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Android P: an exclusive first look at Google’s most ambitious update in years

How the new update could help you use your phone less

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This year, Google is doing something different with Android. Instead of showing you all the ways you can use its phone operating system to do more, it’s creating features to help you use it less.

Android P, due out later this year, will have a new dashboard that tells you how often, when, and for how long you are using every app on your phone. It will also allow you to set limits on yourself. You could give yourself a half-hour of Instagram per day, for example. Once your 30 minutes is up, the icon will go from its usual eye-catching gradient to a dull grayscale.

The feature is one of several that Google is combining into a theme it calls “Digital Well Being.” Presumably, it didn’t want to borrow “Time well spent,” the buzzy catchphrase popularized by ex-Google “design ethicist” Tristan Harris and adopted (or better: co-opted) by Mark Zuckerberg.

Android P also includes a new core interface that uses iPhone-like navigation gestures and smarter ways to access functions that are usually buried away inside apps. It’s the biggest change to how users get around on their phones that I’ve seen in a long time.

It’s also available as a public beta starting right away on 11 different phones. That’s intriguing because Google is actually making progress on getting manufacturers to update their phones in a timely manner.

Seriously, there’s a lot here. Last year, Android Oreo was more about internal changes than user-facing features. This year, Android P (and no, Google isn’t saying what the “P” stands for yet) is full of visual changes and new features. In terms of how it actually feels to use an Android device day-to-day, it could be the biggest update in years.

Parental controls for your inner child

It’s a good time for Google to introduce the idea that it can help limit our tech obsessions. Harris’ “Center for Humane Tech” helped kick off waves of stories about digital distraction and addiction earlier this year, which then metastasized into worries that our social media apps are hacking our brains.

Sameer Samat, VP of product management for Android, says that the company has been working on these tools for a long time based on user research, not a desire to draft off the growing wave of concern about distraction.

”There are 2 billion Android users. It’s the largest mobile operating system in the world,” he says. “We are the OS, and we feel like we need to be doing more around this area. We feel like we have a responsibility to do more.”

Android P offers a handful of tools to help you keep your phone from bothering you, ranging from subtle tweaks to how notifications work to new features that literally keep you from using it.

The most interesting is the new usage dashboard. It’s an app that gives you an almost overwhelming amount of information about your phone usage. Here’s how it breaks down the data:

  • How many minutes you’ve used your phone overall per day
  • How many notifications you’ve received
  • A pie chart of how long you’ve used each app on your phone that day
  • How long per day you’ve used each app on your phone, broken down hour by hour

Samat says that this dashboard is part of a two-step campaign to get you to have a better relationship with your phone. “If you think about your day, do you remember how much you’ve used your phone? Do you know what you’ve done?” Chances are, your answers to both questions aren’t very accurate.

Dashboard is designed to give you answers to those questions. Think of it as a quantified self app. Only instead of obsessing over your step count and calorie intake, you’re analyzing whether or not it’s a good idea for you to be opening your work email at 11PM.

The second step after “awareness,” for Samat, is “control.” The dashboard lets you set limits on your usage. You can set a number of minutes per day that you are allowed to use each app. When you get close to the end, a notification pops up warning you that you’re almost out of time. And when you’ve reached your self-imposed limit, the app is “paused.” It amounts to parental controls (which already exist for Android), but for you instead of your child.

A paused app has a grayscale icon on your home screen and it flat-out won’t open in Android P. Instead, when you tap it, a pop-up appears telling you that you’ve hit your limit, and the pop-up doesn’t have an option to “unpause.” To do that, you have to go through the work of heading back to the dashboard app. Later versions of the Android P beta may add an unpause option to the pop-up, but for the first public beta, Google wanted to go to the full extreme to see how users felt about it.

The grayscaling and self-limitation doesn’t stop with the dashboard. There’s also a new feature called “Wind down.” Turn it on, and tell it when you want to go to bed. When bedtime arrives, your phone will automatically go into Do Not Disturb mode and become entirely grayscale, with no color at all. It will still work, but with a (literally) stark visual reminder that you’re breaking your promise to yourself to shut the thing down and go to sleep.

