First look: Android O developer preview

With a scattershot set of improvements, the new Android version is a fairly minor affair, but there’s nothing that does harm

First look: Android O developer preview

For the second year in a row, Google has released the preview version of its Android mobile operating system without fanfare, announcing its sudden availability in a blog post. The lack of fanfare is warranted: So far, Android O is a very minor update to Android 7 Nougat, which itself was a minor upgrade to the last major Google mobile OS, 2015’s fairly moderate Android 6 Marshmallow update. (Android O’s final name is not yet decided—Oreo? Orange Whip? Ollalieberry Pie? O.J.? Nor is its version number—probably 8.0 even though 7.2 would be more honest.)

I took a quick tour of Android O on a Pixel C tablet, one of the handful of Nexus and Pixel devices that the developer preview can run on. Users won’t notice any obvious differences, at least not in this first preview edition. The Home button loses the outline around its circle, and Android O adopts the UI changes introduced in the Android Nougat 7.1-powered Pixel smartphones last fall, such as using circles as folders and replacing the All Apps button with the harder-to-see Expand icon (^).

android o preview home screen IDG

Android O’s home screen is barely changed, though it standardizes on the new access method to the All Apps screen that Android Nougat 7.1 introduced.

The Settings app gains the Suggestions area at the top that recommends settings you might want to adjust. Some items have also moved, such as the Cast setting (from Display to Connected Devices)—the settings organization seem to get rearranged with every release, I guess to keep us all on our toes. There are also some new settings, such as the ability to add users from the lock screen, autosync account data, autoscan apps for security threats, and provide more information about what services apps use (to help identify legitimate apps that take too many liberties with your information).

android o preview settings screen IDG

Android O’s Settings app suggests settings that you may want to configure or update (at top).

New window features will help developers make apps work better in multiwindow settings. For example, Android O will support picture-in-picture display for videos, a feature iOS 9 brought two years ago. And Android devices connected to external displays will be able to have separate windows on the device and the external screen, similar to what a Windows PC or Mac can do—but iOS cannot (as yet). Google also says the virtual keyboards will better handle tab and arrow-key navigation.

Much of what Android O brings to the table is aimed at improving the back end for developers, which is always a good thing. For example, Android O will impose further limits on apps’ background activities to save battery life (something iOS did always), provide fine-grained control over notifications (via channels), Java 8 runtime and API support is added, the previously optional multiprocess mode WebView web content manager will now be on by default, and the new Audio API will let developers build low-latency, high-performance audio apps.

Speaking of audio, Android O supports newer Bluetooth audio codecs like LDAC for better audio. Android O also supports Wi-Fi Aware, a protocol that builds on Wi-Fi Direct to let devices detect each other over Wi-Fi and autoconnect more easily, to do the kinds of activities that Apple pioneered in its Handoff and Continuity technologies in iOS 8. Wi-Fi Awareness will require devices’ radio hardware to support the protocol, as Wi-Fi Direct and Bluetooth 4’s ad hoc networking features did.

Google says more features will be revealed in May at the company’s I/O conference, so Android O is barely starting its journey. There’s nothing bad in Android O (as there was in Apple’s iOS 10 last summer), and the relative paucity of major innovation is also true in iOS. Mobile operating systems are mature, like computer operating systems.

As a result, I fully expect Android O to be a minor affair in Android’s history, and thus will be very slow to get uptake, exactly like Android Nougat, which has less than 3 percent of the installed base nearly six months after its release, according to Google. (By contrast, an iOS update usually hits 80 percent in that time.)

That’s perhaps Android’s biggest challenge: Keeping users on the most current Android version possible, for both more consistent security and for more consistency across a company’s (or family’s) users. Minor updates like Android O tend to eliminate any pressure for upgrades, letting old versions linger. And boy do they linger with Android!

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