Android P beta announced at Google I/O 2018: Here’s what you need to know about it

The second developer preview of Android P, the upcoming version of Google’s mobile operating system, was announced last evening during Google’s annual developer conference, I/O 2018.

Android P is not new to us. This is the second developer preview, after all. The first developer preview arrived in March. However, this second preview is much more significant as it is coming to several more device models from brands other Google’s own Pixel lineup. That essentially means that more developers will be able to test their applications and have them ready by the time Android P gets a name and rolls out later in the year. It also means that anyone with the eligible devices can join in the fun.

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However, the most significant reason is that the Android P developer preview 2 brings with it several new features that were either not fully developed in the first preview or hadn’t been included altogether. Features like the ones highlighted below which we will get to shortly.

From the Google I/O 2018 keynote last night, we now know what Google is focusing on improving in Android P. According to Dave Burke, the vice president for Android engineering at Google, the company’s main areas of focus in the upcoming version of Android are 3: intelligence, simplicity and digital wellbeing.

Intelligence

Google is well known for its advances in Artificial Intelligence and it is using them to stay a step ahead of the rest of the mobile competition by bringing as much of it as possible to its mobile platform, Android, and impacting directly on the way users interact with their devices.

1. Adaptive battery

No Google I/O keynote, at least the ones that I have followed keenly over the last 6 years, can go by without some sort of emphasis being placed on the battery. Battery life on a mobile device is what really defines the extent of the mobility of the device and is easily one of the most important features of a mobile device (smartphone, tablet, wearable…). If we are to use Burke’s redrawn Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, it is the most important. No battery, no Wi-Fi access.

So, how is Google making the battery on our smartphones not suck after all those previous attempts?

Simple, it is using Artificial Intelligence (Google is calling it, and rightly so, “on-device machine learning”) to learn user behaviour, anticipate it and act accordingly. The operating system figures out the apps you will be using in the immediate future and those that you will be using later on to try and map out your needs, anticipate them and adapt.

This means less wastage of valuable system resources, reduced background activity and fewer processor wake ups. All of that, ideally, translates to better battery life without necessarily compromising the user experience as is often the case with task killing and “battery saving” apps that most users subject themselves to. According to Google, the use of the adaptive battery feature among those running the first Android P developer preview has resulted in far fewer CPU wake ups. 30% to be exact.

2. Adaptive brightness

This is just like adaptive battery and not so different from the current setup on most Android smartphones where the brightness setting can be set to automatic and the devices use the ambient light sensor to brighten up or dim the display depending on the lighting conditions. The only difference is that this is actually smarter thanks to, of course, AI.

Many are the times when we are forced to shift from the automatic brightness setting to manual by playing around with the brightness slider simply because the device fails to adapt to changed light conditions. With adaptive brightness, the Android system will keep on learning how you usually set your brightness as you go through your day to day activities and implement that automatically.

3. Intelligent user interface

Last year, Google did away with the Google launcher as we knew it and brought the Pixel launcher. Part of what the Pixel launcher packs is a feature that could be found on most third-party launchers long before Google made it part and parcel of its vision for Android: predictions or suggestions for apps on the top bar of the app drawer based on a user’s habits.

This year, Google is taking things a notch (LOL) higher with these two features:

App Actions: Instead of just suggesting apps, what if the Android system could suggest some things you could do every time you pull up the app drawer? That is exactly what App Actions are all about. Plug in a pair of earphones then open the app drawer to look for a music app and you will be stopped right in your tracks. The system will have anticipated your needs and straight up offer to take you to the music app you used last time.

Slices: These are snippets of useful information that Google is urging developers to add to their apps to increase interactions with users. Like for instance, if I happen to search for the Uber app on the Google Search bar/widget on my phone and Uber has implemented Slices on their app, as I type Uber, I will get fare estimates, suggestions not just for Uber and other apps starting with the letter U but also snippets prompting me to take quick action i.e. hail a cab there and then complete with other useful details like how far out the next available cab is…

That is a huge contrast to what we have at the moment whereby simply searching for an app returns a link (with the icon displayed) to the said app. What if all we wanted to do was a quick action and not load up the entire app? That is where Slices come and this sounds so good. It’s a good addition to Android Instant apps which took centre-stage at I/O 2 years ago.

