We’re glad to announce a new collaboration between Microsoft and Google for the benefit of the web developer community. Microsoft’s PWABuilder and Google’s Bubblewrap are now working together to help developers publish PWAs in the Google Play Store. PWABuilder.com is Microsoft’s open source developer tool that helps you build high quality PWAs and publish them in app stores. Bubblewrap is Google’s command line utility and library to generate and sign Google Play Store packages from Progressive Web Apps. I hope this further improves PWAs, since they are a godsend for smaller operating systems and even bigger ones that are not macOS or Windows. Sure, nothing beats a proper native application, but if the choice is no application or a reasonably integrated PWA – I’ll take the PWA.
The first Android version to support 64-bit architecture was Android 5.0 Lollipop, introduced back in November 2014. Since then, more and more 64-bit processors shipped, and today, virtually all Android devices are capable of running 64-bit software (excluding one or two or more oddballs). However, Google Chrome has never made the jump and is only available in a 32-bit flavor, potentially leading to some unnecessary security and performance degradations. That’s finally changing: Starting with Chrome 85, phones running Android 10 and higher will automatically receive a 64-bit version. It seems odd to me that it took them this long to move one of the most important applications in Android to 64 bit.
In Android 11 we continue to increase the security of the Android platform. We have moved to safer default settings, migrated to a hardened memory allocator, and expanded the use of compiler mitigations that defend against classes of vulnerabilities and frustrate exploitation techniques. An overview of the security-related changes in Android 11.
At this point, saying Android has a serious problem when it comes to phones receiving reliable Android upgrades is getting old. We’ve written about it a lot — even I, specifically, have written about it a lot. You’ve told us your thoughts. We all get it. Even with all that, though, the latest announcement of iOS 14 really sends the message home. This week, Apple officially confirmed that the 2020 iteration of iOS will land on every iPhone since the iPhone 6S. That’s a phone that came out in September 2015, which is nearly five years ago. Meanwhile, the flagship Android device from 2015 was the Samsung Galaxy S6. The most recent official version of Android that phone received was Android 7 Nougat, which dropped in 2016. Of course, it was well into 2017 before the Galaxy S6 actually got it. Since then: nothing. Apple deserves praise for being pretty much the only smartphone manufacturer supporting its devices for this long. Despite years of attempts and failed promises, Android devices still barely get two years of updates, and even if, they arrive with major delays.
Some highlights of Android Studio 4.0 include a new Motion Editor to help bring your apps to life, a Build Analyzer to investigate causes for slower build times, and Java 8 language APIs you can use regardless of your app’s minimum API level. Based on your feedback, we’ve also overhauled the CPU Profiler user interface to provide a more intuitive workflow and easier side-by-side analysis of thread activity. And the improved Layout Inspector now provides live data of your app’s UI, so you can easily debug exactly what’s being shown on the device. It’s available on the stable channel.
With Android 7.0 Nougat, Google introduced a partition scheme designed to speed up software updates. In Nougat, Google added support for duplicating certain partitions so that inactive partitions can get updated in the background and then swapped to active with a quick reboot. This “A/B partition” setup allows for “seamless updates” to take place on supported Android devices, much like Google’s Chrome OS. However, Google has never mandated the use of A/B partitions, so many devices out there that don’t support seamless updates. That could change with Android 11, however, as Google is making it mandatory for newly launched devices to support virtual A/B partitions. Anything to make the update situation on Android smoother is welcome.
We have been working extremely hard since Android 10’s release last August to port our features to this new version of Android. Thanks to massive refactoring done in some parts of AOSP, we had to work harder than anticipated to bring some features forward, and in some cases, introduced implementations similar to some of our features into AOSP (but we’ll get to that later). Other than the Android 10 features, LineageOS 17.1 also brings back theming support (deprecated in 13.0), and the default installation solution is now Lineage Recovery (but other recoveries are still supported, and may even be advised by maintainers for specific devices). Not every Android devices is supported right away, of course, but there’s a decent number of supported devices regardless.
