Google's Material Design unifies user interface for Android, Web

The upcoming "L" version of Android version brings a new user interface, and Google's Web apps will adopt it, too. It's one of many new Android features Google showed at its Google I/O show.

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Android's Gmail app, before and after the new Material Design interface.
Android's Gmail app, before and after the new Material Design interface. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google is trying to bridge between the Web and Android worlds with a new unified user interface called Material Design -- one of many features coming to the upcoming "L" version of Google's mobile operating system that the company showed at its Google I/O show Wednesday.

The new design has elements that dynamically shrink and expand, adds more white space between elements, offers lots of animation, and provides a more 3D look emphasized by shadows and lighting effects. It's designed to put the emphasis on the most important content of a screen, Google said.

Google controls Android, but with so many browsers, the Web is more complicated. To help bring Material Design there, too, the company is promoting a library of prewritten software called Polymer that lets designers build custom interfaces with technology called Web components. Polymer works with recent versions of major browsers.

"We wanted one consistent vision for mobile, desktop, and beyond, something clear and simple that people would intuitively understand," said Matias Duarte, Google's vice president of design."You can bring the same fluid Material Design to every screen."

A look at Google's calendar recrafted with its Material Design interface.
A look at Google's calendar recrafted with its Material Design interface. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

That unity is important for Google since that should make it easier for users to access Google services through different devices, including its browser, its Chrome OS operating system, and the ever wider variety of Android devices.

Google itself will use both technologies in updates to its own apps and services starting this summer, Duarte said.

Polymer will work on Chrome for mobile, too, blurring the boundaries between Web apps and native Android apps and making it possible to use Material Design on either foundation.

Material Design opens up a 3D interface even on 2D screens by letting programmers specify not just what color a pixel should be, but how high it should be in a virtual stack. "As part of the L preview, we'll allow application developers to specify an elevation value," Duarte said. "The framework will render the correct perspective with virtual light sources and real-time shadows."

It's just a visual effect today, but it could be handy in future years with 3D displays and the possibility of tactile touch screens that actually raise portions of a display.

Google's Android versions are named alphabetically after treats: Cupcake, Donut, Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich, Jellybean, and the current KitKat. Google hasn't revealed the name of the next version of Android, but it'll begin with L, and "lollipop" is one idea bandied about.

Google showed a host of other changes coming with the L version of Android besides the new interface. Among them:

  • Easier unlocking when the phone can determine that it's in the hands of its owner. It can detect things like position and nearby Bluetooth-enabled watch, letting people simply swipe to unlock the phone rather than enter a passcode or use an unlock pattern.
  • A lock screen that behaves just like today's notification screen, where people can see alerts and swipe them out of the way.
  • A new battery-saver mode for when people are going on hikes or otherwise will be away from a charger.
  • New developer tools that will let programmers reduce power consumption better. "You can expect significant battery performance in L," said Dave Burke, director of engineering for Android.
  • A do-not-disturb mode so the phone won't interrupt when its owner doesn't want to be pestered.

Sundar Pichai, who leads Google's Android and Chrome work and who is pushing the two domains closer together, boasted of fast Google's development pace -- and took a swipe at Apple. A few weeks after Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook dinged Android, Pichai pointed to Android features such as custom keyboards and widgets that will arrive in the upcoming iOS 8.

"Those things came to Android 4 or 5 years ago," Pichai said.

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Watch this: Google shows L, the latest flavor of Android