Action Launcher's June 2017 update is out now

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Action Launcher's June 2017 update is here, and it's a big one. A previously unearthed Android O feature, a host of new features, some sweeping changes that will impact the app for years to come and a slew of other enhancements combine to form the single biggest Action Launcher release in years.

A new (old) name

Going forward, the app will drop the "3" suffix and instead solely use the name "Action Launcher".

This name change is intended as a clear statement to current and future customers alike that the current version of the app is, and will remain, the home for current and future Action Launcher development.

You can read more about this change, as well a new app version numbering system and a whole lot more, here.

A new look

Action Launcher is preparing for the world of Adaptive Icons and post-Lollipop era material design with a brand new look that encapsulates the Action Launcher of today and tomorrow:

A new, previously unknown Android O feature comes to Action Launcher

Did you know that all signs are when Android O ships, Pixel Launcher will support an animating clock icon for the Google Clock app? Neither did anyone else!

Check here for the full lowdown of this discovery, but the good news is you don't have to wait to use animating clocks, as its available today in Action Launcher, on your device.

action_launcher_android_o_animated_clock.gif

But wait, we've not gotten to the rest of the update yet!

Pixel Launcher features by default, for everyone

As of this update, Action Launcher moves on from the Lollipop era and makes all new installs of Action Launcher default to Pixel Launcher styling. You'll get the sliding All Apps drawer, folder styles, animated caret indicator and more. Furthermore, all of these features, many of which previously required the one-time Plus in-app upgrade, are available for free.

Pixel Launcher styling for App Shortcuts

Action Launcher was the first launcher to support Android 7.1's App Shortcuts, and also the first to bring app shortcuts to earlier versions of Android (5.1 or later).

A consequence of releasing App Shortcuts before Pixel Launcher was that it wasn't yet clear how Google intended for launchers to support and display App Shortcuts. Since Android 7.1's release, that dilemma has been answered, and Action Launcher now uses Google's official "hold to activate" mechanics, as well as the bubble UI:

action_launcher_app_shortcuts_bubble_ui.png

New icon indicators

Action Launcher's informative and iconic icon indicators (say that 5 times quickly!) have been given a brand new look:

action_launcher_icon_indicators.png

One terrific usability enhancement the new icon indicators bring is the ability to use App Shortcuts and Action Launcher's Shutters (which reveal an app's widget) on the same shortcut:

app_shortcuts_and_shutters.gif

Please note, that if you would like to disable these indicators and embrace the guessing game as to which apps do and don't support App Shortcuts, you can do so.

But wait, there's still more

Action Launcher's June 2017 update contains a host of other enhancements, tweaks, optimizations and fixes.

The full change log for version 25.0 of Action Launcher is:

• NEW: Action Launcher 3 has been renamed to Action Launcher, and has a shiny new icon to prove it!
• NEW: Use an animating, Android O-style clock icon for the Google Clock app (requires Lollipop or later). This animating clock is also available as a standalone widget.
• NEW: By default, all new installs of Action Launcher will use Pixel Launcher style All Apps, folders and everything in between.
• NEW: Many Pixel Launcher features that previously required Plus are now free for all users. Furthermore, the app is now far less aggressive in prompting users to upgrade to Plus.
• NEW: Full integration of Pixel Launcher's UI styling for displaying App Shortcuts (previously known as Quickcuts). App Shortcuts display when long pressing an icon from either the desktop or All Apps list.
• NEW: App Shortcuts can be used in combination with Shutters and Covers.
• NEW: App Shortcuts can be dragged and placed as shortcuts on a home screen.
• NEW: Revamped appearance of the icon indicators for Covers, Shutters and App Shortcuts..
• NEW: Smartsize icon resizing is no longer a beta feature, and is enabled by default for all Plus users.
• NEW: Add animated caret indicator when opening/close Pixel style All Apps.
• NEW: Custom system fonts are correctly applied to labels on the desktop.
• NEW: The horizontal screen margin can be adjusted (via Desktop settings, phones only).
• IMPROVEMENT: Lots of polish to ensure the app's look and feel mimics that of Pixel Launcher. Notable areas of focus include the padding of All Apps drawer and folder appearance.
• IMPROVEMENT: Optimizations to memory, battery usage and scrolling performance.
• IMPROVEMENT: Order the date and month displays on the date widget is correctly localized.
• IMPROVEMENT: The screen edge shadow no longer displays at the bottom of the screen when using a tinted dock.
• IMPROVEMENT: On first boot, the home screen animates smoothly on screen rather than having shortcuts snap on.
• IMPROVEMENT: Update translations.
• BUG FIX: Remove stutter first time All Apps drawer is opened.
• BUG FIX: Open folders display a shadow.
• BUG FIX: Fix aliasing on the icons of the first 3-4 shortcuts in a folder.
• BUG FIX: Improved support for tall devices like the S8 and G6.
• BUG FIX: Notification panel shortcut works on Galaxy S8.
• BUG FIX: Fix issue where removing the last shortcut from a Home screen page would sometimes also fail to also remove the now empty Home screen.
• BUG FIX: Fix issue where items could appear on the Quickbar multiple times.
• BUG FIX: Improve detection of App Shortcuts on pre-Android 7.1 devices.
• FIX: Misc. stability fixes.

