- 1 Music
- 2 Movies And TV
- 3 Books
- 4 Magazines
- 5 Apps
- 6 General Play Store Stuff
- 7 Wrap-Up
Hey guys, have you heard that 2012 is almost over? Yep! The new millennium is about to be a teenager. It's exciting. (No, the year 2000 is not included, you mathematically remedial cur.) The past twelve months have been fantastic and we'll be hearing more about that later, but one of the things we felt the need to talk a bit more in-depth about is the Play Store. You know the one.
The last year has been hugely transformative for the Play Store. Most notably, it's now called the Play Store! Play Store Play Store Play Store. Let it sink in real deep, because you're gonna be stuck with it for a while, much to David's dismay. Additionally, this year we've seen the advent of movie purchases, TV shows, and magazines. Not to mention the expansion of the Nexus line. In fact, Google only started selling Nexus devices on the Play Store this year. While Google's been pushing apps via its storefront for over four years, it's easy to forget that most of the things we've been taking for granted are relatively new.
That doesn't mean we lower our standards, though! Despite criticisms (lack of international availability, botched launches, somewhat meager content offerings), the Play Store continues to grow at an absurd rate. As 2013 gets underway, here are some changes we'd like to see that could improve Google's content offerings even further. For convenience's sake, I'm going to skip things like "Stop sucking at ordering" and "be in more countries," because those are things that will undoubtedly get better over time.
Let's get started with...
A Subscription Option
I am aware, Google, that your main competition is Apple. Both with Android and music stores. As much as the tech elite would like to believe that Spotify and Rdio have already taken over the world, it hasn't quite happened just yet. In the meantime, Microsoft is trying to subvert that trend by adding a subscription option to Xbox Music. You know, that app that comes pre-installed with every single copy of Windows 8? Yeah. That one. So, one way or another subscriptions are going to become a standard thing.
This is great, though! I know the RIAA is probably fighting you on this. After all, they're not too thrilled with your opinions on piracy or your role in it. However, buying individual tracks or albums is beginning to become old hat. Not only can users listen to Pandora or Last.FM if they want to relax control over their playlists a bit, but even Spotify offers a free, unlimited (ad-supported) version to desktop users. It's just too easy to get music now. A dollar per song is alright, and your deals on albums are even better, but it's time to offer a monthly buffet option. Don't let Apple beat you to this if you want to gain users.
It honestly surprised me that this isn't a thing yet. I don't use Play Music too much, and every time I do, it always takes me aback to see just how little it changes. The player is nice enough, and I can find my music quickly. However, if I want to share one of my custom playlists with someone else, this just plain isn't an option. Which is weird, since I can share songs directly to Google+ . In fact, and this is crazy, but if I want to share an individual song, Google actually gives me the option to find a YouTube video which really just does a search for the inevitably illegally uploaded video that we all know is available for every song ever. Yet I can't share a playlist. This seems silly.
Spotify knows it, Rdio knows it, Pandora knows it. Hell, even iTunes kinda knows it. Discovery matters. Google does not seem to grasp this. I would like it if this were remedied. For my own personal usage, this would be a pleasant addition, but for the health of the Play Store as a whole, it's necessary. Music is more directly and intimately social than just about any other form of multimedia and it's so easy to find new stuff. Aid in this process in a cool way, and you can win bajillions of users (of note: I will go absolutely nuts for some turntable.fm/Google+ integration).
Movies And TV
Digital Copy Deals
Okay, this is hard for me to write because, on principle, I hate those 'digital copies' that come bundled with movies. I have a problem with the idea that I can't rip a movie to my hard drive the exact same way I can with CDs (as I am legally allowed to do), but should feel grateful (or even pay more!) for crippled, DRM-laden versions of a movie. This bothers me on a much deeper level than it should.
That being said, you know what would be awesome? If Google provided those copies instead. Right now, there are a few different ways that you might find a 'digital copy' in Blu-Ray packages. One of them is an iTunes download, which is great for people who use it, but doesn't help those in other ecosystems. The other is Ultraviolet. The latter is so godawful that I've signed up for VUDU/Ultraviolet accounts roughly 5 quintillion times and still haven't managed to get a single movie to work. Moreover, I just don't trust this company (these companies?) with my movie collection. I'd love to have it tied to my Google account instead.
