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Android 11 will fix dozens of small annoyances, but what about the apps?

Android 11 will fix dozens of small annoyances, but what about the apps?


It’s time to catch up to the iPhone on app quality

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Yesterday, Google released a developer preview of the next version of Android, which is called “Android 11” instead of “Android R” for simplicity (and because Google hates desserts now, that’s canon). It’s earlier than Google has ever released a version of Android, and as I noted in my story on the release I think that’s because there are a lot of changes that Android developers will have to contend with.

If you are not a developer, here is a good list of the most interesting new Android 11 features so far from Chaim Gartenberg, who also made a video overview. As he notes, this is very much a “developer preview” and not a “beta,” which means that it’s harder to install, wipes your device of its data, and is primarily designed for devs to test new features.

One thing we can glean is that Google is continuing its trend of taking inspiration from the iPhone’s privacy and security defaults. It introduced more limited location and storage permissions in Android 10, but in 11 they’re going to get even more stringent.

I love it when a new operating system drops, because there’s a scramble to dig into the code and find hints of new features that haven’t been announced. Both Android Police and 9to5Google are a blast to read on these days, because they’re classically blogging stories on new features just as quickly as they can find them.

Below is a list of features that caught my eye, but unless you’re an Android user they might not catch yours. It’s a list of things that have been small hassles on the platform for ages. Every OS has them. And while tech companies will tout major new technologies as they release them, the things that usually have the biggest effect on my quality of digital life are the changes that make these computers just a little less frustrating.

These little details matter, because they’re the split-second hassles that stack up in a day and make you feel unsettled or annoyed without knowing precisely why. Unfortunately, you shouldn’t take this list as proof that all these features are coming. As Chaim Gartenberg notes in his video overview, we’ve seen features in early Android betas before only to have them disappear in the official release.

Anyway, this is what I’m looking forward to:

In the year 958, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson succeeded his father as King of Denmark, and also for a brief period King of Norway, who was said to have united the tribes of Denmark. As you can guess, King Harald is the namesake for the Bluetooth technology we know today. Twenty-eight years later, in 986, King Harald was succeeded by his son Sweyn Forkbeard. ... More importantly, though, the literal translation of Gabeldorsche is “forkbeards.” ... Yep, all of that rigmarole just to say that Google is using the name “Gabeldorsche” to indirectly signify that it is the successor to Android’s Bluetooth stack.

That’s all the fun stuff, but I want to cycle back to developers for a moment. For years now, the well-justified knock against Android’s attempts to work on new form factors is that the apps haven’t kept up. Android apps on tablets were a mess, adding them as an option on ChromeOS felt haphazard, and most recently the Galaxy Fold had a slapdash approach to windowing multiple apps.

Just in the past year, Android 10 encouraged developers to move away from the lefthand app drawer because it doesn’t work well with the back gesture. That has resulted in very few apps — including Google’s own apps — changing.

This isn’t a result of lazy developers, it’s a result of bad incentives. The new devices that would benefit from the new changes — be they tablets or Pixel phones — always represent a sliver of the market. Most Android manufacturers are more cautious in their updates, so the cost/benefit calculation for any given Android developer to keep up with Google’s latest is obvious.

The incentive structure for Android developers needs to change

With Android 11 (or, to get technical, with the new API level), it looks like Google is going to be embarking on another one of those quests, but this time it’s getting developers to update their apps for new permission structures like scoped storage and location permissions. There’s a somewhat complicated developer-facing opt-in system, but by and large the big change is that Google is making these changes requirements instead of suggestions. It’s using the whip instead of the carrot.

It’s past time it did so, I think, because the traditional incentives haven’t worked. On iOS, developers have to keep up or get left behind. On Android, most users are a year or two (or three!) behind the latest version, so there’s less urgency to keep modern. It’s a rational decision for an app maker, and I think Google could stand to make more rational decisions about requiring more and suggesting less to help push more Android apps to get better.