Action Launcher's June 2017 update is available now in the Play Store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.actionlauncher.playstore

Press assets for Action Launcher's new logo and this update are available here.

Action Launcher 3 drops the 3, and other changes

3

"Action Launcher 3" is no more. Going forward, the app will simply be known by its original name, Action Launcher.

This move is being made for a very simple reason: to make it clear that the current version of the app is, and will remain, the home for current and future Action Launcher development.

Hopefully this will ease concerns of people who, to this day, reach out and tell me they are holding off buying Action Launcher 3's one time Plus upgrade for fear of an Action Launcher 4 releasing in the near future. You should feel comfortable in the knowledge that today's single Action Launcher Plus in-app upgrade will go a whole long way going forward.

A new logo will accompany this name change.

A new attitude towards non-paying customers

I could talk in great detail on this topic, but I'll keep it brief: previous incarnations of Action Launcher 3 offered a woeful and off-putting experience for new users. To say the app was too aggressive trying to get people to buy the Plus upgrade is a gross understatement. Action Launcher 25.0 sees many improvements here, and further enhancement will follow in future updates.

A new version numbering system

I am also taking this opportunity to change Action Launcher's version numbering system. To this point, releases went from 1.0 all the way up to 3.12. I am switching to a simpler version numbering system, where the major version will be bumped with each release. Since Action Launcher's debut in December 2012, there have been 24 major updates to the app. Today's Action Launcher update is the 25th major release, so the update's version number is 25.0.

So why was there an "Action Launcher 3" in the first place?

The "3" suffix came about for a simple reason: in late 2014, Action Launcher's sales had dropped off almost entirely. Worse, I knew that bringing Action Launcher up to date for the material design era required a complete rewrite of the app. I felt that the only way to justify the months of effort required for this development was to charge for the newest version. I likened this decision to the fact that my buying a ticket to Avengers 1 didn't entitle me to a free ticket to Avengers 2.

I was genuinely fearful that without charging again, the update might receive just a regular bump in sales, then see its revenue tail off, with the net result being not only had I spent months working for nothing, but I could no longer justify future Action Launcher development going forward.

So I made the decision to make the then-named Action Launcher 3's premium features available via an in-app purchase. It's worth noting I never took anything away from previous customers: their purchase of the now-renamed Holo-era "Action Launcher 2: Pro" was still valid, and continues to work in perpetuity to this day.

Fast-forward two and a half years, and I feel with hindsight my decision was exactly the right one to make. Despite the haters in the comments section on day 1, Action Launcher had by far its biggest day of sales ever on launch day, and future Action Launcher development was assured.

Action Launcher has gone on to receive 25 major updates in less than 5 years. There are countless startups that have raised millions of dollars and come and gone in that time. Meanwhile, Action Launcher as a business has organically grown to a point that I feel comfortable investing in future development by hiring additional resources.

Overall, I feel strongly this was a win for everyone involved.

The right decision, but not a popular one

Despite my strong belief that charging for Action Launcher 3's premium features was the right decision, it remains a decision that was unpopular. The app's review score suffered permanent damage, and it seems even two years on, the comments section of any blog post covering an Action Launcher update contains negative comments by a subset of people upset by the move.