Google, if you want to build awareness for this service and get people to use it, start talking to studios. Develop an easy system that they can plug into in order to bring movies to users. As of right now, almost everyone who wants to use Ultraviolet has to sign up for a new account, and while there are certainly a large number of iTunes accounts out there, do you know who also has a lot of logins that are ready to be utilized? You do! So, why not talk to your Hollywood friends about letting them in on this action?
Set Top Apps
There's room for you, too, Google!
The second thing the average user is going to need in order to use this in an everyday way is the ability to actually connect it to their TV. You know how some people complained about not being able to watch movies from the Play Store on their rooted handsets (a problem Google eventually resolved)? This complaint is where the word 'niche' comes from. Of the total number of Android users, a minority of them routinely view full movies on their phone or tablet. Of that group, an even smaller percentage of them are impeded from doing so because they are rooted. Yes, they are a passionate group, but a minority nonetheless.
You know what group isn't a minority? People who like watching movies on their TV in the living room and don't have a PC hooked up to it. These people are completely unable to watch movies purchased from Google via their preferred media consumption method. They could use some help. It might be a little difficult to get a PS3 or Xbox app since both of these companies sell their own content, but maybe El Goog could partner with Samsung or Sony on some Blu-Ray players? Or create a Roku app. LG is already working with the company to put Google TV on some of its sets, so maybe apps could be developed for the rest of its products. Absolute worst-case scenario, though, would be to stop ignoring Google TV. It's just plain contradictory to aggressively sell movies and TV shows, yet leave the most viable platform available to deliver them rotting on the vine.
A Better-Looking Web Player
Virtual movie theater, or pop-up ad?
Alright, yes, this is a minor quibble, but it bothers me. It's fantastic that YouTube is one of the better video players on the net (and yes, it is one of the better ones... try playing something from Viddler, Vimeo, or one of those proprietary players like the one The Daily Show uses). However, it's also the baseline. The lowest common denominator. It's not that it looks bad per se, but I mentally equate a YouTube embed to everything from low-res vlogs, to Rebecca Black, to whatever the hell this is. So, when I go to the Play Store and click play (Oh my god I just got that!!!) on a movie and I get what essentially looks like a pop-up ad with a YouTube video, I'm not expecting The Avengers, I'm expecting a god awful car commercial followed by ten minutes of Colin Mochrie. This is absolutely the least important thing on the list, but it would certainly be nice to see something a bit more theatrical.
Um... actually, I think I'm good. The library is easy to use and my position in a book syncs across multiple devices. You can look up the definition of words and translate text from one language to another. Not to mention, the selection is decent and the sales are nice. I mean, for frig's sake, they're currently running a promotion on winter erotica. There are certainly improvements that can be made, and I'd bet most of them are going to come in the form of Kindle feature clones.
X-Ray, as an example, allows you to see the structure of a book and examine how different characters tie in throughout a story (especially helpful for things like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones). Maybe Google could implement something like this, but hey, it's already working on knowledge graph integration. This may just be a natural extension. Either way, if the only ways Play Books improve are in selection and international availability, I think it will be doing alright.
It's very difficult to argue in favor of improvements to Play Magazines without arguing in favor of improving magazines as an industry. Or, you know, just getting rid of them. However, it might just be possible to save this venue, if we do it right. What are we talking about when we discuss magazines but periodical publications, yeah? So, here are a couple ideas on how to keep things relevant.
I was inexplicably excited about Play Magazines when it first came out. This makes no sense. I'm a blogger, for crying out loud. I know the value of immediate news, interactivity, and the ability to engage an audience directly, rather than via lengthy and opaque "letters to the editor." It's a relic of a bygone era. You know what's not outdated, though? Touchscreens. Use these.
Now, this is something that can already be done to an extent. Entertainment Weekly, for example, includes scrollable lists, the ability to tap on a headline to jump to a story (which alleviates one of the biggest problems with magazines to begin with), embedded videos, and even the option to go purchase movies or music from within the issue. Most curiously, though, if I do try to buy a film or something, the mag directs me to an embedded web viewer for Amazon's desktop site (on my Nexus 7). Why not the Play Store?
