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.
Despite the change, Android 10 brings a lot of tasty, frequently user-requested changes to Android. The OS is finally getting a dark mode, the share menu is getting revamped, and gesture navigation has seen huge improvements over the half-baked version introduced in Android 9. Developers have a host of new APIs to play with, including support for upcoming foldable smartphones, floating app “Bubbles,” and a new, more generalized biometrics API. And on top of all that, there’s a host of changes to work around, like considerations for the new gesture navigation system and new app restrictions focused on privacy and security. Even the notification panel is getting a fresh injection of artificial intelligence, and of course there are new emoji. The under-the-hood work on Android modularity continues, as always, with Android 10. This year “Project Mainline” is the highlighted engineering effort. This initiative creates a new, more powerful file type for system-level code, and it sees several chunks of functionality move out of the difficult-to-update core OS and into the Play Store, where they will get monthly updates. There’s new dual boot functionality, too, which will allow curious users to quickly switch between retail and beta builds of Android. As has become Ars tradition, we will be covering every single change in excruciating detail. So even if Google is ditching the snack theme, you may want to grab your own snack before diving in to the following 20,000+ words of Android 10 intel. Always a worthy read. Get some coffee or tea, sit down and relax, and read.
Android 10 is here! With this release, we focused on making your everyday life easier with features powered by on-device machine learning, as well as supporting new technologies like Foldables and 5G. At the same time, with almost 50 changes related to privacy and security, Android 10 gives you greater protection, transparency, and control over your data. This builds on top of our ongoing commitment to provide industry-leading security and privacy protections on Android. We also built new tools that empower people of all abilities, and help you find the right balance with technology. Coming to only very few devices probably not near you.
Android 10 is expected to begin rolling out sometime next month to all Pixel phones. According to Canadian carrier Rogers today, the Android 10 launch date is Tuesday, September 3rd. For the past several years, Google has released Android versions at the start of the month alongside security patches. Given that the first Monday of September is Labor Day in the United States, Google looks to be targeting the day after. Now the waiting game begins for the 99.9% of Android users who do not have a Pixel.
First, we’re changing the way we name our releases. Our engineering team has always used internal code names for each version, based off of tasty treats, or desserts, in alphabetical order. This naming tradition has become a fun part of the release each year externally, too. But we’ve heard feedback over the years that the names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world. So, this next release of Android will simply use the version number and be called Android 10. We think this change helps make release names simpler and more intuitive for our global community. And while there were many tempting “Q” desserts out there, we think that at version 10 and 2.5 billion active devices, it was time to make this change. Not exactly a hugely important bit of news or anything, but there you have it – the dessert names are no more.
Earlier this year, Google announced it was going to present EU Android users with a search engine choice dialog. Today the company revealed more details. Next year, we’ll introduce a new way for Android users to select a search provider to power a search box on their home screen and as the default in Chrome (if installed). Search providers can apply to be part of the new choice screen, which will appear when someone is setting up a new Android smartphone or tablet in Europe. So far so good, but then Google goes on to detail how a search provider can add itself to the list. Other than Google itself, only three other possible choices will be listed in each individual EU member state. Google will conduct a closed auction in each member state, wherein search provider can bid by stating how much they are willing to pay per user who selects them. Search providers will have to pay a fee for each user that selects them. Google will send a monthly invoice to search providers and charge only when the provider is selected by the user. Your monthly invoice will indicate how many selections came via the choice screen per country and the total amount owed to Google. In other words, the bigger and richer the search provider, the more likely it will be featured. This rules out smaller companies and open source search engines, who simply won’t be able to compete with the bigger players. In addition, all the auction details – how many providers partake, their bids, and so on – will all remain secret. I wonder if this will satisfy the European Commission, and I’m certainly no lawyer in any way, shape, or form, but merely going by gut, having search providers pay Google secret amounts of money in secret auctions somehow does not seem what the EC is after.
Given that the Switch isn’t intended to run an alternate OS whatsoever, the state of the ROM is impressive. Android works in handheld and docked mode, audio and Joycons work flawlessly, and there’s even an optional ‘Shield-ifier’ mode that turns the Switch into an Nvidia Shield TV (complete with support for Nvidia Gamestream and some Shield-exclusive games). However, there are still plenty of bugs, like spotty Wi-Fi and a lack of rotation support. This is quite an impressive ROM – there are Android phones with crappier LineageOS support than this.
Kyle Bradshaw at 9To5Google: For the past few months, we’ve been tracking developments in Chrome that point to Android becoming a competitor to KaiOS by entering the feature phone market. Today, the first purported image of an Android feature phone has come to light, with Nokia stylings. Thus far, everything we’ve learned about the likelihood of Android coming to feature phones has come from tidbits within public Chrome code. From the code, we know that Android feature phones will be distinctly different from Android Go, as the feature phones will not have a touchscreen. Instead, the phones will be navigated using a traditional d-pad, shoulder buttons, and the number keys. Feature phones are far from dead, and it seems Google really wants a piece of this pie. KaiOS is kind of an unsung hero here in the west, but it’s quite popular on feature phones all over the world.
As has become tradition for Ars at Google I/O, we recently sat down with some of the people who make Android to learn more about Google’s latest OS. For 2019, the talk was all about Android Q and this year’s big engineering effort, Project Mainline. Mainline’s goal is to enable Google (and sometimes OEMs!) to directly update core parts of the OS without pushing out a whole system update. If that sounds technical and challenging, well, it is. These are always great reads, and a welcome new tradition.