In the interests of entirely appeasing Action Launcher customers who were upset, I will be offering a full refund of Action Launcher 2 purchases to anyone who has also purchased Action Launcher 3/Action Launcher's Plus in-app upgrade.

To redeem this refund, drop me an email. The only conditions are that you must have purchased both Action Launcher 2 and the newly renamed Action Launcher's Plus upgrade from the same email account, and you must use that email account to request the refund. I'm sorry, but I'm unable to handle "I bought Action Launcher 2 with x@gmail.com but I bought Action Launcher 3: Plus from y@gmail.com" type cases as it just gets too messy and time consuming. Thanks for understanding 😃.

What happens with Action Launcher 2: Pro now?

To avoid any potential confusion for people searching for Action Launcher in the Play Store going forward, the legacy Action Launcher 2: Pro, and its accompanying Unread Count app, will soon be taken down from the Play Store. Depending on user demand, I will look at options to make the APKs available elsewhere online for those that want that.

Next steps

I believe Action Launcher has a very bright future ahead of it, and I'm committed to making that happen.

I'm pleased to report that I've been successful in my efforts to bring on additional engineering help, and the fruits of this should become evident over the coming months. I can officially confirm that Action Launcher 25.0 will be the 25th and last update in which all the code was written by me. Action Launcher 26.0 is already ~70% done, and is scheduled to release in July, and the intention is that Action Launcher will improve rapidly, both from a feature and stability point of view, going forward.

Thanks for reading. If you've gotten this far, I'd very much appreciate your leaving a Play Store review. Alternatively (or in addition!), buying either Action Launcher's in-app Plus upgrade, or the Supporter Badge, is always appreciated, and the best way to ensure Action Launcher continues to become the best app it can possible be.

Thanks for all your support, and here's to the next 25 updates! 🍻

Android O will see the introduction of an animated clock icon in launchers

While snooping around the APK for the Google Clock app included in the latest Android O Beta, I noticed the following definitions in the app's AndroidManifest.xml:

<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.LEVEL_PER_TICK_ICON_ROUND" 
  android:resource="@mipmap/launcher_clock"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.HOUR_LAYER_INDEX 
  android:value="1"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.MINUTE_LAYER_INDEX"
  android:value="2"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.SECOND_LAYER_INDEX"
  android:value="3"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.DEFAULT_HOUR" 
  android:value="10"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.DEFAULT_MINUTE" 
  android:value="10"/>
<meta-data 
  android:name="com.google.android.apps.nexuslauncher.DEFAULT_SECOND" 
  android:value="30"/>

Furthermore, the app APK contains the the following images:

android_o_clock_images.png

1 + 1 = an animated clock icon

Given the above, all signs very much point to Pixel Launcher soon supporting an animated clock icon for the Google Clock app.

As of the July 2017 update, this animated clock icon displays in Action Launcher for the Google Clock app, for desktop shortcuts as well as in the All Apps drawer.

As a bonus, this animated clock is also available in Action Launcher as a standalone widget:

action_launcher_animated_clock.gif

Animated clocks are available in Action Launcher's 25.0 update, which is out now. Grab it from the Play Store.

Help wanted: engineer to work on Action Launcher (Remote)

I'm looking to hire an engineer to help me develop Action Launcher.

Skills required:

  • Proven Android development experience at at least an intermediate level.
  • Self-motivated, and will be able to take a fleshed out task specification and run with it without requiring me to hold your hand for 4 hours a day in a chat window.
  • A good understanding and appreciation of material design, and what does and doesn't make for a good Android app.

Location:

  • Remote (with a crossover of your working hours with Australian Eastern time).

Employment type:

  • An initial 3-month contract, with a view to extending assuming each of us think things are working well. The renumeration will be based on your experience level.

Please send applications my way. Be sure to include links to samples of your current work. I'm far more interested in Play Store and/or Github links than I am a lengthy resume.

Podcast 33: 📚 … of the year, 2016 with Jesse Wilson

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Warning: this episode contains coarse language.

It's the fourth annual "… of the year" extravaganza, in which Jesse Wilson and I each bestow 20 highly coveted and equally made up awards based on 2016's technology news.

Some of the awards include classics like “moonwalk of the year” and “lipstick on a pig of the year”, as well as new entries like “you dropped the ball at the finish line of the year” and special one I felt obliged to add for myself titled “biggest personal egg on face moment of the year”.