And speaking of Do Not Disturb, Android P is going to be more aggressive with that, too. Now, when you turn DND on, your notifications literally disappear. They don’t get shown on the lock screen, the always-on display, or in your notification drawer. The only way your phone will buzz or give you any visual indication at all that somebody’s trying to reach you is if a pre-set starred contact calls.

The Android P beta goes to extremes to turn down your notifications

Samat says the company is also experimenting with a new gesture. If your phone is sitting faceup on a table and you flip it, it will be able to automatically turn on DND mode. (It only works that way if it was sitting on a table to start. If you just set it facedown after carrying it, it won’t turn on DND.)

Google is also iterating how notifications work in Android P to further limit distractions. The operating system is already great at offering options (perhaps too many of them) for how notifications do or don’t buzz your phone, so in P, Google is making them easier to access.

With P, your phone will keep an eye on the notifications you’re just ignoring and swiping away every day. After a while, when you’ve swiped one away for the umpteenth time, it will offer a small prompt asking if you’d just like to disable notifications from that app (technically, that notification channel). It’s also going to let you long-press on a notification to get to that app’s notification settings. (The slow-swipe to reveal the settings gear will still be there, too.)

Even better: at the bottom of the notification tray is a new “Manage notifications” button. Tap it, and you’re taken to a screen that shows all your app notification preferences, ordered by how recently they notified you. You can also sort by which apps send the most notifications.

There’s one more option to reduce distraction for corporate users. On Android, it’s possible to have your phone configured so you have separate “work apps” from your regular apps. In Android P, those apps are separated out into a different tab on the app drawer. At the bottom of that tab is a toggle switch to disable them. So when you go on vacation, you can also take a holiday from your work apps without having to go through the rigamarole of turning off notifications one by one.

So: Dashboard, Wind Down, new Do Not Disturb settings, and new ways to more easily turn off notifications. Taken together, it’s a full court press against many of the ways that your phone can demand your attention. It’s so much that I couldn’t help but wonder if Google was worried that third-party developers would not take kindly to their apps being so easily restricted. “We talked a lot [to] our developer partners about this,” Samat says, arguing their feedback has been positive. “I think the concept of engagement is changing to ‘meaningful engagement.’”

Gestural navigation

Android P completely revamps the core navigation of your phone. There’s still a home button that you can tap to go home. And there’s still a back button within apps — don’t panic — but much of the rest of what Android users have gotten used to is changing.

In essence, Google is switching up the behavior of the home button on Android P. You will swipe up now to go to an overview of open apps and swipe up further to go to your app tray. There’s no longer a square multitasking button, and the back button only shows up in apps.

Dave Burke, VP of engineering for Android, says that the changes to navigation on Android were made in the name of “making Android simpler but also more approachable.” It’s a counterintuitive way to describe the new system. The way we typically think about UI (and, in fact, the way Android designers used to talk about it), is that having a visible button you can tap is better than remembering a gesture — or, in this case, several of them.

But swiping is not that much harder than tapping, and I got used to the new navigation system in a matter of seconds. Conceptually, Android has always been just a little more complicated than iOS anyway, since it has one or two more areas to find stuff (e.g., the app drawer).

And it’s not as if gestural navigation is anything new in smartphones. If you’ve ever used an iPhone X, it’s similar to how that system works, but with a few key changes. If you’ve ever used a webOS phone, it will feel even more familiar. There are even existing Android phones that have already been working on something like what Android P does.

Even so: anticipate many people saying that Android P has stolen the iPhone X’s gesture system. Burke says that Google has “been experimenting with this for a long time, so it’s something that kind of predates” the iPhone X. Of course, he admits that it doesn’t predate webOS, but “Matias Duarte works at Google and so we chat a lot” and so there’s some “lineage going on.”

