At its Google I/O 2015 keynote address on Wednesday, Google announced a preview release of the next version of Android, the dominant mobile platform. Android M, as the release is called, is a fit and finish update to the current Android release, but it adds a ton of new functionality.
Here’s what you need to know about the Android M Platform Preview.
Numbers. This didn’t get a lot of press, but Google didn’t provide a device activations update as it has for the past several I/Os, noting instead that Android shipped on “8 out of every 10” smart phones in the past year. In a separate blog post, the search giant noted the following: “There are now more than one billion Android users worldwide …. and 4,000 unique Android devices on the market, from more than 400 manufacturers and over 500 carriers.” Here’s what they’re not telling you (aside from an activations update): the current version of Android, L (for Lollipop, or version 5.x) is not even on 10 percent of Android devices yet.
Major or minor release? Various rumors have pegged Android M as a major release (version 6.0) or a minor update to Android L (5.5 or whatever). It’s not clear what Google intends, at least based on the presentation. I think of this release as iOS 8 is to iOS 7: an evolution of a major release, e.g. a minor update really. And Google SVP Sundar Pichai said as much, noting that with M, it was “going back to the basics” in the wake of the major L release and is “really focusing on polish and quality.”
It’s about improving the core user experience of Android. Google vice president of Engineering Dave Burke said that Android M was about improving the core user experience of Android, with a focus on product excellence. This includes “squashing thousands of bugs,” which is a bit alarming, and also about fundamentally rethinking some functionality that’s been in Android for years (which speaks to that question about major/minor). And with Android M, Google is also “folding in” some functionality to the core OS that its partners had innovated on in the past. He then highlighted six core improvement areas in this release, which will form the next six points here.
App permissions. If you think about how app permissions work today, you install an app and have to agree upfront to what is usually a long list of permissions—for the device’s location, camera, microphone, contact’s list and so on—that the app needs to operate. With Android M, Google is greatly simplifying app permissions, and will no longer prompt at app installation time. Instead, apps will ask for permission on a feature-by-feature basis and they will only do so when that feature is first needed. And you can go into app settings at any time and revoke (or allow) any permissions at any time. (Likewise, in Android settings, you can see which apps have which permissions as well.) The bad news? This new system only applies to new apps compiled against the M SDK. Which means rollout will be very slow.
Web experience. Apps that need to link to web pages have two choices today: they can context-shift the user to the device’s web browser or they can build their own mini web browser right in the app itself. Neither is ideal, so Google has created a new feature called Chrome Custom Tabs, letting app developers provide users with all of Chrome’s capabilities without requiring them to leave the app. Now, when users tap on a web link, there’s a nice graphical sliding animation as the web content appears with app branding. “It’s the Chrome web browser running on top of your app,” Burke explained, but it looks and feels like the app user experience. For users, this means you get all of Chrome’s features: you’re still signed in to your favorite sites, you get your custom auto-fill data, and can take advantage of the security of the Chrome web browser.
App links. Mobile platforms like Android all provide app sandboxing so that individual apps can’t harm the OS or other apps. But these platforms also need a way for apps to talk to each other, sort of like the copy/paste of complex data types from the OLE days of Windows in the 1990s. Android uses a system called Intent, and you have no doubt seen the dialog that appears sometimes asking you which app to use for common choices (like web browsers). In Android M, this is being improved with a more powerful app linking capability that will automatically verify known-good apps. So a Twitter link will always open in the Twitter app if that’s what the app—or you—wants.
Mobile payments. Google Checkout begat Google Wallet which begat Android Pay, the new mobile payment system in Android M. If you’re familiar with Apple Pay, you get the idea. In fact, Android Pay is almost a point by point copy of Apple Pay—which is absolutely fine, of course—with virtual account numbers for stored credit cards, contact-less payment support, and, on Android M-class devices, fingerprint scanner sign-in support. It is open to developers to use in their own apps (banks, stores, whatever) as well.
Power and charging. Android M will be smarter about managing power, which should lead to better battery life. A new feature called Doze uses motion detection to throttle back into a deeper sleep state which sounds an awful lot like Instant On (Connected Standby), where the device can still trigger alarms, respond to incoming chat requests and the like. Long story short, it’s possible that devices with M will last up to twice as long on standby as the same device on Android L. Additionally, Android M will support USB-C, which provides much faster charging and even bi-directional power. So you could actually use an Android M device to power another device. Which sounds silly, but there you go. This obviously requires new hardware.
But wait, there’s more. In addition to the six major new functional changes mentioned above, Burke also quickly highlighted a number of smaller but meaningful updates coming in Android M. Simpler word selection with a floating clipboard toolbar. Direct Share for simpler sharing with people you access frequently. And some suspiciously Windows Phone-like custom volume controls.
The Android M Developer Preview is available now for Nexus 5, Nexus 6, Nexus 9 (Wi-Fi) and Nexus Player (Android TV), as is the initial preview release of the Android Studio 1.3 development environment, the new Android Design support library and v7.5 of the Google Play services. According to the schedule, this first preview release will be followed by a second preview in June, a third preview in July, and the final release in Q3. So we should see it on new Android devices by 2017 or whatever ridiculous schedule Android is on.
I’ll see if I can’t get this thing installed on my Nexus 5 and Nexus 9 and start seeing what else is new.