Google unveils Android L, new design language

So, the Google I/O keynote just finished, so I guess it’s time to start summarising the most important announcements so we can go on to discuss them to death. Google announced a lot today – and most of it focused on Android. They detailed the next version of Android, dubbed the L release, which brings biggest visual overhaul of the platform since Honeycomb.

Google calls it Material Design, and it covers every aspect from Google – from Android to web. Material Design covers both how the user interface looks and how it behaves – with entirely new animations, dynamic shadows, and Z-depth. It is accompanied by loads of new APIs – both on Android and for the web – to make all these new transitions and Z-depth as easy as possible to code, and to ensure it always runs at 60 FPS (both on Android and on the web). Material Design covers all screen sizes – from round watches to big televisions.

There’s a stylised video and a website laden with designer talk, and The Verge has the Android screenshots to show it off. Still images don’t do the subtle animations and transitions any justice, but as you can see, if you’ve used Google Now you already have a very basic idea of where Google is going with this. The transitions, Z-depth, and dynamic shadows counter the lifelessness and coldness that are inherent to modern ‘flat’ design, making it feel livelier and warmer. It feels like it sits somewhere between the neon garishness of iOS 7/8 and the starkness of Metro.

While the focus was on the visual redesign, Android L will bring more to the table. One personal favourite of mine is a completely redesigned application switcher, which now resembles the card stack already in use by Chrome for Android, and displays Chrome tabs as individual applications. I’ve always found the current application switcher in Android to be cumbersome, and often very slow and choppy. This one looks very, very smooth on a Nexus 5.

Another huge change for Android is the definitive switch from Dalvik to ART, Android’s new runtime. You’ve been able to use it for a while now, and I’m sure some of you already were, but Android L will run exclusively on ARt. It’ll improve performance and all that, but it’s also ready for 64bit, and supports ARM, x86, and MIPS. For developers – literally nothing changes. They won’t have to change a single line of code to be ART-compatible.

Google showed off more features, such as battery life improvements and better notifications, but these were definitely the most prominent. The Android L SDK and developer images for the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 (2013) will be available tomorrow, and the final release will take place in autumn. As for when you can get it on your phone – this is Android, so all bets are off, of course. Nexus devices will het it first, custom ROMs will follow shortly after that, and those of you running stock Samsung, HTC, etc. ROMs are at the OEM’s mercy. HTC has promised to begin rolling out Android L to the HTC One flagships within 90 days after Google drops the code, but OEMs have broken these kinds of promises before.

Google also shed much more light on Android Wear, but there was little here we didn’t already know. The LG and Samsung Android Wear devices will be available in Google Play starting today, but the much more awesome Moto 360 will only become available later this summer. Google also unveiled Android Auto (whatever) and Android TV (I’m sure it will take off this time). While the Moto 360 is quite interesting because of its round display and just how awesome it looks, the rest of these devices and platforms aren’t particularly exciting to me. The good thing for developers is that all these platforms have SDKs available starting today, and a single APK can cover all of them.

Moving on to Chrome, Google dropped the inevitable bombshell: Android applications can now run in windows on Chrome OS. On top of that, there will be a lot of integration between Android and Chrome OS to bridge the gap between the two. The latter looks very similar to what Apple is doing with Yosemite and iOS 8, and is a very welcome addition to the Chrome OS platform. In fact, these two additions – especially Android applications on Chrome OS – actually make me interested in trying out Chrome OS.

The last announcement I want to touch upon is the first major announcement during the keynote: Android One. This is a new initiative in which Google creates a reference platform for entry-level devices that smaller OEMs in developing countries can use to build devices and sell them at prices below $100. These devices will ship with stock Android, but carriers can install localised applications. Luckily, though, users will be able to uninstall those. The cherry on top: Google will be solely responsible for updating these devices, meaning they will always be running the latest Android release.

This was a very interesting keynote, and especially the Android stuff consisted of solid, welcome improvements to the platform. I’m very excited about the new design, since we’re not just looking at a coat of paint, but also new behaviour and the APIs and developer tools to back it up.

In 2012, Patrick Gibson wrote down a remark by one of his friends: “Google is getting better at design faster than Apple is getting better at web services”. Now that we know what iOS 8 and Android L will look like – it sure looks like this remark has come full circle.


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