Follow Jesse on Twitter: @jessewilson.

Links:

Unread badge support arrives in Action Launcher - why now?

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Action Launcher's December 2016 update adds unread badge support to the app. The addition of this feature to the app will likely come as a surprise to many long time Action Launcher users. While I included this feature (somewhat half-heartedly) in Action Launcher 2: Pro, I've long resisted doing so in Action Launcher 3.

I had two main reservations here:

  1. The number and variety of permissions required to support the feature is non-trivial, and I'm rather anal about ensuring my apps request as few as permissions as possible.
  2. Unlike iOS, Android does not have a system wide API to fetch unread badge counts for all apps. In short, unread badges are only ever going to work so well on Android. For example, unread badges can be reliably fetched for SMS messages, but there remains no bulletproof way to fetch the number of unread Hangouts, Allo or Facebook Messenger messages.

As of late 2016, I'm very pleased to report my permissions concerns are largely no longer relevant given Marshmallow's runtime permission system (which the vast majority of Action Launcher's users are running).

I maintain my reservations about the lack of proper, system wide Android APIs for fetching an app's unread count that works with all apps. However, the endless stream of requests and negative reviews over the last two years due to no unread badge support have proven too much for me to ignore any longer. As of the December 2016 update, Action Launcher will begin supporting unread badges, as best it can.

Unread badge support is being rolled out somewhat softly. The feature is labelled "Alpha", and at this point support is limited to displaying missed calls, unread SMS messages and upcoming calendar appointments, as well as unread email counts for Gmail and Inbox. It works really well for these apps.

I know many people would like to see this feature enhanced to support more apps going forward, so rest assured I'll be closely monitoring feedback around unread badges, and will look to enhance it as appropriate going forward.

Action Launcher's December 2016 update is out

The goal with Action Launcher's December 2016 update was simple: address as much of the "Action Launcher looks great, but it doesn't support traditional_launcher_feature_x so I can't/won't use it" feedback as possible.

By far the most commonly requested feature from would-be Action Launcher users has been unread badge support, so a great many people will be pleased to know the feature has come to Action Launcher for core apps such as SMS, Phone, Calendar and Gmail.

Note the unread badge color matches the app icon

Note the unread badge color matches the app icon

Another highly requested feature is scrollable docks, which also arrives in this update:

In a move to better highlight some of Action Launcher's more unique features, the iconic Quickpage, a fully featured home screen panel that slides in from the right screen edge, is no longer a premium feature, and is unlocked for all users:

action_launcher_quickpage_animate_open.gif

Oh, and there's a new option to use Android's new round icons, but only if they don't look like "an icon on a plate".

action_launcher_icon_style_round_no_plates.png

Believe it or not, there's still more goodies in this update. The full change log is as follows:

• NEW: Initial unread badge support ('Alpha').
Currently displays the number of unread SMS messages, missed calls, unread Gmail/Inbox messages and upcoming calendar appointments.
• NEW: Fully customize the appearance of unread badges.
• NEW: A new "Round (exclude white plates)" icon style. Use Android 7.1's round icons, but only if they do not look like an "icon on a plate"!
• NEW: Quickpage, a fully customizable home screen panel accessible from the right screen edge, is no longer a Plus only feature and is available for all users.
• NEW: Quicktheme support for customizing dock separator color.
• NEW: Move all dock related settings to their own group in the settings.
• NEW: Line style dock separator.
• NEW: Can use up to five scrolling dock pages.
• NEW: Option for infinite home screen scrolling.
• NEW: Layout/settings are backed up via Android's automatic daily backups (requires Android 6.0 or later).
• NEW: Add 2017 Supporter Badge. It is a one-off, non-recurring and entirely optional in-app purchase that customers can opt make.

Links

Grab Action Launcher from the Play Store now. As always, if you'd see fit to leave me a review, I'd be very appreciative!

--

Note: I've previously stated my intention to integrate Pixel Launcher style 'bubbles' and long-press activation for Quickcuts/App shortcuts. I had hoped this feature would be ready for this update, but alas it wasn't. Barring something entirely unforeseen occurring, these enhancements are scheduled to arrive in the next update.

Action Launcher's October 2016 update is out

Four weeks ago Action Launcher debuted Quickcuts, bringing Android 7.1's app shortcuts to earlier versions of Android. In today's October 2016 update, Quickcuts are further enhanced with full support for dynamic Quickcuts when running Android 7.1.

