Coming as soon as Nov. 3, is Android 5.0 Lollipop, which will debut on Google's own Nexus 6 phablet and Nexus 9 midsize tablet, then find its way onto popular Android devices from Samsung, HTC, Motorola Mobility, and others.
In a nutshell, Android Lollipop is Google's equivalent of Apple's iOS 7 a year ago: a major design overhaul coupled with many under-the-hood changes meant to set a new stage for the OS. Users will notice the new Material Design look of Android Lollipop, but developers and IT will notice the new APIs, especially (in a business context) those around security and management.
However, it's not yet clear if Android Lollipop will be as significant an update to Android as iOS 7 was to iOS -- in its final developer version released last week, Google has not included many key features that will matter to businesses, so how well the reality meets the promise remains to be seen. It's clear that it will be mainly up to developers to use the new APIs to make apps that show off Lollipop.
Android's new business security foundation
Google has touted that Android Lollipop will enable encryption by default, so it'll be hard for cyber criminals and government spies to access your information. That's supposed to bring Android to par with iOS, which has had encryption on by default since 2010's iOS 4.2.
But Android Lollipop's encryption is turned on by default only on new devices, not those upgraded to the OS. And unlike iOS, encryption can be turned off in Android Lollipop. Businesses still can't count on Android devices being encrypted and will need to verify that status using tools like Exchange ActiveSync or a mobile management tool each time a user connects to corporate resources.
Android Lollipop is also supposed to create a managed profile so that IT-provisioned apps can be secured through MDM tools, similar to what iOS 7 brought a year ago. The APIs are there, so I'm more confident that Google will deliver on this capability, which is based on its acquisition of Divide. In Android Lollipop, IT-managed apps will have a lock icon, so users know which apps are their company's but won't have to switch to a separate folder or account to access them. (In iOS, most managed apps are segregated into separate folders or app containers, though they technically don't have to be. However, IT buyers preferred to see the separation, which the lock icon in Android provides in a less obnoxious way.)
Android Lollipop also has the notion of separate user accounts, inherited from Android 4.2 Jelly Bean but now available on smartphones, not only tablets. At this point, every mobile OS but iOS supports multiple user accounts, which is a frequent complaint by companies that use mobile devices in shift work or for changing teams, such as roving cashiers in retail stores. Switching accounts is not as elegant as it could be in Android, but it's not hard. In addition, new APIs allow these accounts to be more easily managed by IT.
Oddly, Android Lollipop also has the notion of a device owner, which lets one device set up the user accounts and their configurations on another. I say "oddly" because it uses NFC to initiate the setup, meaning the devices have to practically touch. That's not a very scalable approach to device setup, and it reminds me of Apple's old Configurator approach that required a USB connection to set up and provision an iOS device.
Google is also planning something called Google Work, which is supposed to be a major leap in device management based partially on the acquired Divide technology and components of Samsung's failed Knox technology. The details are still secret -- so who knows what Google will actually deliver?
Better understood is the new Trusted Devices feature in the Settings app's security section. Under the Smart Lock label, it joins the unreliable Face Unlock feature that is supposed to read your face and unlock your device, but often does not. Trusted Devices is meant to use a Bluetooth device you pair the Android Lollipop device with as an automatic unlock. For example, you could have your car's Bluetooth service as an unlock device, so your smartphone stays unlocked while you are driving, even if IT imposes an automatic lock interval.
Google is also hoping the feature might get people to buy Android Wear devices like smart watches, a product segment littered with failed products from Samsung, HTC, Sony, and Motorola Mobility. I'm not holding my breath, but the idea of a known Bluetooth device as a form of second-factor authentication makes sense -- maybe Bluetooth car fobs, which are now quite common, are the sensible target for such second-factor authentication.
Then there are the new, more interactive notifications APIs, à la iOS 8's notifications. They also make notifications easier to see and engage with, à la iOS 7. But Android Lollipop's notifications bring in a new wrinkle of their own: data sensitivity levels. App developers can set the sensitivity level for notifications, and users can enable a filter in the Settings app for which level of sensitivity to control how much of the notification detail to display on the lock screen and active screen. The idea is interesting, but I suspect IT, users, and developers will all have very different notions of what is sensitive, so the initial deployments will cause users to not filter their notifications at all.
Other intriguing new capabilities in Android Lollipop
The Material Design look simplifies the iconography and skins used throughout Android Lollipop. The look is not flat like iOS 7, but it is spare like iOS 7. Beyond that new look are changes in how some Android features work. For example, the tray of recent apps is now the Recents carousel.
That may seem like a minor change, but the movement to a vertical carousel frees up screen real estate to support a new capability called concurrent activities. Developers can display essentially multiple windows in their portion of the carousel, similar to how OS X's Mission Control feature shows related windows together even as it gives you a view of all open apps. These related windows aren't meant to act within but to provide context for complex activities, so you can see the related windows all in on place.
New APIs in Android Lollipop bring capabilities similar to iOS 7's iBeacons, allowing your device to interact with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) devices. Apple's iBeacons are used for location-aware apps. But In Google's version, the APIs are aimed mainly at advertising-oriented beacons, such as to accept messages as you walk a mall or store. (Remember: Google's business is about data mining to sell ads, so using BLE as a marketing technology makes perfect sense for Android.) But they can also be used for less-intrusive purposes, such as triggering door locks.
The new screen-pinning API lets developers make apps run in essentially kiosk mode -- notifications are blocked, and users can't switch to another app. That seems more elegant than iOS's current Guided Access mode, which requires a user to set up and initiate. However, it's unclear if screen pinning lets you block out certain parts of the app to restrict user activity within it. That approach lets the user turn almost any app into a kiosk-style app, whereas Android's screen pinning is clearly designed for apps designed from the get-go to run kiosk-style.
Then there's the new handoff capability in Android Lollipop. It's a poor man's version of the Handoff feature introduced in iOS 8. Apple's Handoff lets you start tasks on one device and continue it on another, such as email, calendar entries, notes, spreadsheets, presentations, reminders, and map directions. Android's version is restricted to music playback, search, and photo viewing. In Android, handoff is clearly not about workflow as it is in iOS.
But the change that I think most people will notice right off the bat is the Email app -- or, rather, its likely elimination. Google has shown the new Gmail app that will become the central email app for Android, providing access not only to Gmail accounts but also to IMAP, POP, and Exchange accounts -- as the Email app has historically done. I wish I could tell you how it works, but it's not in the current developer release.
Although Android Lollipop is currently more promise than reality, the promise is big -- and it could be the vector shift that Android needs now, much as iOS 7 was for iOS.