Tap on the "Buy movie" button in the left screen and you get the right screen. Missed opportunity (or possibly dev choice) here.
This is a good start, but I'd like to see more. The video implementation is nice, but it requires going to a whole new full-screen section to see. Embedded directly in the page would be cool. Feedback might be another good option. Yes, I know, in the broad strokes of the internet, adding comments only makes things better a small percentage of the time, but even including the ability to update a story with some publisher-selected feedback, or addendums and corrections could at least have the potential to make things better.
Social networking integration could also be good. Make it possible to embed a Twitter feed or links to a publication's Google+ (eh? eh?) account. The whole reason that we see magazines as a dying art is because with the advent of blogs, we can get our information much faster. So, if you want these things to compete, give them more of the powers that the regular ol' internet has. There is no reason that they can't simply be less frequently updated websites.
Bring Back Developer Challenges
Last known photograph of the Android Developer Challenge. Historians believe this web page may date back to the 1800s.
Okay, so this is a long shot, I get it. And if I'm honest, yes, it's great that the Android team has been working so hard on providing guidance to new developers with the style guide and education resources. However, you know what was really cool in the olden days? Developer challenges. Back then, these contests brought some of the best new apps to the forefront. Fx Camera, Tasker, and Locale were all hugely popular—and more importantly, distinct to Android—and some are still big to this day. Heck, Google even highlighted Tasker in a mock-up design demonstration to show how apps could look better. Clearly some good came out of that, so why not do it again?
Oh and while we're on the subject of contests and design...
Android faces some unique design challenges in that Google believes a single app should be able to run on any device, regardless of size or use case. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it's very convenient for users. One Play Store link is all we need to install it on our 10" slates, our 7" pocket tablets, or our 4(ish)" phones. It's simpler for developers, too, since they only need to update one entry in the store.
Left: 10" tablet layout, center: 7" tablet layout, right: phone layout.
However, this also puts developers in the uncomfortable position of having to design their apps three times (at least). Possibly more in the future. Google's own Matias Duarte proposed a solution to this problem, back when he spoke with Joshua Topolsky of The Verge. In this interview (starting at around 6:30), he makes the argument that app design should be adaptive. Much like it is on the desktop and many websites, the interface can scale to whatever screen size it's being displayed on, so developers should consider that. In short, good design goes far beyond just using Holo themes.
Okay, Google. So show us. I want to see how this works. Let developers submit their own finely tuned interfaces. Compete for prizes. Update this page. Or, if nothing else, let's see some examples of devs doing it right. The Tasker thing was great. More examples of how the Google team would improve popular apps is good, but samples of pre-existing outstanding achievers is even better. Competitions for 10" tablet designs would be especially welcome.
General Play Store Stuff
Gift Options / Free Codes
The ability to add gift cards to an account was a fantastic step forward. The more ways people have to buy things, the better. Now, let's follow it up with one desperately-needed option: gift / download codes. Steam does this in exemplary fashion. If I want to give someone a copy of a game, it's nothing but an extra button in the checkout process. Similarly, if a developer wants to give away a free copy as part of a promotion, they can hand out a special code, a user enters it into a box, and boom. It's now tied to their Steam account. Not only is this a nice thing to have, but there is a huge market for this kind of functionality. You want some figures to back that up? Okay. How does 10.3 million sound?
So far, there have been 4 Humble Bundles for Android. All of them occurred in 2012. For those unfamiliar, this particular promotion allows developers to sell their games as part of a pack. Pay what you want and get them all. If you only count the games that were included with the initial iteration of each bundle (and assume everyone pays over the average, which is literally impossible, but go with it*), then 546,675 people (potentially) installed 19 games for a grand total of 10.3 million downloads that would have to be done entirely outside the Play Store. If you've ever purchased one of these packages, you know that it requires you to use a separate app and install APKs manually. Not exactly elegant.
However, the Humble Bundle crew use Steam's game code system in order to add new copies to a user's pre-existing account on the PC side. This is something the company clearly both wants and is capable of doing. There is no indication that Humble Bundles are going to disappear in 2013, and in fact they're likely to gain even more momentum. Without even looking at similar packages from competitors (like the Indie Gala), or promotions from devs directly, there are already millions upon millions of potential installs waiting to be made via this method. It's money — and more importantly for you, Google, data — being left on the table.
