Only on Android: The best apps you'll only find on Google's OS

Enough about all those iOS exclusives. It's time to celebrate apps that show off features only possible on Android.

apps android only
Credit: Derek Walter

You’re probably tired of hearing it. Another new app launches, and it looks awesome. And then you go to download it, and discover the catch: only on iPhone.

Sometimes an Android version comes along later. Other times not at all. It’s a serious drag, especially given Android’s dominant market share. It’s even more puzzling that this is still the habit of some large companies, as evidenced by Twitter’s slow rollout of Periscope and Spotify’s new feature set that’s still nowhere to be found on Android.

That’s not the case for all developers. There are some who not only build for Android, but create apps that are only possible on Google’s platform. 

This type of thinking comes with great enthusiasm for the green robot. So we reached out and chatted with a few developers who were eager to share the cool, Android-y stuff they’ve made. These apps are the perfect showcases for your iPhone-carrying friends next time you get a whiff of that Apple superiority. 

Muzei Wallpaper and Form Watch show how apps can partner up

Google’s Roman Nurik builds apps that showcase a feature or capability that you can only do with his company’s mobile platform. He had already done that with his DashClock Widget, which was originally built for the now-retired feature of Android lock screen widgets. 

His latest project is Muzei Live Wallpaper, which puts a new work of art on your home screen each day. While live wallpapers aren’t an Android-exclusive anymore, pairing them up with a smartwatch is. 

muzei wallpaper Medium

Sync up your wallpaper across watch and phone with Muzei Wallpaper and Form watch face.

So he also built Form Watch Face, which syncs up the background available in Muzei and displays it on both your phone and watch. It’s certainly not going to make you more productive, but it’s intended as one of those showcase features to give other developers ideas about how to extend Android.

“The integration with the Muzei wallpaper app was partly a showcase of Android’s flexibility and framework features (more on that in my Medium post), and partly a way to let Android Wear users personalize their watch even further. To me, Android Wear is all about glanceable information and personalization, and I feel watch faces epitomize both—so working on a watch face seemed natural.”

For Nurik, Android no longer just stands apart in function, but also in form with Material Design. The aesthetic is just as critical to differentiate Android from other platforms by giving developers the tools to make their apps look like they belong on Google’s OS.

“At events we’ve held and participated in, we’ve heard overwhelmingly positive feedback,” Nurik said. “That’s not to say we’re ‘done’ with material design; we get tons of external requests for more examples, more UI patterns, more framework support, and additional guidance, and we plan to build on material design to make it even easier for designers and developers everywhere to use it.”

The Form Watch Face app specifically embraces this, as it uses a font built for Google’s first design conference

Muzei has additional extendability, as any developer can create a batch of backgrounds to use with the app. They can just head to the Github depository and start building.

Flynx floats above the home screen

Facebook’s chat heads aren’t the only type of bubble that can hang around on your Android home screen (messing with the home screen is definitely off limits for iOS developers). 

Flynx saves links from Twitter, Facebook, other apps or Chrome and puts them on your home screen as a gentle reminder about what you want to read. It’s like a more persistent form of Pocket

flynx android

Flynx lets you save articles, but hangs around on the screen so you don’t forget about it.

Arunangshu Bhakta, a developer on the Flynx team, said this type of capability is one of the reasons that developing for Android can be rewarding.

“Operating systems like iOS have a very closed ecosystem and they do not have any concept like floating widgets,” he said. 

Such a capability can exist inside an iOS app, but it can’t work with the core of the operating system in this way. Looking ahead to Android M, he’s optimistic about the revamps to permissions that won’t pester the user so much. Currently when installing an app a developer has to list every possible service of part of the device the app may interact with.

“I like the way Android M handles app permissions, where apps ask for permissions when required. Also, Android M’s doze [feature] looks promising from the first look and feedback that we are hearing,” he said.

Our hands-on with Android M found that developers will be able to tap even deeper into the operating system’s power and give the user more control with better notification settings and visibility of RAM usage.

Trigger opens up NFC, core customizations

Trigger brings a level of commands and customization to your phone that is nowhere near possible on iOS. For example, Trigger allows you to create a series of tasks that your phone performs automatically, like to turning on the Wi-Fi when connecting to a particular Bluetooth device, or dimming the screen when your phone reaches a low battery level.

trigger android app

Trigger gives you a ton of freedom over the type of functions your phone can perform.

Or there’s the world of NFC tags. You can place an NFC tag on a nightstand, table, or anywhere else and program it to perform a specific function when you tap it with your phone. While the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have NFC chips, Apple restricts their usage to Apple Pay.

“Trigger works with many sensors beyond NFC, and a lot of what it does (e.g. dimming display to save battery life when battery level drops) can only be done on Android. iOS doesn’t let apps change phone settings, for example,” said Triger developer Kulveer Taggar.

Trigger also has a geofencing capability, so you can tell your phone to flip Wi-Fi on and connect to a particular network when you arrive at work, home, or anywhere else. This feature is still listed as beta as relies on access through Google Play Services, but it’s worked rather well for me.

Such specificity in how an app can access so many core elements of the operating system is, according to Taggar, why he continues to enjoy creating Android apps, even though he also builds for iOS.

“You can really get into the nuts and bolts of the operating system to create new experiences,” he said.

Custom launchers remain an Android exclusive

With the iPhone, the interface is what it is: a grid of icons. Sure, there are notification center widgets and other tricks that came along with iOS 8, but forget about other large-scale customization.

nova launcher prime

Nova Launcher Prime has the look of the Google Now Launcher, but a ton of extra flexibility. 

Not so with Android. Developers can make custom app launchers, which allow you to change up the home screen in any number of ways.

One of the originals is Nova Prime Launcher. The app has been around since the early days of Android, when Google’s ugly OS desperately needed a makeover by third parties.  

Nova Launcher just went through a major revamp and now offers a more Material-friendly look. It’s very similar in design to the Google Now Launcher, but offers significantly more customization. You’re able to change the number of apps that can fit on each home screen, re-size the icons, and can even set the launcher to make use of custom gestures. 

Developer Kevin Barry says it’s this kind of openness that makes him partial to developing for Android.

“The closed nature of iOS has kept me Android-only. I love the personalization space and Android not just allows it, but encourages. The type of apps I’ve done so far wouldn’t be allowed on iOS devices.”

That’s why he thinks the new app permissions coming in Android M are essential - because you can do so much as a developer, you don’t want a lengthy list of caveats might scare some away.

“After Android M has decent market share, developers will have the freedom to add features requiring the camera, GPS, contacts, or whatever, without scaring away users who don’t want that functionality. Currently, if it’s not core functionality, it’s not worth it for developers like me who target power users who are often privacy conscious.”

The largest sea change that’s coming for developers is how Google Now On Tap will integrate more deeply with apps to give you even more context-aware content on your phone. This opens up a lot of possibilities for apps to work together and connect more tightly to Google services.

Don’t expect any of the apps we’ve highlighted to jump to iOS anytime soon. While iOS 9 brings a lot of new features  many copied from Android), there’s no hint of any new openness that would let you do anything close to what these apps can do.

This story, "Only on Android: The best apps you'll only find on Google's OS" was originally published by Greenbot.

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