Ever wondered what’s it like to run Android without Google’s services and applications? Well, get a Huawei device. A smartphone UI isn’t much use without apps, of course, and here is where Huawei hits its first hurdle. Huawei has its own store called AppGallery, which it claims is the third largest in the world based on its more than 400 million monthly active users. The vast majority of those users will be in China, of course, where the Google Play Store has never been included alongside AppGallery. If you buy a Mate 30 Pro now anywhere in the world, though, AppGallery is what you get out of the box. To be blunt, it is not great. I wouldn’t call it barren — there is support from major US companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Snap. You can’t get Chrome, of course, but Opera is there if you want something with desktop sync. But a huge amount of its content is aimed at China, with other big Western names like Facebook, Slack, Netflix, and Twitter missing, which puts the Mate 30 Pro in a more precarious app situation than even the diciest days of Windows Phone. Huawei has announced a $1 billion plan to help stock AppGallery’s shelves, but it has its work cut out. A bigger problem is that even if you can get popular applications installed, they often won’t work properly because the device lacks the Google Mobile Services. It’s an incredibly hard situation for Huawei to be in.
It came out much later in March than we expected, but yesterday Google launched the second developer preview for Android 11, the next big version of Android due out at the end of the year. Despite the coronavirus disrupting just about every part of normal life, Google posted the same schedule it did with Preview 1, indicating that the plan is still to have a preview release every month. Anyway, here are the important new things in this release. As always, an excellent look at the new features by Ars. We’re still early on in Android 11’s development cycle, though, so everything is still very much subject to change.
Want a more capable and less restrictive operating system on your iPhone? Enter Project Sandcastle. The iPhone restricts users to operate inside a sandbox. But when you buy an iPhone, you own the iPhone hardware. Android for the iPhone gives you the freedom to run a different operating system on that hardware. Android for the iPhone has many exciting practical applications, from forensics research to dual-booting ephemeral devices to combatting e-waste. Our goal has always been to push mobile research forward, and we’re excited to see what the developer community builds from this foundation. This project has some serious pedigree to it, from the original developers behind Android for the very first iPhone, to Corellium, a company Apple is suing because Corellium offers virtualised iOS devices in the cloud for developers. There’s so much going on here I barely know where to start. In any event, the current Android for iPhone beta only supports the iPhone 7 and 7+, but not every part of them, and other devices are clearly in the very early stages. The source code to Project Sandcastle is available on Github. I hope this will one day lead to Android running well on all sorts of iPhone models, if only because it is such a delightful slap in the face to Apple’s anti-consumer restrictions on its hardware and software.
I was on vacation for a few days, so I’m catching up on some of the more interesting news items from the past few days. This is one of them. Following an inadvertent tease last week, Google today officially launched the Android 11 Developer Preview. This is the fifth consecutive year that the company is providing an early look at its next major operating system. In more ways than one, this initial Android 11 preview is defined by an “earlier than ever” launch. The majority of past releases arrived in the second week of March, with Google this year wanting to give developers more time to provide feedback and prepare applications to new platform features. Very much an early release, so there’s not a lot of exciting user-facing features right now.
One of the projects I have been watching with curiosity over the past year is /e/ (formerly Eelo), a mobile operating system that is based on Android, but with the pieces associated with Google’s software and services removed. The removed pieces have been replaced with alternatives, so that it still functions as a complete mobile operating system. DistroWatch is quite impressed with the release, while noting it still has some rough edges. The /e/ phone does not offer all the apps Android does, and it might not be entirely polished yet in the re-branding experience. However, it does provide a very solid, mostly Android compatible experience without the Google bits. The /e/ team offers a wider range of hardware support than most other iOS and Android competitors, it offers most of the popular Android apps people will probably want to use (I only discovered a few missing items I wanted), and the on-line cloud services are better than those of any other phone I’ve used (including Ubuntu One and Google). I’d certainly recommend /e/ for more technical users who can work around minor rough edges and who won’t get confused by the unusual branding and semi-frequent permission prompts. I’m not sure if I’d hand one of these phones over to an Android power-user who uses a lot of niche apps, but this phone would certainly do well in the hands of, for instance, my parents or other users who tend to interact with their phones for texting, phone calls, and the calendar without using many exotic applications. That’s quite impressive, and while unlikely, it would be great to have a stable, fully functional Android ROM that’s Google-free.
In early May of 2019, Google submitted patches to merge support for the Incremental File System into the Linux kernel. According to the documentation that Google submitted, Incremental FS is a “special-purpose Linux virtual file system that allows execution of a program while its binary and resource files are still being lazily downloaded over the network, USB etc.” The purpose of this feature is “to allow running big Android apps before their binaries and resources are fully downloaded to an Android device.” Isn’t this already possible in various other ways, though? I mean, PlayStation 4 games can be played well before they’re entirely downloaded, as can Blizzard games, to name a few. I’m pretty sure those just load early-game assets first, so I’m not sure if that aligns with that Google is doing here, but this kind of feels like a solved problem.