I don’t particularly care if the new gesture navigation is borrowed or inspired. More important is that once I learned the new Android P way of doing things, the benefits were undeniable. It took a minute to get a feel for the difference between half-swipe and a full-swipe, but otherwise, the system felt completely intuitive.

Because these gestures work no matter where you are in the system, you have immediate access to both the overview screen and the app drawer at all times. If I want to just switch apps quickly, the advanced gesture of sliding the home button over works well, and it lets you jump quickly to more than just the last-used app.

The overview screen is particularly useful. I’m not sure I love having full thumbnails on the overview screen, but it can be helpful. Burke says the goal was to make content in those apps “glanceable.” Google is also putting that row of predicted apps at the bottom right next to the search bar. I’m super happy that there’s now a quick, universal way to bring a typing search up on Android again.

Beyond core navigation, a bunch of little things have been tweaked. Now that there’s no multitasking button, Android P sometimes uses that space to show a rotate button. It shows up if you rotate your phone, but it’s locked in portrait mode. Tap it, and you’ll quickly get your video in widescreen for a quick viewing without changing the global setting. Neat.

As rumored, the screenshot tool now gives you a way to directly annotate images before saving or sharing them. (Thank god.) They also added a screenshot button to the menu that pops up when you hold the power button down in case you hate the volume + power key combo.

I don’t love the new volume button behavior. It defaults to just adjusting media volume now, also showing a toggle to switch your ringer between on, vibrate, and silent. That means that, on many phones, there won’t be a hardware-based way to quickly put your phone on silent. You will have to tap the screen instead of just holding down a volume button.

Finally, as it does every year, Google is mucking about with the quick settings menu. This time around, the icons are blue and no longer have a drop-down menu underneath them. Tapping toggles functions on and off, and long-pressing jumps you to more settings.

Another crack at powering the UI with AI

I’ve written before that Google’s ultimate goal is to build something like the Star Trek computer, something where the user interface is informed by and constituted of artificial intelligence. We are closer to that now than we were when the company launched Google Now for predictive content (2012) or when it created Google Assistant (in 2016).

“Closer,” however, is a relative term. Google has taken a few baby steps forward and at least one or two back. Google Now, for example, has ended up buried in a submenu in Android because its predictive results never really ended up being that useful. In Android P, Google is still trying to use its skills in AI and machine learning to make Android smarter, but it's setting its sights on easier problems. “We’re getting better at understanding how to apply [machine learning and AI] to the kind of problems that they’re good at,” Burke says.

Here are a couple simple examples: the Android team “partnered” with DeepMind (which is technically part of Alphabet, not Google) to add AI to battery management. The phone will keep an eye on what apps you launch and when, and it will shut down apps in the background it doesn’t think you’re likely to launch anytime soon. It will do something similar with your brightness slider, watching how you use it over time and adjusting the adaptive brightness to match your habits.

There are slightly more ambitious UI changes driven by Google’s algorithms, however. Google is introducing developers to a couple of terms: “Actions” and “Slices.” They are essentially deep links into apps that are able to surface in other parts of the operating system. Actions are analogous to Actions on Google Assistant; Slices are a subset that can show the app’s own UI when you type out a global search on the phone.

Users, hopefully, aren’t going to need to understand arcana like deep links and Slices. Instead, they’re just going to find that Android P intelligently shows them things that they can do directly instead of hunting down an app icon.

So, for example, the app drawer has one more section I haven’t mentioned yet. Underneath the predictive app row (yet another AI-driven interface) are two new buttons. Android P tries to predict certain stuff you might want to do — like text a friend or re-order food in a delivery app — and it puts direct links to do those things right there. They’re similar in concept to app shortcuts that already exist in Android, but updated for 2018. Actions can appear pretty much anywhere: in the launcher, in Google Assistant, on your home screen, or even on the Google Play Store.

Slices show up a little differently. For now, they’ll only appear when you do a search on the phone. If you type, say, “Lyft,” then some of the search results will come from deep inside the Lyft app. You’ll see a button to call a Lyft directly to go home, complete with that app’s icons and design.

