up from the bottom to see an overview of all your apps and to open the app drawer, and swipe left and right to select apps.

It'd be tempting to point to the iPhone X as Google's chief inspiration. After all, the iPhone X, which launched this past September, relies exclusively on gestures, or swipes, to navigate the phone, after Apple dramatically removed the iPhone's iconic home button.

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But Google's Android team has been working on Android P "nonstop for at least a year," Dave Burke, Google's VP of engineering for Android, told CNET at Google's annual I/O conference this week.

The real reason that gesture navigation has come to Android has nothing to do with Apple, Google said, and everything to do with those three standard navigation buttons on the bottom of the Android phone screen: Back, home and menu.

Specifically, Google wanted to eliminate the button that lets you view all your open apps, making it easier to see your apps with a swipe. This apps button looked everything from a square, as on the Google Pixel 2, to a hard-to-describe symbol as on the Galaxy S9 (the GS9 home button is a square).

"Android have those three buttons at the bottom: Home, back and something else," Burke said. "And it's, it's a little too much, a little too complicated. I think of it as like walking into a room with three doors and it's like, 'which door do I go in?'"

What's more, the Android team didn't think you should have to go somewhere special to see your open apps. "We just didn't want extra buttons," Burke added.

Google's thrust to make Android simpler and easier to use has major implications for phone users everywhere. About 85 percent of the world's phones run Android, according to IDC, and Android P beta will evolve to become the next full fledged version of Android.

Future iPhones are expected to follow the iPhone X's all-gesture interface, so between Android and iPhone, phones that rely on swipe navigation will flood the market.w

Android's home button and back button aren't going away

Android P beta uses an upward swipe to get to your open apps and the app tray, but it isn't giving the home or back buttons the heave-ho.  

"iPhone was coming from a different place, they were removing their home button. We are coming from a place where we really like our home button." This is Burke again, who added that Google wanted "our solid, deterministic home button that you could always get back to."

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Google will also keep the back button, particularly because removing the back button would force app-makers to redesign all their apps. (Apple never has this problem because iPhones never used a dedicated back button.)

What's next for Android P beta

Right now Google has released Android P beta version 1. Google says we can expect two more releases by the time the final version of Android P comes to phones. When that time comes, Google will also reveal what the "P" in Android P stands for.

Burke says that Android P beta 2 is coming in a few weeks, with smoother animations and better swipe controls -- you'll be able to swipe up from an app to see all apps; right now you can swipe up halfway.

Here's how to download and install Android P beta (warning: There will be bugs, so don't install it on your primary device).

Meanwhile, what do you think of Android P beta so far? 

Updated at 3:15pm PT to correct the launch period of Android P Beta 2.

Read: Swiping in Android P beta isn't terrible

Read: Everything that happened at Google I/O 2018