* Yes, not everyone paid the above-average price and thus would be short one game, but those that did also received about 3-5 bonus games about halfway through the life of the promotion, so if anything these figures are probably too low.
Please, For The Love Of God, Redesign The Mobile App
Google, I love you. I've been with you since the beginning. I owned the G1, and I remember the Android Market when it was white text on a black background. I know that what you've done with it is very clearly an improvement. It's also not easy, since you've had to build a movie, TV show, book, music, and magazine store on top of what was only supposed to be an app market. Not only that, but you had to have space for the various sales right on the front page of said mega-store, because how else are people going to know what you're offering? It's necessary in order to advertise these new services.
However, the rectangle thing just isn't working. Yes, thank you for getting rid of the entirely superfluous reflections, but there is still a lot more to do. For starters, shoot for some consistency. The following three screenshots are all organizational schemes that you can swipe left and right to see under the Apps sub-heading. Every single page is entirely different from the last.
Oddly, the one place that the design of the Play Store stays consistent is the one place that it should not. Text color. Light green text on a light gray background is difficult to read. Notably, this is the color that was chosen for the most important bit of information in the right-hand screenshot above: the price of apps. Ironically, if you head over to the Magazines section, you find less needless consistency which is arguably better, but an even worse appearance.
First off, take a look at the center picture. This is a prime example of why designing for consistency based on theme and not appearance cannot work. If you explore the entire Play Store you will see that the main page for each hub looks a lot like this one (see below). There are rectangles of various sizes with different deals, a Recommended For You section at the bottom, and just below the Action Bar, there is a slider indicating you can swipe left to right. On every single page, the color for all header text matches the product: green for apps, orange for music, blue for books, red for movies and TV shows. Oh, yes, and purple for magazines.
No one in any design class will ever teach you that purple text goes well on a black background. Never. Someone must have figured out how to color text properly because, as you can see on the main page (above left), White text is used in the navigation section. And even the Recommended For You header. These look great. Comparatively speaking. While I get the theme you're looking for here, it just doesn't work visually.
However, take the right screenshot of magazines above. Unlike the Apps section, this shows large cover art for thumbnails and black text on a light background. This is good. Or at least better than the alternative. Magazines are an intensely visual medium and here the Play Store deviates from its usual layout to deliver a more aesthetically-appealing menu. It is absolutely okay to divert from a pattern if it makes things look better.
If you can make this look a little less ostentatious, I will forgive the Fifty Shades recommendation.
The little accents on the sides of the rectangles on the main page are a good idea, but that's about where the color theming stops being helpful. Once I go into the Movies section, for example, I know that I'm looking at movies. Even if I come back to the app later and find myself wondering where I left off, I can usually tell the difference between cover art for Quentin Tarantino flicks and Anomaly Korea. You don't need to bombard me with a ton of bright red text and accents. In fact, in all of these sections, just about anything but text should adhere to the theme color.
The web version actually looks pretty great, and for the most part I have very few qualms with the Play Store as a whole. We all know that international availability and discovery are things that need to be improved and expanded, but that's really more of an all-the-time uphill struggle than it is a specific thing that needs to be implemented. However, the mobile version sorely needs some love, and it's the thing that people are going to use more than anything. Make it pretty enough that users can't help but open it up and find new stuff, rather than grudgingly enter if they have to. It's curbside appeal and it matters.
All of this is just stuff that we'd really like to see happen and there is exactly zero guarantee that any of it will. It's also worth pointing out that the Play Store has gotten so much better over the last year that complaining about anything in general already feels a bit whiny. I most certainly don't want to give the impression that we have it bad. That can hardly be the case. Truth be told, just about any smartphone purchased in the last couple years is a miracle device that, even in 2005, we could never have imagined. Life is pretty good.
We won't stop moving forward, though. If the past year is any indication, the Play Store is going to be much more awesome by the end of 2013 than it is now. It will be in many more international markets, it will have more and better content, and it will grow as our portal to everything Google sells.
It would certainly be nice,
Santa Google, if some of our wishlist came to pass this year. Please?