The adoption rates of the latest Android versions (unlike the iOS releases) are never anything to write home about. According to a Forbes report, Android 6.0 MarshMallow currently has a device share of a measly 4.6% – and that’s after coming off an extremely slow start. Android Lollipop and KitKat remain the two most popular versions of the platform (with 36% and 33% shares respectively). Interestingly, in the first year of their release, the adoption rates of these versions were also low.
Google sprung a surprise last month, by announcing the first developer preview of Android N (yep, the name is still undecided). This is the first time an Android version has been announced so early in its ‘active development’ cycle. In today’s discussion, we will take a look at some of the new features and points of note about Android N:
- Availability on devices – The first developer preview of Android 7.0 has, understandably, limited compatibility. Android app developers can download and test the build on select Nexus devices – like Nexus 6, Nexus 9 and Nexus Player, along with Pixel C, Nexus 6P and Nexus 5X. Following the final release, Android N will gradually be rolled out to other manufacturers and carriers. Sundar Pichai will obviously be showcasing the new Android version at this year’s Google I/O event (18-20 May) – but the earlier-than-expected announcement has given developers the chance to get a first-hand feel right now.
- Revamped Notifications – The notifications panel in Android N has been almost entirely overhauled. Users can now reply to a message from the notification itself – thanks to the presence of the RemoteInput API (which is also there on Android Wear). In addition, a convenient dropdown toggle bar has been added to the right of the screen, which lets people expand the panel when required. All notifications from the same app can now be ‘bundled’ in a single line – ensuring smarter use of the screen real estate. On top of the notifications shade, the tabs and icons have also been highlighted more.
- All-new Battery Saver Mode – With smartphones being notoriously troublesome with their battery performance (particularly for heavy users and gamers), wouldn’t it be just great if it was possible to keep track of the pace at which the battery of a phone is getting drained? Well, the Android N version allows users to do just that, with the help of a chart. More importantly, the extremely useful Battery Saver Mode can now be activated directly from the Notifications section, by tapping the icon and then toggling the battery saver to ‘On’.
- The next level of multitasking – Google calls this the ‘Multi-Window Support’ – and the feature is, according to general users and Android developers alike, one of the most exciting features of the new platform. Apart from using two applications side-by-side on phone/tablet screens simultaneously, people are also given the opportunity to drag-and-drop either to or from any application(s). A divider is placed between the apps, which can be used to resize the space taken up by each active application. The feature gets even more innovative on Android TV, where people can now view stuff while using other apps (the Picture-in-Picture mode). Of course, if the split-screen feature is disabled, single apps can be viewed in full-screen mode.
- Arrival of the Night Mode – Lots of (mostly positive) reports are coming in about the ‘Night Shift’ feature in iOS 9.3. The ‘Night Mode’ feature in Android 7.0 – which was, incidentally, first announced with the first preview of Marshmallow – is not the same thing, but it is a mighty useful feature in its own right. Present in the system UI tuner of the platform, Night Mode in Android N has three different options – for toggling to a dark aesthetic, adding orange-coloured shades to remove blue wavelengths, and for tweaking the screen brightness features. The fact that Night Mode is accessible from Quick Settings makes it all the more easy to use.
- Call screening and number block – For the first time, Android N has brought the Number-Blocking option as a core/native feature of the platform. The support for number block and screening of apps will be extensive – covering all native applications as well as most third-party apps (reading/writing to and from such apps will be possible). If a user does a ‘Backup and Restore’ on his/her Android device, the blocked numbers will remain as such after the system restore. The feature also opens up the opportunity for Android app developers to create apps for a larger range of devices.
- Project Svelte – There are no two ways of saying this – Android’s Project Volta (to save battery life of phones) was a flop show. Google has come up with another new project on Android N – called Project Svelte – which also aims at adding some extra battery juice, by significantly reducing background activities of apps. For this, three broadcasts have been done away with. Previously, each time the camera application on an Android phone was launched, apps requested for Action_New_Video and Action_New_Picture. These are no longer necessary – and neither is the Connectivity_Action broadcast (apps called it when there was a change of network connectivity, i.e., mobile data to wifi). Project Svelte, if properly implemented, can indeed help users cut down on battery drainage quite a bit. It should not turn out to be a turkey like Project Volta.