This is particularly handy with the Phone and Messenger apps, which offer suggestions as to who you might want to contact next.

action_launcher_dynamic_quickcuts.gif

Other notable features in this update include an option to pick a global icon style for those Pixel owners who'd rather not look at half baked circular icons all the time, a complete makeover of the settings, new shortcuts to automatically open the keyboard when opening the All Apps drawer and more.

Full change log is:

• NEW: Full support for Android 7.1's dynamic shortcuts via Quickcuts (requires Android 7.1).
• NEW: Quickcuts, previously a Plus only feature, are now available to all.
• NEW: Add option to pick the global icon style. Allows one to use traditional icons rather than round icons when using a Pixel phone. Settings -> Display -> Icon style.
• NEW: When the dock and desktop have the same width, force the icons on the dock to have the exact same size and horizontal position as those on the desktop.
• NEW: Mimic final Pixel Launcher style All Apps. Notable changes include the app list displaying beneath the navigation bar and the use of full color.
• NEW: When opening the Pixel style All Apps drawer opens via a dock swipe, the speed it opens at is based on the speed of the swipe.
• NEW: When using Pixel style All Apps, swiping on the dock with two fingers will trigger All Apps search (with the keyboard on screen).
• NEW: Long pressing the caret page indicator triggers Quickfind (aka All Apps with the keyboard on screen).
• NEW: Completely revamped settings. Out with the teal, in with the Pixel blue!
• NEW: Remove 5 second delay when KustomLiveWallpaper loads apps.
• NEW: Add tooltips to help new users discover and understand Shutters and Quickcuts.
• NEW: Add setting for disabling all tooltips. Settings -> Help -> In-app tips.
• IMPROVEMENT: Update translations.
• CHANGE: Pixel Launcher related settings such as All Apps and folder style use "Pixel" name rather than "Nougat".
• FIX: When closing a Quickcut in a folder via an outside tap, close only the Quickcut, not the folder also.
• FIX: Fix a shortcut being converted back to a Quickcut after Quickcuts were disabled for that shortcut.
• FIX: Quickcut for jumping to Twitter's Direct Messages works again.
• FIX: Can't swipe shortcuts whilst All Apps is opening.
• FIX: Misc. stability fixes.

Links:

Grab Action Launcher from the Play Store now. As always, if you'd see fit to leave me a review, I'd be very appreciative!

--

Note: Given Action Launcher's Quickcuts originally released before Pixel Launcher's app shortcut implementation was known, they look and behave somewhat differently. Personally I feel pretty good about how they function compared to Google's take (especially swipe 'n select), but I do know a great many people want to be able to mimic Pixel Launcher's look and feel here. I don't normally comment on future releases, but I'll make an exception here and confirm that in a future update, support will be added for a visual style for Quickcuts that more closely matches Pixel Launcher, as well has having them trigger via a long press.

Podcast 32: 📚 Action Launcher in 2016: the story so far with Jesse Wilson

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Jesse Wilson returns to the show to chat all things Action Launcher with me.

Topics include why there was more than 6 months between Action Launcher updates to start the year and what I learnt going so long between updates. I also discuss my pushing to release the Pixel Launcher inspired update so quickly after the leaks arrived, how the update was received by press and customers alike. Oh, and I both tease a major feature I withheld from a recent update and find a (valid!) excuse to talk about hidden menu items at In-N-Out Burger.

Follow Jesse on Twitter: @JesseWilson

Links:

Note: this episode was recorded after early September's Action Launcher 3.9's update but before late September's 3.10 update.

Pixel Launcher/Android 7.1 style "Launcher Shortcuts" come to Action Launcher via Quickcuts

Android 7.1 will seemingly see the introduction of “Launcher Shortcuts” to Android. As luck would have it, many of the hooks required to use these shortcuts already exist in the latest versions of Google's apps, and as of today's Action Launcher update, you can use these shortcuts in current versions of Android. The feature is called Quickcuts, and it works like so:

action_launcher_quickcuts.gif

You just swipe on a compatible Quickcut icon, and voila, any launcher shortcuts defined by an app will automatically display.

Pro tip: you can use the same gesture to both swipe to open a Quickcut and make your selection!

