As it has for the last couple years, Google is releasing a developer preview of the next version of Android in March. Before you ask, no, we don’t know the name beyond “Android P.” Another thing we don’t know is just how big the user-facing changes will be this time around, as this preview is mostly focused on the changes that will affect developers. In fact, Google VP of engineering Dave Burke is calling this “an early baseline build for developers only,” so definitely do not go flashing your main phone with this and assume it will be usable day to day.
The feature that will probably garner the most discussion is built-in support for a notch cutting into the display at the top of the screen. (Google’s term for it is “display cutout support.”) Those notches were unavoidable on new Android phones at Mobile World Congress last month, so that support is going to be important at least until companies stop blithely copying Apple’s iPhone X. In the meantime, developers will be able to test how their full-screen apps will work with notches with the new tools Google is releasing today.
The other change that users may see is staring you right in the face in the image below: a tweaked look for the Quick Settings panel and notification drawer with rounded corners. Don’t assume too much there, however, as this is just an early preview and Google has made tweaks to the look of quick settings and notifications in other previews.
The new look for notifications also includes a new look for notifications from messaging apps: they will be able to include recent lines from your conversation if you want to reply inline right inside the notification. It’s similar to how iOS handles iMessage notifications, but without all that force-touch fuss. Apps will also be able to include “Smart replies” (perhaps provided by Google?), images, and stickers directly in the notification.
As I said earlier, this is a developer preview, so the above pretty much encapsulates the visual changes we’ve been able to identify so far. In fact, it pretty much encapsulates the traditional user-facing “features” that are worth calling out in Google’s blog post. There are a few more bits here and there, though. Android is finally introducing a standard dialog box UI for when apps want to verify your identity with a fingerprint, for example.
The rest are the sort of things that are related to the overall efficiency of Android or are specifically there for developers to test their apps against. The list is surprisingly long, but it’s hard to find a huge theme for Android P’s changes in the way that we were able to do with earlier releases.
Here are a few of the notable changes for developers:
“Android P restricts access to mic, camera, and all SensorManager sensors from apps that are idle.” If an app is in the background and not active, they won’t be able to access your microphone. This is a huge bummer for Facebook-is-listening-to-you conspiracy theorists.
Built-in support for more video and image codecs, including HDR VP9 Profile 2 and HEIF (heic), with the latter bringing Android more in line with how iOS does things. Google also promises more information “later this year” on “enhancing and refactoring the media APIs to make them easier to develop and integrate with.”
A multi-camera API so an Android app can individually request the data from more than one camera sensor at once. So for phones that have two cameras on the back, there will be a standard way for apps to more granularly control them.
Support for Wi-Fi RTT (Round-Trip-Time), which allows apps to get indoor positioning data down to a meter or two. It works by measuring the distance to various Wi-Fi access points.
Better Autofill, which should make it easier for password managers to enter your password for you so you aren’t constantly doing a switch-apps-and-copy-and-switch-apps-and-paste dance.
Improved performance for ART and apps written in Kotlin.
Changes to the bits that control power efficiency in Android, including Doze, Standby, and Background Limits. The Job Scheduler also is getting smarter about understanding the device’s network state and batching apps network requests together. Apps that want to fetch data in the background will need to be tested against all of that.
Google is also warning developers that Android P is going to start throwing up warning boxes at users when they install apps that “targets a platform earlier than Android 4.2.” Basically, if you’re not using a recent SDK for your app, Google will make you feel bad by making your users distrust your app a little. It’s also going to expect that apps submitted to the Google Play store target Android Oreo in November and, in 2019, that they support 64-bit hardware.
Google is also going to start “a gradual process to restrict access to selected non-SDK interfaces.” That’s code for “use the public APIs that we have created for Android or maybe someday your app won’t work” (not an actual quote). The company is taking this one slowly and is encouraging developers to reach out if their app isn’t covered.
Google has a video that goes over these features from a developer point of view, and it even includes some sample code to give an idea of how to implement this functionality in practice:
Now, it wouldn’t be a story about a new version of Android without a big caveat, so here it is: even though we fully expect more details in May and a release this fall, the likelihood that your current Android phone will get any of these features is not great. In fact, if history is any guide, your chances are perishingly small. It’s possible that the deep, structural changes that Google made to Android with Oreo (known as Treble) could make the update situation better this time around. But it’s impossible to know until that we see that happen.
Don’t install this on your main smartphone
In the meantime, developers with a Pixel, Pixel XL, Pixel 2, and Pixel 2 XL can download and flash the Android P developer preview on their devices today and can also install the emulator on their computer. But again: Google is clear that “this initial release is for developers only and not intended for daily or consumer use,” so don’t be surprised if there are some show-stopping bugs in this first release. Google’s emphasizing that concern by not releasing an over-the-air version of this Android P preview.
The good news for you early adopters is that Google is once again promising an Android Beta release at some point in the future, as it gets “closer to a final product.”