Developers can start work on it today
For the second year in a row, Google is making a developer preview for the next version of Android available in March, well ahead of its presumed consumer release in the fall. This one is codenamed “O,” and your guess is as good as mine as to what dessert the final version will be named after. It isn’t yet available for regular users to try out. Although developers can begin testing it right away, it’s best for most people to let things stabilize a bit more before they try it out. Developers can download it today.
Google isn’t yet telling us everything that’s coming in O, but the marquee feature is meant to address a perennial smartphone problem that has seen equally perennial attempts at fixing it: battery life.
For O, Google is continuing its trend toward aggressively managing what apps can do in the background (as iOS has long done) to ensure that runaway processes don’t destroy your battery. As Android VP of engineering, Dave Burke, puts it: “We've put additional automatic limits on what apps can do in the background, in three main areas: implicit broadcasts, background services, and location updates.”
ANDROID MULTITASKING WILL WORK MORE LIKE IOS
It’s possible that these “automatic limits” could wreak some havoc on existing apps that assume a more liberal stance toward what they’re allowed to do in the background, so developers will want to check up on how it works with their particular apps.
Improvements to battery life is a hard thing to judge — especially with early versions of software. So we won’t know whether Google’s strategy here will be effective on most phones for quite some time.
Easier to judge: changes in the notification system in Android. It seems like notifications get tweaked with every iteration of smartphone software, but Android’s approach has generally been better than the competition’s. For O, the big change is that apps can “group” their notifications into categories called “channels.”
That’s pretty vague, but what it sounds like is that you’ll be able to set what kind of notifications you want from each app from within Android’s main notification settings pane. So if an app offers “high-priority alerts” and “marketing,” you can turn them off directly in Android’s settings rather than digging through the app’s interface.
And speaking of “vague,” Burke also says O has “new visuals and grouping to notifications that make it easier for users to see what's going on when they have an incoming message or are glancing at the notification shade.” We’ll need a bit more clarity before we can know exactly what this all means — or if it’s just random new options for developers that will get used rarely. For something as essential as notifications, it behooves Google not to mess around with the interface too much, unless there’s something genuinely great here.
Here’s one great addition we just found in Google’s developer documents: you can snooze notifications so they appear at a later time, just like you do with email. That’s pretty great.
Battery and notifications are the biggest changes announced today, but there’s a grab bag of other stuff which may appeal to you. For example, Google is aiming to improve sound quality with wireless headphones with “high-quality Bluetooth audio codecs,” as well as Sony’s LDAC codec.
Google is also letting app developers create “adaptive icons,” which will change their look and shape depending on what home screen theme the user has opted for. That’s either a sign that theming is going to be a bigger deal than it used to be on Android, or it’s a sign that all those Android icon packs are getting popular but are still too confusing to set up for most users. Let’s go with both.