Given Quickcuts use a yet-to-be-announced API, the number of apps that support them is obviously limited at this early stage point, but Google Photos, Play Books, Play Movies & TV and Play Music are all excellent apps to showcase Quickcuts. Action Launcher also bundles dedicated Quickcut definitions for Gmail, Twitter and YouTube, because, well, we've all waited long enough for a quick way to jump to our Watch Later list right?

When Android 7.1 is announced and as more apps from Google and other developers add support for launcher shortcuts, those shortcuts will automatically become available in Action Launcher.

Based on the leaks, Action Launcher now implements every one of Pixel Launcher's known features including the new sliding All Apps drawer, circular folders, using the round icons Google are seemingly moving towards, the Google "pill" and date widgets and more. Most of these features are enhanced in key ways also.

Action Launcher version 3.10 featuring Quickcuts is available now in the Play Store. Go get it: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.actionlauncher.playstore

pixel_launcher_features_in_action_launcher.png

Integrating Quickcuts (aka Android 7.1's "launcher shortcuts") into your app

Update (October 6, 2016): I've updated these instructions based on developer feedback. Be sure to read it again in full.

Adding support for Quickcuts (aka Android 7.1's "launcher shortcuts") into your app is extremely simple. As a bonus, very little about these steps are unique/proprietary to Action Launcher. By following these steps, your app will be very well positioned to support Android 7.1's launcher shortcuts when API 25 is released.

1. Define your shortcuts

Create a shortcuts.xml file defining your shortcuts in your xml folder. It should look like so:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<shortcuts
  xmlns:android="http://schemas.android.com/apk/res/android">
    <shortcut icon="@drawable/my_icon" 
        enabled="true" shortcutId="a-unique-string-id"
        shortcutShortLabel="@string/my_short_label"
        shortcutLongLabel="@string/my_long_label">
        <intent android:targetPackage="com.example.myapp"
            android:targetClass="com.example.myapp.MyActivity"
            android:action="android.intent.action.VIEW"
            android:data="http://example.com/some_data"/>
    </shortcut>
    ... <!-- Add subsequent `shortcut` items here --->
</shortcuts>

Notes:

  1. RE the shortcut attributes: These attribute names are exactly the same as Android 7.1 uses, with the single exception that they are not prefixed with android:. When API 25 is released and your app targets it, you can just add an android: prefix to them and they should just work in Pixel Launcher and Action Launcher both. But until your app targets API 25, you can't use say android:shortcutShortLabel because the current Android SDK isn't yet aware of such an attribute.
  2. RE the intent attributes: Be sure to prefix all attributes with android:.
  3. You are free to add as many shortcut items as you like and Action Launcher will support it. We'll have to see how Google end up actually using launcher shortcuts in Pixel Launcher, but I'd be surprised if Pixel Launcher ended up displaying more than 5 such items at a time.

2. Add a definition to AndroidManifest.xml.

Add this to an Activity definition of your chosing:

<activity ...>
    <meta-data 
        android:name="android.app.shortcuts"     
        android:resource="@xml/shortcuts"/>
</activity>

Caveats:

  1. Action Launcher saves a copy of your shorcuts.xml based on your app's versionCode. If you're tweaking your shortcuts.xml and want to test the changes in Action Launcher, you must ensure Action Launcher is not using a now-stale copy of your shortcuts.xml. Do this by either:

    A. Select Settings -> Folders, Quickcuts & Shutters -> Quickcuts -> Check again to nuke Action Launcher's entire Quickcuts cache.

    B. Change your app's versionCode so that Action Launcher will flush its cache of your old definitions.

  2. Make sure that any Activity you point to in your shortcuts.xml are exported (android:exported="true")! Currently some of Google's apps (like Chrome) don't do this, meaning Action Launcher can't load them. Action Launcher hides such shortcuts.
  3. Ensure the icon you define is visible for all versions of Android. I.e, don't put it in a drawable-v25 resource bucket or similar as the Google App currently does (which is why no icons display in Action Launcher for that app's shortcuts).
  4. For reasons that are currently unclear, most of Google's apps define their shortcuts.xml in the xml-v22 bucket. There doesn' appear to be a technical reason why these shortcuts would require Android 5.1 or later to me, but this will presumably become clearer when Android 7.1 is announced.