Android and the Share function: a modest proposal

Make the Share function in Android consistent, more clear, and customized, to make it even more powerful.

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Small but important distinctions

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After a day or two of using your Android phone, it works differently from almost any other Android phone out there. You install a few apps, and suddenly you have entirely different features and functionality. It's amazing, but it's also hard to process on a day-to-day basis.

"Share" is Android's most powerful option: the ability to shuttle text or images or documents between apps. It's also a feature that is not quite apparent, or at least fully known, to those who haven't spent a lot of time with an Android device, or who don't love digging through buttons and settings. It's the paradox of choice in the palm of your hand. And it's the thing I think about most when I think about what separates Android from iOS or Windows Phone.

The promise of Share

On my phone, I have HelloSign, Dropbox, and a barcode scanning app installed. That means I can "Share" PDFs attached to Gmail messages to HelloSign and back to Gmail with a signature. I can send any file I download up to Dropbox. And I can generate a scan-able QR code for any tweet, web page, or even online music tracks.

On your Android tablet, you might have entirely different apps installed that can handle PDFs, files, and Twitter links (say, Adobe Reader, Google Drive, and Evernote). The Share function, essentially, lets apps declare to each other, "Hey, I'm the kind of app that can do something with a PDF," or "Listen, I'm looking to send out some map coordinates."

The problem is, it is difficult, if not impossible, to keep in mind all the connections you might make between apps that don't announce themselves as having Share powers. You can dig through the entirey of the Share list every time, but for all but the most Spartan of Android users, life is too short for that.

Beyond time and annoyance, there is simple awareness of how Android phones can "Share." Having helped dozens of people through setting up new Android phones, and answering many more "How do I" questions, both online and in-person, I have a sense that app-to-app sharing on Android is not commonly known.

The Apple solution: simple, frequent choices

On an iPhone or iPad, there is a distinctive share function in certain apps, activated with a button with a mostly consistent placement, featuring an outward-facing arrow. In Apple's own apps, like Safari, the share/send button provides predictable and explicit options: Message, Mail, Twitter, Facebook, or an action, like Bookmark, Add to Reading List, Add to Home Screen, Copy, or Print.



Sharing function on iOS 7

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You get a few other options in apps like Photos (iCloud, Flickr, AirPlay, Assign to Contact), but the style remains the same: specific, clear actions, decided and negotiated by Apple.

Apps made by third parties can offer their own sharing functions, sometimes outside the convention of a send-out button—Google's own Chrome browser on iOS offers a Google+ option for sharing web pages, along with Twitter, Facebook, and Messages and Email. But, generally, one iPhone app cannot be certain that another app is installed on the phone. That means every app has to play it safe with what it offers to send out. Copying and pasting text is left to the person holding the phone. At a higher level, there are go-between services like IFTTT that can connect your apps for you.

Android's slightly fragmented Share system

On Android, the Share button is sometimes (hopefully) a little two-hubs-one-spoke illustration, placed typically in the upper-right corner, either at first:



The basic form of Android Share

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Or after something is selected or tapped upon (or tapped and held) for sharing:



The reactive Share button on Android

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On apps that seeks to hide their buttons and toolbars, however, "Share" is often tucked as a text option behind three tiny buttons at the bottom or in the upper-right corner. Sometimes "Share" is an option placed alongside "Send," which gives one pause.



The too-common hiding of "Share" in a menu button (on Google's own Gmail attachment page, no less)

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When you tap "Share," or tap an object that's meant for sharing, Android lets you pick from lots and lots of apps you have installed on your phone, when they are relevant and ready to take on that object. The list goes on:



It keeps going

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And on:



And going ...

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And on, much further than I should try and capture in appropriately sized screenshots.



And going ...

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There are, to be certain, just as many options and potential workflows on our desktop or laptop computers. But unlike a desktop or laptop computer, you will not (or sometimes cannot) simply save the file to your desktop or Documents folder and figure out what to do with it later. You are asked to choose, in the moment, what to do with the thing you're sharing.

Some of the options are not always clear. The Chrome browser shows up as a Share option quite often, intended to open a new browser tab or search results list with the URL or text you are sharing. But that might not be apparent to anyone who hasn't tried "sharing to Chrome" before. Sometimes the text next to the Chrome option is "Open in Chrome," sometimes not.

When you intentionally meant to share something, it's a long list that's easy to forget; when you are unexpectedly prompted with your Share list, it can be more than a little intimidating, hoping that you pick the right thing or can get back if you choose wrong.

What would make Share better?

I think Android phones, as soon as they are first powered on and activated, should do more to show how Share works. When Google's own apps like Gmail, the photo Gallery, Drive, and others are first opened, a screen or two should show how you can share files and attachments and the like out to other apps—maybe with the chalkboard-style arrows and circles so en vogue at the moment. And designers and coders with smarter minds than mine should consider whether "Share" cannot have a more universal application, and more accessible symbolism, across apps.

For those who get how Share works, but find that, like me, they forget their options, the Share modal should be able to be re-ordered and prioritized. Let me set Drive or Dropbox as the first item to appear whenever they're available, followed by Gmail, followed by whatever else. I almost never send images to people via text message; having that option always near the top often requires me to tap or scroll to get to what I really want to do.

Consistency, demonstration, and customization could make the Share function in Android a better version of its already powerful self.

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