China’s Xiaomi, Huawei Technologies, Oppo and Vivo are joining forces to create a platform for developers outside China to upload apps onto all of their app stores simultaneously, in a move analysts say is meant to challenge the dominance of Google’s Play store. I’m glad Android is open enough to allow alternative application stores to exist, but whether or not non-Chinese application makers would want to partake in a Chinese state-run application store effort is another issue altogether.
Over 50 organizations including the Privacy International, Digital Rights Foundation, DuckDuckGo, and Electronic Frontier Foundation have written an open letter to Alphabet and Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai about exploitive pre-installed bloatware on Android devices and how they pose a privacy risk to consumers. Thus, the group wants Google to make some changes to how Android handles pre-installed apps a.k.a bloatware. They want the company to provide users with the ability to permanently uninstall all pre-installed apps on their devices. While some pre-loaded apps can be disabled on Android devices, they continue to run some background processes which makes disabling them a moot point. The open letter requests Google to ensure that pre-installed apps go through the same scrutiny as all the apps listed on the Google Play Store. They also want all pre-installed apps to be updated through Google Play even if the device does not have a user logged into it. Google should also not certify devices on privacy grounds if it detects that an OEM is trying to exploit users’ privacy and their data. With antitrust regulators from both the EU and the US breathing down their necks, I highly doubt Google will do what this open letter asks of them. And let’s face it – you can’t on the one hand lament Google’s control over Android, while on the other hand ask that they use said control against parties you happen to dislike. I hate bloatware as much as anyone else, but I’d be a massive hypocrite if, after years of advocating for user freedom when it comes to smartphones, computers, and other devices, I would turn around and ask Google to lock down Android devices even more to Google Play just because I happen to think carriers are the scum of the earth.
In 2019, smartphone brands have made huge jumps in camera quality, especially when it comes to zoom and low-light. On the other hand, video quality hasn’t been given the same amount of attention. That could change in 2020 with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 865’s improved ISP. Yet, even as Android smartphones are shipping with larger internal storage capacities, have faster modems, and are now supporting 5G networks, an old limitation prevents most of these phones from saving video files that are larger than 4GB in size. However, that could change in Android 11, the next major version of Android that’s set to release in 2020. The reason the limit existed in the first place is far more interesting than its removal – it’s a classic case of “ should be enough for everyone” that’s now been annoying people who record a lot of video on Android for years.
It seems like Google is working hard to update and upstream the Linux kernel that sits at the heart of every Android phone. The company was a big participant in this year’s Linux Plumbers Conference, a yearly meeting of the top Linux developers, and Google spent a lot of time talking about getting Android to work with a generic Linux kernel instead of the highly customized version it uses now. It even showed an Android phone running a mainline Linux kernel. Android is the most popular Linux distribution by far, so a move to a more generic Linux kernel benefits the ecosystem as a whole.
Google has published some statistics about the effects of Project Treble on Android updates. In late July, 2018, just before Android 9 Pie was launched in AOSP, Android 8.0 (Oreo) accounted for 8.9% of the ecosystem. By comparison, in late August 2019, just before we launched Android 10, Android 9 (Pie) accounted for 22.6% of the ecosystem. This makes it the largest fraction of the ecosystem, and shows that Project Treble has had a positive effect on updatability. That’s definitely good news, but Google still has a long way to go.
Google has detailed some of the new features of the Go edition of Android 10, the version of Android designed specifically for lower-end devices. First, this new release helps you switch between apps faster and in a memory-efficient way. Speed and reliability are also enhanced—apps now launch 10 percent faster than they did on Android 9 (Go edition). Encryption underpins our digital security, as it protects your data even if your device falls into the wrong hands. That’s why Android 10 (Go edition) includes a new form of encryption, built by Google for entry-level smartphones, called Adiantum. Up until now, not all entry-level smartphones were able to encrypt data without affecting device performance. Encryption on every Android phone, regardless of specifications, is a huge deal. Good move.
Full video of what shows a Nokia feature phone running Android 8.1 has now emerged. The unknown Nokia feature phone prototype is not running KaiOS and rather one can clearly notice Android 8.1 mentioned in the system settings. It wouldn’t surprise me if Google did indeed have plans to shoehorn Android into feature phones, only to realise it made more sense to just invest in KaiOS instead. I don’t think this Nokia phone is more than an old prototype.