MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.—The next version of Android doesn’t have a name yet, only a letter. But “Android O”—which should get adessert-based moniker when it ships later this summer—does have a set of features that Google (GOOG, GOOGL) pitched over the first day of its I/O developer conference here.
As in earlier updates, Android O brings a grab-bag of features. Some address lingering pain points in this mobile operating system, while others borrow from features Apple (AAPL) added to iOS. Another represents an overdue remedy for a problem that’s afflicted Android sinceits debut almost nine years ago: the zombie-like persistence of obsolete versions.
And of course, there’s better emoji support.
Project Treble: easing updates, we can only hope
The most important part of O—a rebuilding of Android’s foundation to remove an obstacle to timely software updates—barely got a mention in thealmost-two-hour keynote from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other Googlers that opened I/O at the Shoreline Amphitheatre Wednesday.
As of May 2, the current Nougat release thatdebuted last August runs on 7.1% of all devices that had connected to the Play Store in the prior seven days. The most widely used Android release was the two-year-old Marshmallow, on 31.2% of devices. At Apple, meanwhile,79% of iOS devices that visited the App Store on Feb. 20 ran the current iOS 10 release.
Project Treble, announced ina blog post last week, aims to free chipset vendors from having to tweak the code that keeps their circuitry talking to the rest of Android. Treble will add a layer of translation code between that proprietary software and the rest of Android—the equivalent of putting a standard-size joint atop some intricate plumbing in the basement. A hardware vendor can write Treble-compliant, circuit-specific code once for a device and know that future versions of Android will understand it without further rewrites.
The afterlife of abandoned versions of Android remains the biggest problem inAndroid security, but many users worry instead that they’ll pick up malware in the Play Store. In reality, that’s a vanishingly small risk compared to the odds of getting hacked after downloading an app from elsewhere, thanks to a variety of malware scans that happen in the background.
Android O will add more layers of security hardening but will also make these app-safety checks visible in a Google Play Protect feature showing their status. It’s literally security theatre. As Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, product-management director for Android, said in the keynote, “Most Android users don’t know these services come built into Android devices with Play.” But if it gets people to trust the Play Store over less-secure sources, it’ll be a worthwhile production.
Notifications, picture-in-picture and other interface tweaks
Android O will require apps to group their notifications—the little nags that pop down from the top of the screen—into “channels” that you can turn on or off. It’s meant to stop apps from being too needy; in practice, having yet another option to set may not yield much difference.
App icons will be able to show a different sort of notice: colored “notification dots” at the top right corner of each that indicate something’s changed. That seems a pretty clear case of Google following Apple’s lead,not that there’s anything wrong with that.
A picture-in-picture option will pick up on the examples of some Android vendors by letting you watch a video clip or chat in one corner while taking notes or checking your calendar.
The interface change I’m most likely to appreciate: “Smart Text Selection,” in which Android will automatically select all of a street address, phone number or other significant block of text once you start trying to pick it up. This won’t work out of the box (as I saw in a demo phone), because Android will use “on-device intelligence” to build a phone-specific model of the kinds of data you often copy and paste.
By not syncing this personal data to the cloud—as Cuthbertson boasted, “without any data leaving the device”—Google borrows yet again from its neighbors at Apple.
The interface tweak everybody may notice first? Anew “EmojiCompat” feature that should end the stigma of an iOS user sending a new emoji that doesn’t appear correctly on Android. Goodbye, blank boxes; hello, taco and unicorn emoji.
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