Today, at their annual I/O developer conference, Google unveiled the next edition of their Android software. Goodbye, Lollipop, hello Android M.
No sweet-themed name as of yet (M&Ms? Mentos? Meringue? Marshmallow?), but there’s plenty of delicious additions to the OS that’ll help satiate the needs of Android fans. Saccharine puns aside, M fixes numerous problems discovered in Lollipop since its launch last year, as well as adding to the many excellent changes its predecessor made to Android as a whole.
Google’s ethos for the OS as a whole was “polish and quality,” according to Google SVP Sundar Pichai. What does that entail? Well, the Mountain View company has “gone back to the basics” and “literally solved thousands of bugs.” So, they’ve been pretty busy, then.
Lollipop introduced Material Design, a bold, clean new interface, as well as Project Volta to improve battery life and sweeping changes to Android’s notifications system and lockscreen. It was far from perfect, though. It introduced WiFi problems, excessive battery drain, irritating toast notifications, removed Android’s silent function, and impacted performance for many users, amongst others. In particular, an issue with memory leaks — devices weren’t keeping apps suspended properly in the background — was severely hampering stability for some devices. Samsung’s just-launched Galaxy S6 devices have been impacted by this bug, which was specific to Android 5.0 — Google fixed it, and most other issues, with its 5.1 version of Lollipop.
Android M won’t change its interface, sticking with Lollipop’s groundwork. Instead, it’ll work to bring Android more in line with the recent additions Apple has made to iOS.
First, the way apps perform inside the OS will change, with better control over permissions for users. Much like iOS, Android will now alert you when an app requires a specific function (such as camera access), rather than presenting you with a list prior to installing. Google believes the new system is less opaque, though power users will likely find constantly approving or denying permissions somewhat irksome.
In one of several areas where Google finds itself lagging behind its rival, Android Pay arrives to compete with Apple Pay — and Samsung Pay, when it eventually launches. Unlike Samsung’s revolutionary method, which works at any terminal that accepts card payments, Android Pay follows Apple Pay by working via NFC technology. That means you’re restricted to some 700,000 locations, though that number is increasing. Android Pay works like Apple Pay, generating a random, secure card number for every transaction, and supports AmEx, Discover, Mastercard and Visa, as well as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
Google are also beefing up fingerprint support in Android, which was previously left to individual manufacturers to include. Now, Android M will offer a standardized authentication method, which will work with Android Pay, in-app and Play Store purchases, as well as unlocking the device itself. Yes, Apple fans, exactly like the support you currently have.
After Project Volta failed to dramatically improve battery life in Lollipop (the Nexus 6 still drinks battery like cocktails during Happy Hour), Google are trying again with Doze. Essentially, it will use your device’s sensors to determine whether you’re using it, conserving power if your phone or tablet is idling in your pocket or on a table. Google claims it doubled the battery life of its Nexus 9 tablet, but whether it’ll have the same effect on phones is doubtful, given their higher average usage.
Arguably Android’s greatest strength, Google Now is getting a considerable boost in Android M. With Microsoft’s personified, excellent Cortana assistant breathing down its neck, Google have given Now some incredible new powers — so much so that they’ve deemed it worthy of a name change. Now on Tap, as it’s now known, will monitor other apps to provide contextual information on demand. Receive a text from a friend with a dinner invite, Now on Tap will show you the hours and customer opinions, without leaving the messaging app. Receive an email from a friend about a film, Now on Tap will let you check times at local cinemas, read reviews and buy tickets. It’s accessed by holding the home button and looks to be a mighty impressive upgrade over Now — which was already an incredible, seemingly omniscient digital assistant.
Expect to hear more on Android M — including its official, sugary moniker — ahead of its launch this Fall. However, what we’ve heard so far, though certainly a more stable, refined experience, is hardly attention-grabbing.
Google had several other announcements during its I/O keynote:
- Android Auto, Google’s in-car OS, now has 35 manufacturers supporting it, with Hyundai the first to market with Auto-supporting infotainment systems.
- HBO Now is coming to Android, including Google’s Chromecast streaming stick
- Google is continuing to work on Android Wear, with a focus on being “Glanceable, Actionable, Effortless.” There are now 4,000 apps available and 1,500 watch faces. Oh, you can also now draw emoji on-screen to send to friends. Yay? Google teased “many more” Wear devices this year, but had none to show off.
- Google’s Project Brillo (they love projects) will power the “Internet of Things” — a future in which everything can connect to and be interacted with via the internet. It’s a stripped-down version of Android, utilizing a variety of features, including voice. Yes, in the future, you can tell your phone to make your oven start cooking dinner. Optimum laziness achieved.
- Google Photos is a standalone service, offering unlimited (take that, Apple) uploads for photos and videos (the former capped at 16MP, the latter at 1080p) and including editing software to tweak that selfie until you’re unrecognizable.
- Google Maps will now work offline and not just for directions. Search will still function, letting you browse for a restaurant and read reviews without an internet connection.
- Google is making a huge push into Virtual Reality (VR). Its Cardboard viewer now supports phones up to six inches and will work with both Android and iOS. Education is a new system that will let a teacher take their students on virtual trips (because getting parents to sign off on exploring the Amazon isn’t easy) using Cardboard and a compatible device.
- In that vein, Jump is Google’s VR creation platform for video. Users can shoot, edit and upload 3D video using Jump, which can be explored in 360 degrees using a Cardboard headset. Google are teaming up with GoPro to create a 16-camera, 360-degree rig for shooting video. Google’s software works behind the scenes to detect depth and blend the images together into seamless, explorable footage. Also, to make it easily accessible, Jump videos will be uploaded to a dedicated section on YouTube. If anyone can make VR video more accessible to the masses, its Google.
- Also, to hammer home just how successful Android is: Eight in ten phones last year ran Android, with one billion total users and 4,000 unique devices.