Will 2016 be the Year We See the Android App Drawer Die?

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Huawei's EMUI launcher lacks an app drawer
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The app drawer is one often overlooked but incredibly important part of the smartphone. Android smartphones to be particular. It is usually the gateway to the most functional part of a smartphone: apps. Through it, one can access any app and, as a result, do whatever they desired. Be it a cat video on YouTube, reading an online article like this one on the browser or getting on Snapchat.

The Chinese started it

Huawei's EMUI launcher lacks an app drawer
Huawei’s EMUI launcher lacks an app drawer

A trend that started with Chinese device makers Huawei and Xiaomi is apparently catching on. The two companies traditionally release devices running a heavily modified (skinned) version of the Android operating system that does not have an application drawer at its core. Instead, like the Apple iPhone, users access all their apps directly from the home screen. This has not been such an issue amongst users of Huawei and Xiaomi devices as the two brands have soared over the last two years to the top of the smartphone charts. Huawei is the number one smartphone vendor in China while Xiaomi follows closely. Apple, whose iOS platform also lacks space for an app drawer, rounds up the top three popular smartphone vendors in the giant Asian nation.

What is worrying, however, is that the rest of the competition seems to have taken note of these developments. Either that or users may be clamouring for change. Change that is against how users have known and interacted with Android for years.

The Koreans have now jumped in

The latest smartphones from Samsung and LG are a sight to behold in terms of the new features they bring on board that build on the foundation laid by Google through Android Marshmallow. While both the Galaxy S7 and the LG G5 try to stand out by packing different features and designs hardware-wise, there’s one feature that they share in common: no, not that always-on display, they allow their users to effortlessly turn off the app drawer. Yes, you heard that right.

With the Galaxy S7 and its edge sibling, Samsung is giving users the option to turn off the app drawer
With the Galaxy S7 and its edge sibling, Samsung is giving users the option to turn off the app drawer

With the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, Samsung is introducing a new experiments hub, Samsung Labs. Think of it like Google X Labs, the one place in your Gmail settings section where you go to play around and turn on or off features that Google engineers are testing that may or may not come to the main version of the app. In Samsung Labs, users of the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, and most likely almost every other Samsung device worth its salt coming out in 2016, will be able to do away with the app drawer, albeit temporarily. It’s not going anywhere but users can just turn it off and instead have all apps layered on the home screen.

To its credit thouh, Samsung has experimented with an app-drawer-free launcher for a while now with the Samsung Easy Home launcher.
To its credit though, Samsung has experimented with an app-drawer-free launcher for a while now with the Samsung Easy Home launcher.

This may not be the first time Samsung is doing this though. It has, since 2013, provided users with an option to go with an easy home screen setup. One that eschews the app drawer for quick shortcuts to the most used apps on a smartphone like the dialer, contacts, camera, the messaging app and the browser. Even in the full Samsung TouchWiz launcher, the app drawer has always, either by design or otherwise, been confined to the last slot. A sign that it was on its way out perhaps?

LG, on the other hand, has the app drawer off by default on its new G5 smartphone. Users have to dig in the settings application to enable Easy Mode for them to have the app drawer show up on the home screen. This is a stark contrast to Samsung’s approach where the app drawer is retained but can be disabled from the Samsung Labs app.

Blame Apple

What’s causing all this?

iOS, Apple's mobile operating system, has never had an app drawer. Instead apps are launched directly from the home screen as can be seen in this iPhone 6S
iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, has never had an app drawer. Instead, apps are launched directly from the home screen as can be seen in this iPhone 6S

When the iPhone first became available, it shipped with just a handful of stock applications from Apple. There was no App Store back then (it came out much later) and there were no third party apps for the iPhone. It was, then, reasonable to not overwhelm users with another layer of obscurity before they could get to where they wanted. Just have a locker/lock screen and a home screen where all apps reside. That has never changed and while Android fans may once in a while mock their counterparts across the fence, it has helped iOS maintain its reputation as being more user-friendly/easy to use. Is that the reason Android device makers are relegating the app drawer or seemingly downplaying its importance?

That may be true for LG and Samsung’s recent moves but may not be the case for Xiaomi and Huawei. The latter are infamous for aping Apple to the bone in their first devices. It was only natural that they also aped its software implementation never mind that their devices were running a rival operating system. With time, they have built a strong user base/following and it is unlikely that they will be changing things at this point.

The Google factor – Will the next version of Android ditch the app drawer?

A recent Android Authority report intimated that early preview builds of the upcoming Android N (Android 7.0) lack an app drawer. While it is too early to think about it, Google could be on to something. In recent years, Google has taken a second look at the app drawer. Android Marshmallow brought the vertical scrolling app drawer we last saw in the early days of Android. That was just a year after Google made the app drawer “all-white” with Android Lollipop. So it is not far-fetched to imagine a major shakeup that involves doing away with the app drawer altogether or sending it deep into the settings app where only the keen among us will find it.

Whatever happens, the gloves are off and the curtains may be about to be drawn on one of the most visible key parts of Android. Is it time to say our goodbyes yet?

Third party launchers to the rescue

Luckily, there is nothing to suggest that the openness of Android is at risk. So developers like Tesla Coil, the makers of the popular Nova Launcher, are likely to keep the fire burning with third party launchers that have always been a perfect fit.

Talking of third party launchers, Chris Lacy’s Action Launcher is one of the most popular launchers on the Play Store despite it being a paid application (and you know those things they say about Android users and paying for things and piracy are true, right?).

The Action Launcher app drawer as we have known it over the years has been a breath of fresh air
The Action Launcher app drawer as we have known it over the years has been a breath of fresh air

You know what is Action Launcher’s key feature? It’s lack of an app drawer as we know it. For years, it had an interesting approach to the whole app drawer debate. A single strip accessible via gestures (a single swipe on the home screen) or a tap on the hamburger menu had all the applications a user would need. Though the most recent versions of the launcher brought back the traditional app drawer, intent had been declared and users had voted with both their money and time (setting up third party launchers like Action is an effort) for the differentiation. Maybe everyone is responding to this as well. Or the hordes Android device makers hope to entice from iOS. They should feel at home from day one, no?

Between them, Samsung, LG, Huawei and Xiaomi account for a huge chunk of all smartphones shipped in a year. In fact, of the four, only LG is not among the top five smartphone vendors in the world as far as recent data from both Gartner and IDC is concerned. Such changes stop being subtle alterations to the core software on their devices to industry game changers when you factor in the numbers. That is even before you start considering those Android N rumours since they are just, well, rumours. The “Applefication” of Android may have just hit its highest levels yet this February.

 

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