- Doze gets a facelift – Software testers and those who make custom Android apps have given the thumbs-up to the improvements in the Doze Mode which Google is rolling in with Android N. Unlike on previous Android versions, this battery-saving feature will get activated not only when a device is STATIONARY, but every time the screen goes to sleep. For instance, a phone is in the user’s pocket, is not being used, but is still not completely stationary (say, (s)he is traveling). The Doze Mode will work in such cases too, to preserve phone battery.
- Redesigned Settings – Just like the Notifications, the Settings menu of Android N has been changed quite a bit. Of particular note is the re-arrival of the hamburger menu – which, according to users and mobile app developers, is particularly useful when someone has moved down several sub-menus while navigating (no need to constantly tap the ‘Back’ button now). Most important information and notifications have been stacked in the top-level of the Settings menu (for example, available wifi networks). A separate Suggestions menu – which works in a drop-down format – has also been added. Notifications and Sounds have been given separate sections. This is yet another improvement over Android 6.0 Marshmallow – where these are all clubbed together.
- App drawer and the Camera app – Rumors had been rife on many online Android app development forums, regarding how Google was planning to remove the app drawer in the latest version of its mobile platform. That, thankfully, has not happened – and users can still pull down and use the app drawer. Also, you can now go to the Quick Settings drawer and press the Flashlight icon, to launch the Camera application. The absence of a dedicated Camera tab here seems a trick missed – but this arrangement is not bad either.
- Just-In-Time compiler – An extremely useful new feature in Android 7.0 N. To bolster the Ahead-Of-Time compiler in ART, Google has brought in a Just-In-Time compiler in the system. The JIT and AOT will complement each other, to provide profile-guided compilation services. This, in turn, promises a host of advantages for final users – right from better (and faster) app performance and enhanced battery efficiency, to quicker app & system updates and elimination of addition footprint (of apps) in devices. The best methods of each app gets cached for optimal performance every time.
- Additional discounts for developers using Pixel C – As already stated above, Android N is still in ‘active development’, and Google has only released a developer preview (and not a test version for general Android users) of the platform. A $150 discount has been announced on the Pixel C tablet, to motivate Android app-makers check out the build on the device. Beta versions of Android N for consumers will be released as the final launch date of the version (in the third quarter of the year) draws near.
- DPI Scaling feature – A font size-changing option that was present in earlier Android versions, and has been significantly improved in the upcoming Android 7.0 platform. App developers have confirmed that DPI Scaling works right across the entire interface of devices – allowing users to make the text on screen smaller (to fit more information in the display) or larger (ideal for those who have sight-related problems). Changing font-size dynamically is a great new addition to the platform.
- No more factory images – Google has built in the Android Beta Program with the new version of its mobile platform. Instead of having to do with flashing factory images of the preview, developers can directly get the beta version over-the-air (OTA) by signing up for the program and mentioning the device(s) they need the beta for. With more than five months to go before the launch of the final version of Android N, this offers the opportunity to identify and report bugs at an early stage, so that they can be sorted out quickly. The Android Beta Program also brings more developers into the fold.
With Google moving over to OpenJDK (Java APIs and libraries were used in earlier versions) in Android N, mobile app development for this platform should become considerably easier. To improve device startup and booting times, Google has added a handy ‘Direct Boot’ option. The new platform also supports several new variants for the popular languages.
The second developer preview of Android N was released a few days back. Unicode 9.0 emoji support is one of its biggest highlights, while the tweaks in the camera interface and the ‘Clear All’ tab (under ‘Recent Apps’) are also worth a mention. The adoption rate of Android N upon release would, like its predecessors, suffer from the extreme fragmentation – but the version does have the legs to become popular over time.
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