As is always the case, Google used its big platform at its annual I/O developer conference to detail all the changes and updates making their way to its mobile platform, Android.
As we have known for a few months now, since its announcement back in February, we are getting Android 12 this year. Of course, as we have known over the last few months, that means a couple of new features and upgrades that build on what Google and its partners have been doing for over a decade now.
However, unlike anything we have seen over the last few years, Android 12 marks the mobile platform’s biggest redesign in almost a decade. Google says that it is the biggest overhaul to Android, ever.
The last time Google redesigned Android was back in 2014 when it debuted Material Design with the launch of Android 5.0 (Lollipop). Prior to that, another visual overhaul had happened in 2011 with the announcement of Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwich.
“Android 12 includes the biggest design change in Android’s history. We rethought the entire experience, from the colors to the shapes, light and motion. The result is that Android 12 is more expressive, dynamic and personal than ever before,” Google notes in a post on its blog.
So what should you look forward to when Android 12 finally lands later in the year? Here are a few select features that stand out in the latest version of our favourite mobile operating system:
1. A deeper personalization experience
For a while now, users of Android devices have been able to highly customize their devices and personalize them to their tastes. To do so, various device makers have deployed themes that users can download and install on their devices with relative ease. On Oppo smartphones for instance, its ColorOS overlay lets users pick theme colours – from the standard green that is the default to a bunch of other colour options (I could 10, in all). Google? Not so much.
That is changing with Android 12.
And not just that, Google is deploying is smarts here. Something that we have previously seen with various versions of Action Launcher over the last half-decade is now making its way to the core OS, finally! The system will automatically determine dominant and complementary colours from a wallpaper that the user has applied and use them throughout (from the notification shade to the lock screen to the volume controls to the widgets).
2. Redesigned system spaces
With what Google is calling Material You – what comes after Material Design – the company is completely changing the Android user experience.
Now, the notification shade not only gets to go with whatever colour the system has deemed dominant from your applied wallpaper, it also has a brand new look. Its components, like the drop-down notifications, the now playing mini widgets and the Quick Settings, are all redesigned.
Quick Settings components now have a pill-shaped form making them easy to access and hard to miss. For those of us deep into the Google ecosystem complete with smart home products tied to El Goog, their management controls are also now available right from the notification shade. This isn’t essentially something new since Samsung has been doing something similar for a long time, but it is worth appreciating.
3. Privacy dashboard
What is a new version of Android without a renewed focus on privacy?
A “privacy dashboard” now offers users an at-a-glance view of all the app permissions, the frequency of their use and, an easy way to revoke them. This is important since, at the moment, one only gets to interact with app permissions once – when they are granting them.
Given that, with the last version of Android (11), the permissions experience was whittled down to granting an app the necessary permissions every time it is in use in a particular setting or just once (one-off) or denying it, unless one specifically opens the settings app and goes over them, it’s almost a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind”.
Google wants to make sure that we are always aware of what these apps are doing in the background and that we consent to their actions. I mean, it will catch your attention if, at a glance, you notice that your calendar app, which only needed access to your speaker so that it can read you your appointments for the day, has been taking advantage of that privilege multiple times in a day, even when you haven’t used the feature, right?
That’s not all…
4. Indicator for when apps are accessing sensitive services
Google is following in Apple’s footsteps.
With iOS 14 last year, Apple moved to thwart the threat of various malicious actors gaining unauthorized access to users’ devices and turning on services that end up either listening to them (via the built-in microphones) or watching them (through the front-facing camera). After the update to iOS 14 last year, users can now tell when an app is recording them thanks to a constant green (when the camera is in use) or orange (when the microphone is in use) dot or square at the top that appears when such is happening.
In Android 12, users will be able to keep tabs with any background activity courtesy of a new indicator on the top right side of the device’s display that will snitch on any access to the camera or microphones by an app.
5. Apps don’t get access to one’s exact location
Your food delivery app or cab-hailing app may need your exact location so that you can be served well. Your weather app though? Not so much. We don’t receive weather forecasts specifically tailored to exactly where we are rooted. Rather, they are usually for the wider area/neighbourhood where we are in. For instance, people in Nairobi’s Central Business District will generally get the same forecast as those in downtown Nairobi and so on.
So, is there a need for the weather app to know where you are in order to deliver on this front? The answer is no and Android 12 will tell it as much and only share with it – and any other such apps – an approximate location instead of the precise location. Better.
6. Long press the power button to call up Google Assistant
This is old news to some of us who use devices running customized versions of Android, but it should be new to everyone who is using devices running “pure” Android builds… We have come from having to squeeze phones to fire up the Assistant (well, at least the few that were able to) to having dedicated buttons for the Assistant, as can be seen in a lot of the Nokia devices one can buy in Kenya today to this… Google says that this is so that “…you always have help from Google at your fingertips…” Well, if they say so.
There are lots of other small small additions to Android especially since we have the big UI overhaul going on, that we will only be able to properly appreciate when we have the Android 12 build up and running on a device we have access to. Others, like an animation when you plug in your charger, won’t come as a surprise to many people whose idea of Android is whatever they use on their Tecno, Infinix, Oppo, Huawei or other device which, for long, have had such features. For those using Nokia and other Android One smartphones from other brands, Merry Christmas!