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Simplicity

This is where there are some rather radical changes. Those capacitive and physical keys we’ve known on Android for a decade now are vanishing into thin air and will no longer be permanent, save for the on-screen home button. The rest, if at all they are ever there, will be available on-demand and highly contextualized. If you have used an iPhone then you probably have an idea how this works. Go a step into an app and you will have an arrow that, when tapped, takes you a step back.

Now, here is where it all gets interesting. Google is not only doing that to Android but it is also complementing it with gestures. Eer… like the ones on the iPhone X.

Part of the appeal for such a move is because we’re in 2018 and those four numbers that make up this year could as well be placeholders for a five-letter word: notch. In most instances where notches have been implemented (not you, Huawei), the wider appeal is to have as little screen-to-body ratio as possible i.e. more display space, less bezels and chins. This, therefore, leaves little room for addition of capacitive buttons of any sort and device makers have to spare a fraction of the screen real estate for the on-screen buttons.

With gestures taking up navigation on Android that also means the death of the task switcher as we know it. In Android P, the task switcher will live on as Overview, accessible by swiping up from the bottom of a device’s screen. Additionally, recent apps are displayed horizontally, just like on iOS devices (and iOS-copying user interfaces like OPPO’s Color OS), instead of the vertical lineup that has been there since the early days of Android.

This will take some getting used to and the irony is not lost on me that it’s an attempt at simplifying things…

There are other aspects of simplifying the user experience on Android, according to Google, that will be making their way to Android P as well. Like the elimination of the super-annoying universal auto-rotate feature (is that an Amen I am hearing?) and the inclusion of an on-demand rotate button that only shows up when one rotates the device and only swings into action (to rotate the screen) when clicked.

Digital Wellbeing

Google believes it is its mission to save us from ourselves. Turns out, we’re spending way too much time on our little screens that, at times, it could be hurting us or those around us, like family, for instance. So Google is doing what Google knows best: intervening with a technical solution.

1. Dashboard

Google loves the word dashboard. Google Dashboard used to be the central place where all of us could access detailed information regarding our Google accounts, including specific details of the devices accessing them, like the Android device’s IMEI number. The distribution dashboard is where every technical writer worth their salt rushes to every morning for at least the first ten days of the month until Google populates the page with the latest Android platform distribution figures… You know, those exhausting and depressing numbers that always serve as a reminder of how fragmented our favourite platform really is and how we (including Google) are helpless when it comes to remedying the situation (that’s why you won’t see those numbers covered here anyway).

In Android P, dashboard refers to something different. A statistics user interface that shows usage patterns and app history. It is a feature of the upcoming operating system that will let users have an at-a-glance look at everything they have been doing on their Android device.

Android Dashboard will show a user how much time they spend on various apps, how many times they unlock their phones, and the number of notifications they get in a day. Where the user mandates it so, it will also notify the user when they are spending way too much time on one activity in an effort to obtain a balance between our digital and physical (“real-world”) lives. That is why the next feature targeted at ensuring users’ digital wellbeing is important…

Developers will need to link their apps to Dashboard in order for usage stats from their specific apps to displayed thereon.

2. App Timer

As the name suggests, this feature is basically just that: an app timer. Set a time for yourself for a particular app and when your time is up on that app, it gets grayed out to dissuade you from using it so that you can, well, “get a life”.

3. Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb mode stays as the Do Not Disturb mode that we have known from the last two major iterations of Android. What’s new in Android P is that turning down the phone will now automatically enter it into DND mode shutting out all notifications and any other sort of disturbance that one may want to avoid.

4. Wind Down Mode

This is an interesting one and it makes use of the Google Assistant. Simply tell Assistant when you want to “wind down” and when that time reaches, the user interface will be grayscaled to dissuade further use of the device. Service returns to normal the following morning.

Availability

Thanks to Project Treble, these devices are getting access to Android P beta alongside the usual suspects, Google’s own Pixel devices: Sony Xperia XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo R15 Pro, Vivo X21, OnePlus 6, and Essential PH‑1.

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Note: One may need to register as a developer on the respective websites of the different device makers in order to be allowed to opt in to the Android P developer preview program. This is a good place to start.

Have something that you believe I need to have a look at? Hit me up: echenze [at] androidkenya.com