The idea behind both of these concepts is to break out the different pieces of the apps you use into the larger operating system. Samat calls it the “decomposition of apps,” though without the connotations of death. “Yeah, you want to go the app,” he says, “but actually what you want to do is go to your house or reorder from Instacart.”

Developers will need to build some frameworks into their apps to make Actions and Slices available to the system. When they do, the AI in Android P will try to understand what those apps can actually do and suggest those actions to you. “When you modularize the app, it’s not just an API call,” Samat says. “You have these components that can be understood by the system, predicted by the system, and then rendered by the system.”

One last thing: Google has developed another framework for developers called “MLKit,” which enables developers to more easily add machine learning into their apps. It can work locally or in conjunction with cloud services — and it will operate on both Android and iOS.

The Treble with Android updates

The specter that hangs over every Android release is that everybody knows it will be months — if not more than a year — before most phones will get it. And every year Google has had a different strategy to fix that problem.

For most of Android’s life, that strategy amounts to little more than cajoling carriers and manufacturers into doing better. But last year, Google decided on a more technical fix. It is called Treble, and it’s a fundamental rearchitecting of how Android is built and customized. The theory goes that the core underpinnings of Android could be updated and the skin on top would be kept separate, speeding up updates. The other theory is that by working with chipmakers earlier in the development process, Google could help actual phone manufacturers release their updates faster.

Android updates seem like they could be in a better state than ever (though that’s faint praise)

This year, there is one sign that the technical fix is working better than just asking nicely. The Android P public beta is available right away, but it’s coming on seven different third-party Android devices. Usually, betas only happen on Google’s own Pixel or Nexus phones. And so if earlier betas are any indication, we might actually see phones release Android P updates sooner than before.

Here’s the list of phones that will support the beta: Sony Xperia XZ2, Xiaomi Mi Mix 2S, Nokia 7 Plus, Oppo R15 Pro, Vivo X21, OnePlus 6, and Essential PH‑1, the Google Pixel, and Google Pixel 2. If you also count the XL version of the Pixels, that’s actually 11 different Android phones with betas. It’s more progress toward solving the Android update problem than I think I’ve ever seen.

In fact, Essential tells me that after receiving a build of Android P on a Friday about a month ago, it was able to stand up a working beta on the PH-1 by Monday. Because Treble does so much to separate out customizations from the core OS, any phone that’s already been “trebleized” and doesn’t have too many deep integrations should be much easier for the manufacturer to update.

But — you knew there’d be a but — the biggest Android manufacturer isn’t listed here: Samsung. An optimist might point out that Samsung’s silicon division is working closely with Google in the new Treble framework, so there’s no reason to panic about the lack of Galaxy phones offering the beta. A pessimist might say that betas are nice and all, but given the history, we should probably assume the worst.

I’m somewhere in the middle, but I am not naïve: even if Treble works perfectly, there’s no possible world in which Android phones will be updated as quickly and consistently as iPhones.

So how many devices can we actually expect will get Android P in a timely fashion? “I don’t want to give a precise number because things can change,” Burke says. But he says he’s expecting a “high teens number of devices on P by the end of the year.”

It’s certainly too early for me to render any judgments on the quality or success of Android P based on just an hour or two of poking around. But it’s not too early to render another judgment: P is the biggest and most ambitious change to Android in some time.

In a single release, Google is taking on the problem of digital distraction, completely upending the core navigation of the OS, and working hard to break out the stuff we want to accomplish within apps into the rest of the OS. And all that is on top of the visual changes we’ve already seen in the earlier developer preview.

But the most important change to Android might not be what’s in Android P, but instead, the new update foundation laid down last year. Google needs to take the momentum of getting so many partners in on the beta and turn it into real, timely releases on phones not called “Pixel.” If that happens, then, in my mind, the P won’t stand for a dessert. It will stand for “Finally.”

Video by Vjeran Pavic, Felicia Shivakumar, and Christian Mazza
Photography by Vjeran Pavic