At the recent Google I/O developer conference, Google focused a lot of its time on talking about optimising Android, which is a fairly large undertaking. Making Android work more smoothly and conveniently is something that we care a lot about at Mobile Industry Review, and it’s interesting to see what Google will finally reveal in “Android M” when it’s released later this year.
In the first part of this series, we take a brief look at how Android M is being streamlined and polished. In subsequent episodes, we’ll examine some of the other key topics from Google I/O, such as virtual reality and Project Fi.
1. Android M optimises the user experience
Many of the improvements to Android M that Google highlighted recently are designed to make switching between apps and the web more fluid and smooth, in addition to Android Wear updates that should make it easier to view information from watch faces with just a quick glance.
There were also some new and interesting features for existing apps. Google Now for instance will attempt to anticipate your needs when you’re using a phone. If you’re in an area with poor connectivity, Chrome and Maps try and do more, such as giving directions while you’re offline.
Android M at first glance looks very similar to its predecessor, Android Lollipop (which by the way still only has around a 12% penetration rate more than 6 months after release). But it’s more like a fine-tuning of Android with power optimisation features and some new services.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the key developments we can expect:
Revamped app permissions
Android is renowned for not being especially user-friendly when it comes to permission requests – i.e. giving apps the ability to access your microphone or contacts when you install and use a new app. That is said to be changing with Android M, with the ability to find out what the app is accessing or which are using your camera, for example.
Chrome in every app
In Android today, when choosing a web link inside an app, typically you have to switch to the browser or view a simplified web view directly. Google said it’s introducing a feature called Chrome Custom Tabs, which is essentially an in-app browser that speeds up page loading times by preloading things like passwords and other elements.
Google also wants apps to link seamlessly to other apps, such as loading Twitter when you select a link to a tweet.
Improved battery life and USB-C support
One of the features that sounds like it will be of huge benefit to users is something called Doze. Android M will detect the phone’s motion and fall into a deeper sleep if it’s inactive for a specific period of time. That’s a fine balance between the freshness of apps and the battery life.
Even while dozing, devices will still be able to deal with high priority messages however. Google claims that a Nexus 9 running Android M can outlast the same device on Lollipop by two more hours in standby mode, something that users will surely appreciate.
Google is also adding support for the new USB-C standard, something that is expected to become more prevalent over the coming few years. It’s compatible with USB 3.1 and has a reversible, smaller connector.
Google Now on Tap
Google Now is set to become even more ‘intelligent’ in Android M, by way of a program called Now on Tap. By holding down the home button, cards are displayed that show contextually-relevant information based on what you’re doing. For example, supposed somebody sends you a message about meeting for a drink, opening Now on Tap will display information about nearby drinking establishments along with buttons for things like Maps and Yelp.
One of the demonstrations shown off was asking Google Now “What is his real name?” when listening to a dance track by Skrillex, without having to use the name itself in the query.
Google Photos with unlimited (and free) online storage
There is already a Photos app for Android phones, but Google Photos has been thoroughly reworked to store an unlimited number of photos (and videos) for free, as well as organising them automatically by locations and people.
There are some limitations to Google Photos though, as photos up to 16 megapixels are supported and video up to 1080p (full HD). Any photos larger than the limit are ‘optimised’ by Google, which says that the loss in quality will be hardly noticeable.
The clever part is the automatic tagging that takes place behind the scenes, as well as newer tools to share your photos. Google is launching Google Photos on Android, iOS and the web too.
Aside from the privacy and data mining implications for anyone concerned with giving Google even more information, the new Photos app is a compelling product.
Offline Maps, and improvements for low bandwidth
Google has honed its products to work more effectively for those places where connectivity is limited, such as many parts of the developing world. There’s a new search results page that loads much faster and pages themselves are optimised to display fewer images.
Chrome will also allow users to save web pages for offline reading, and Google Maps adds similar capabilities for offline navigation.
Android M (likely to be finally called Marshmallow) looks like the result of a tight focus on optimising the Android experience above and beyond Lollipop, not only for flagship smartphone users, but for those with less powerful devices and on slower networks. For many it will be therefore a welcome update.
It’s just a shame that so few Android users get access to the latest version in a timely fashion, as by the time most people obtain this version, the next one will already be available. Apple also has a lot to learn from Google this time around, as it’s iOS operating system has been mired by several embarrassing bugs since launch. Let’s also hope that Apple puts in a renewed effort on optimisation and quality when its developer program, WWDC, comes around next week.