Everybody who buys an iPhone gets the same interface. It was designed by Apple and isn’t subject to change. Google, however, is happy to let others take a whack at determining what Android should be. That’s why it lets users replace the standard Android home screen with ones created by third-party developers.
Some alternatives, such as the excellent Nova Launcher, are similar to the default Android home screen, but more customizable. Others — most famously Facebook Home — rethink the experience from the ground up.
A new custom home screen called Aviate, created by former Google employees, is very much in that second camp. It aims to make managing your apps easier by doing some of the heavy lifting for you. Related apps get automatically grouped together, and the software uses cues such as your location and the time of day to present you with the most relevant tools. It’s a really clever idea.
Aviate, which has been available in an invite-only alpha version for a while, still isn’t entirely complete or open to the public. The company is releasing a beta version on Google Play today; once you’ve installed it, you still need to register for an invite and wait your turn before you can get in. Or you can simply enter the invite code TECHLAND, which Aviate created for TIME.com readers. Assuming you’re one of the first 500 folks to do so, it’ll let you in right away.
A quick glance at the main Aviate screen tells you that this isn’t just another extra-customizable program launcher. It starts out with two rows of your favorite apps — which it chooses based on how often you use them — and a large wallpaper-style image. You can customize the screen by adding, removing and shuffling apps and installing Android widgets. Everything’s neat and tidy: Unlike plain-vanilla Android, Aviate positions icons and widgets on a fixed grid rather than leaving you to dump them anywhere.
In its stock form, Android lets you sort related apps into folders by dragging them around. Aviate does something similar — but instead of making you do all the work, it automatically creates collections that intelligently sort apps by theme. On my phone, for instance, it deposited Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and other programs in a collection named Social. Play Music, Amazon MP3, Slacker and others went in one called Music. And so on.
You can further finesse your environment by moving apps from collection to collection, or adding programs that are installed on your phone but not yet in any collection. And each collection also lets you install additional apps that fit the theme from the Google Play store, based on Aviate’s recommendations.
Then there are the screens in which Aviate organizes apps and features by time and location. In the evening, for instance, you can pull up a Night Time screen with an alarm, a Do Not Disturb setting, installed apps you might want when you’re getting ready to hit the sack (such as Kindle) and your calendar for the next day. On my phone, Going Somewhere features apps such as Google Navigation and TripIt. And there are screens for nearby local businesses, with the ability to check in on Foursquare, send tweets, take photos and the like.
Throughout, Aviate is a pleasant place to be. It looks good — it’s light, airy and clutter-free — and is easy to navigate with your thumb.
It’s easy to point out things that this beta version doesn’t do, such as let you create your own collections; that’s an issue, since the 22 it provides don’t cover every possible base. (I kept wanting one called Communications, for stuff like instant messaging and Skype.) Sometimes its decisions about which apps are relevant seem crude or just plain wrong — I’m not sure, for instance, why checking in at Walgreens prompted it to show me the Etsy app. Certain features aren’t yet fully implemented, and I seem to have found at least one major bug. (I couldn’t launch my HTC One’s camera from the location-specific screens.)
Aviate’s creators say that they have lots of ideas on ways to expand upon their basic concept. Even if you find this beta a tad simplistic — and I think that many serious Android enthusiasts will crave something more tweakable — it’s interesting software that’s worth a look. And one of the nice things about Android is that even something as radically different as Aviate is commitment-free: You can install it, live with it for a day or two and then decide whether it’s a keeper.