Android O: Google tries to fix Android's biggest weakness

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIF.—The next version of Android doesn’t have a name yet, only a letter. But “Android O”—which should get a dessert-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 since its 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 the almost-two-hour keynote from Google CEO Sundar Pichai and other Googlers that opened I/O at the Shoreline Amphitheatre Wednesday.

But there’s no missing the reason for its existence in the embarrassing pie chart on Google’s Android-development site showing the versions of Android in use. 

As of May 2, the current Nougat release that debuted 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 in a 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.

That won’t end all Android-update holdups. As this post from Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica explains, Treble won’t stop phone vendors from shipping weird Android interfaces (hello, Samsung!) that demand their own revisions. But it’s an important step in an operating system that now runs on more than 2 billion active devices.

Security and privacy

The afterlife of abandoned versions of Android remains the biggest problem in Android 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.

This update will guard against a different device threat—a runaway app killing your battery life—by imposing limits on how often apps running in the background can ask for a device’s location or make other requests of the system. If that sounds like an overdue move… it probably is.

In the area of privacy, Android O will randomly assign different device IDs to apps—a small but significant change that will make it harder for a developer of multiple apps to correlate your use among them.

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.

You’ll also be able to snooze notifications, which may help avoid losing sight of yet another message from a friend coming in on yet another messaging app. These changes should certainly help Android’s notifications experience stay ahead of the same in iOS, where you can’t even clear all notifications unless you use a device with Apple’s Touch ID pressure-sensitive control.

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? A new “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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  Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro .

 

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