Well, this was unexpected. Starting today, Google is making a developer preview of the next version of Android, codenamed "N," available for Nexus devices. That's much, much earlier than ever before — Google usually waits until its IO developer conference.
It's also going to be much, much easier for anybody to try it out, too. For the first time, the preview will be available as an over-the-air update you can sign up for at g.co/androidbeta starting later today (More traditional device images can be downloaded ). Google, of course, doesn't recommend that this preview be used by regular consumers and it is "not intended for daily use or consumer use."
What to expect in Android N
The headline feature in N (whose final name has not yet been revealed) is split-screen multitasking. Android phones and tablets will be able to show two different apps at once, and video apps will be able to support picture-in-picture. It's a feature that was dearly, sorely missing from the current flagship Android tablet, the Pixel C. (Features, it must be said, Apple has already added to the iPad.)
Google's description of this and other features is clearly geared toward educating developers more than it is selling consumers — unless you think that "a new manifest attribute called android:resizeableActivity" is great marketing. But we can learn that apps can specify their "minimum allowable dimensions" and that developers should think of the switch as going from portrait to landscape when it comes to layout. However, we don't yet know how the user interface to going into split screen will work just yet.
Google is also adding a few features to notifications. There's a new way for apps to let users reply directly from a notification — a feature that Hangouts already enjoys. The new interface seems to allow apps to show more information than the current version of Hangouts does, too. Additionally, there's "bundled notifications," which let apps put multiple messages into a single notification card that can be expanded out to show more detail.
Although Google didn't specifically call them out, we can glean a few more Android N details by looking at the screenshots. Chief among them is a new way of showing the toggles for quick settings like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. They seem to be appearing as a small row of icons at the top of the notification shade — similar to how Samsung has done it in TouchWiz for quite some time, but much smaller. When pulled down, the shade doesn't show some of the usual righthand-side status bar indicators, but there is a drop-down arrow indicates that you can reach some expanded quick settings.
Doze, Android's battery-saving feature, is also getting expanded. It will now engage more often: instead of turning down power-sucking features only when a phone is stationary, it will soon do it anytime the screen is off.
Android N should work better on devices with scant computing resources, and Google is also adding in support for Java 8. You can read the entire blog post with the nitty gritty details here. And the details that Google is discussing right now are indeed nitty and gritty — these are features that are being released so that developers can try them out and provide feedback.
The actual feature set of Android N will be much larger than what Google is revealing here. Presumably we'll get a lot more detail at Google IO.
A new distribution system
Although Google makes it clear that this developer preview is meant for developers and not everybody, it is making it easier than ever to try. Rather than needing to hassle with flashing your phone from the desktop, it is letting Nexus devices be updated to the new preview with an over-the-air update. Further updates to the preview will also be distributed OTA.
Google's Hiroshi Lockheimer says that this surprise early release is designed to gather feedback from developers right away, so that Google can release a version to manufacturers earlier than it used to. The idea being that OEMs like Samsung and LG might get a faster start on understanding the next version so they can do a better job of releasing updates in a timely manner. As he writes:
By releasing the first preview and asking for your feedback now (in March!), we’ll be able to act on that feedback while still being able hand off the final N release to device makers this summer, so they can get their hands on the latest version of Android earlier than ever.
Not every Nexus device will work with the beta, though. Google is making updates available for the Nexus 6, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player, Nexus 9, and Pixel C. That leaves Nexus 5 owners out in the cold, but the final version of N may still be available on it. If Google is serious about the "Project Svelte" updates that ensure Android will work on lower-specced devices, you'd like to think it wouldn't leave one of the most popular Nexus phones ever out.
Lockheimer touts that Android is now supported by "400 OEMs, 500 carriers and millions of developers," and — again — the early preview here is designed to ensure everybody in that ecosystem is better prepared to support the next version of Android.
Though the preview comes as a bit of a shock, in another very real way it's necessary: despite year and years of attempts to get more devices updated in a timely manner, Android still lags seriously behind iOS when it comes to getting users on the latest version. The concerns surrounding both encryption and data security are only going to get larger, so it behooves Google to do whatever it can to spur OEMs and carriers to do a better job of supporting the devices they have out on the market.
We'll be feverishly installing the developer preview on our devices as soon as we can and will be back soon with some early thoughts and impressions.
Android N developer preview first look