It’s often said that when Apple does something, whole industries follow its lead. Most of the time, it’s a painfully true axiom. While the company doesn’t have a hold over the global smartphone market, it is strong in the premium space, and it’s a trendsetter more often than not. We saw the headphone jack die off on the iPhone first, then the wall charger disappeared from the iPhone box. Both of those moves slowly made their way to the Android ecosystem. This year, Apple’s cadre of engineers and designers took the iPhone 14 Pro, got rid of the notch, and introduced a pill-shaped camera and equipment cut-out called the Dynamic Island with some unique functionality.
The Android ecosystem is already years into its dalliance with selfie cams “punched” into displays, but it hasn’t really invested in turning it around from being an obstruction to being a useful interface. Will Apple succeed? More importantly, will Android device manufacturers follow?
The evolution of display cutouts on Android
We’ve come a long way from the phones of old with thick bezels, 16:9 WVGA displays, and physical navigation buttons. But their evolution wasn’t as straightforward as with Apple’s iPhone lineup. Instead, it was a little slower — and Samsung had a big say in how things evolved.
iPhones went straight from having thick bezels and a Touch ID bottom key to their current design, more or less, with the iPhone X in 2017. It was released to mark the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone, released in 2007, and radically changed how iPhones would look for almost every future installment through this day. Those at the drawing board went for a full-screen, bezel-less design with a notch that contained the front camera and other sensors for a complex face unlock system dubbed Face ID.
On Android phones, the transition to bezel-less displays started, in a way, with the Xiaomi Mi Mix in 2016, although they didn’t begin catching on until 2017 with the launches of the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the LG G6. The former had a 18.5:9 curved display while the latter had a 18:9 flat panel, but they both featured slimmer bezels than on other Android phones to date. The screen-to-surface ratio became a hot metric in years to come with 90% becoming the threshold to clear for some trophy projects.
Notches began making their way to Android after the release of the iPhone X, initially from Chinese companies like Xiaomi and OnePlus, in 2018. They were wide at first like the iPhone’s notch (examples including the Pocophone F1, the Xiaomi Mi 8, and the Xiaomi Mi 8, and the Xiaomi Mi 8, and the Xiaomi Mi 8, and the Xiaomi Mi 8. OnePlus 6), but they didn’t stay like this for long. Engineers realized that the iPhone’s notch was wide only because Apple’s Face ID system necessitated so many sensors. On Android, for one reason or another, face unlocking just didn’t catch on, and everyone stuck with fingerprint scanners.
As a result, Android quickly outgrew that design. First, we had the “teardrop notch” which greatly reduced the surface area it took from the display and had enough room to house the front-facing camera. Some brands wanted to eliminate display cutouts completely, crafting clever pop-up cameras like what the OnePlus 7 Pro had. In late 2018, Huawei launched the first device with a circular “hole punch” in the display for the camera. Samsung went all-in on “punching” its Galaxy S10 series devices and, after proliferating across the spectrum of Android manufacturers, the concept has stayed around. 2022’s best phones come with hole punch cameras.
It’s not a hole, it’s an island
Apple finally got rid of notches and followed Android on its move to a hole punch design with the iPhone 14 Pro and 14 Pro Max. Thing is, Apple’s UX implementation goes deeper.
The company’s still married to Face ID and its array of sensors and that means an iPhone just can’t go with a simple circular hole punch. So, designers decided to go wide: pill-shaped, as many of us have been saying. We saw the Samsung Galaxy S10+ and S10 5G go for pills, too, but they were oriented towards the top-right corner of the display. With the iPhone 14 Pro devices, the pill is center stage. There’s no way you can avoid seeing it and there’s no way to get around the waste of display space it requires.
Apple, though, knows how to put a unique spin to these things. The company has feverishly shaped a new interface paradigm around the cutout, calling the experience its “Dynamic Island.” From that pill, boxy shapes expand out of it to form toast notifications when you receive calls or connect your earbuds. It can also expand in width to provide contextual heads-up prompts while you’re listening to music or are in a call. It’s a smart way to disguise and maybe even make use of an immovable hardware element. Many system apps can trigger these Dynamic Island animations and it’s extremely likely your favorite third-party apps will take advantage of the APIs that Apple will provide to make them as well.
The Dynamic Island is the most radical change to the iPhone’s design language since the iPhone X. While it’s only available on the iPhone 14 Pro right now — the non-Pro iPhone 14 and 14 Plus have the traditional notch — it will likely make its way to the lower-end iPhones sooner than later.
Will Android get something like it?
It’s likely that some Android phones in 2023 will implement a Dynamic Island-like feature, but we’re expecting those phones to come from manufacturers like Honor, Oppo, Vivo, and/or Xiaomi, at least at first. Chinese firms have always had the urge to adopt trendy features and design cues from the iPhone and we wouldn’t be surprised if something like Dynamic Island came around.
Whether Dynamic Island interfaces become a wider trend in Android is, we think, a bit more doubtful. We’re not sure if Android manufacturers are ready to go back to stacking up front-facing sensors for facial recognition or other purposes to justify milking that pill space. If anything, many R&D departments would consider it a regression in design, one that already presents problems of its own. After all, many Dynamic Island actions need you to tap on the cutout, which will ensure your camera is smudged up 99% of the time.
Where, then, are the research and development dollars going? Well, port-less phones have been the pipe dream for some wishful thinkers. But realistically, the momentum has been focused on eliminating the need for a hole. A good number of devices like the Galaxy Z Fold 4 have begun shipping with under-display cameras. There are obvious revolving around the main trade-offs this selfie camera system design challenges: the more pixels (LEDs) covering the camera, the tougher it’ll be to capture a clear picture; the fewer pixels and that circular patch on the display becomes more conspicuous. There should be enough industrial willpower, however, to fix the problems with UDCs. Heck, Apple might even move in that direction eventually.
Side note: has Sony gotten the memo on notification LEDs?
Android’s toast notifications are totally adequate presented as they already are. Some OEMs, like Asus and Samsung, have brought about a smaller toast design that — guess what? — is also pill-shaped. What we could end up seeing, then, might be improvements to contextual interfaces for music or calls that persistently stay on your screen without looking ugly. They might not necessarily even revolve around the display cutout. If it’s the case, we’re fairly certain Google won’t be the pioneer here and that an OEM will have to submit a change to the Android Open Source Project that will need to be codified. In fewer words, it’s a long shot and, if it does happen, it’ll take a long time. As a reminder, Android 13 has only started making its way to non-Pixel devices and it’ll take a relative eon before the plurality of active devices are running the version; such is the endless state presented by Android’s distribution model.
All being said, Apple’s design influence might be powerful and far-reaching, but if you’re looking for an example in Dynamic Islands, you might want to set your sights elsewhere.