Last September I wrote that Google can’t fix the Android update problem, arguing that the basic way the ecosystem works makes it impossible. I stand by that, but in the months since the situation has gotten better, with Samsung offering early update betas and distributing new OS versions to its devices more quickly.

The technical changes Google made to Android to make those faster updates possible started years before Samsung’s modest improvements.

That OS update problem continues to be annoying, but Google’s various projects have mitigated that pain a bit. Now it’s time to tackle app quality. Google has a harder problem than Apple — apps for Android have to work across dozens of manufacturers making thousands of different kinds of devices.

But the stone-cold truth is that on the whole, iPhone apps look, feel, and perform better than most Android apps. Whatever gee-whiz features come in Android 11, the thing to pay attention to will be the incentives for developers to invest more in their Android apps.

The new nostalgia

┏ Fans can soon buy the original Star Wars trilogy, prequels, and The Force Awakens in 4K UHD. Weird this wasn’t available before, but don’t get your hopes up too much:

The 4K versions of the original trilogy will be the same ones seen on Disney Plus, not the first cuts fans might be hoping for. That means more “Maclunkey” for buyers.

┏ Nerf is bringing back three original Super Soakers this spring. I was a Super Soaker 30 kid. This post from Sean Hollister is a fun read if only because it’s a brief glimpse into the Very Serious World of squirtgun fanatics. Be careful clicking through, you might end up getting sucked down a rabbithole.

┏ Tiger’s retro LCD handheld games are making a comeback.

┏ How photoshop became a verb. Super fun story by Jake Kastrenakes.

In a lovely coincidence, The Verge’s copy desk made a number of updates to our site’s style guide yesterday. Among them was the guidance that we may now “lowercase proper nouns as verbs,” which means that, after nine years on the internet, writers at The Verge can finally tell you to go google something or to photoshop an image. ... “I think that the users of a language — the people — should be guiding standards, not brands or companies,” Kara Verlaney, The Verge’s senior copy editor, told me. Continuing to capitalize photoshop “just stopped making sense” when these words are already used so colloquially, she said. “I didn’t decide to [change it]. It was already happening.”

Mobile office app competition is back, maybe

Speaking of nostalgia! Once upon a time there was a big fight for who could make the best office suite for a phone — back in the QuickOffice vs DocsToGo days. All that fizzled out a bit as phones started being more than just business tools for business folks. But Microsoft’s renewed efforts on Android make me think we could see some real competition again.

Back in the day the competition was between independent app makers all using standardized document formats, now it’s just Google vs Microsoft. Not what I would like, but it’s better than the stasis in mobile office apps we’ve been dealing with for the past couple years.

┏ Microsoft’s new Office app arrives on iOS and Android with mobile-friendly features. Everything Tom Warren describes here sounds genuinely interesting, so please don’t take the following as a dismissal of the work or quality put into the new, unified Office App. I can’t help but wonder if the impetus for going to a single app instead of three separate ones was simply driven by a desire to get on home screens and a single app has a better shot at doing that than three apps, which would be more likely to get buried in a folder called “Work.”

Microsoft is still planning to keep the individual Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps available for people who only use the standalone versions, but this combined app is clearly where most of the new mobile-focused features will appear in the future.

┏ Google Docs’ latest Smart Compose feature makes the service more like Microsoft Word. Office is hard charging at GSuite on mobile. A little more competition in that space would be a pretty good thing, I think.

More from The Verge

┏ To expose sexism at Uber, Susan Fowler blew up her life. You might think that the Uber story is ancient history, but it very much isn’t. Elizabeth Lopatto interviews Susan Fowler and also gives us some needed reminders of what we may have seen headlines for but didn’t synthesize into a coherent narrative. It’s here and in Fowler’s book, and it’s sobering.

We are sitting at an amusingly named diner-type location in the Bay Area. I will not be more specific, as Fowler has been stalked by private detectives and others in the aftermath of her extremely viral blog post about sexual harassment at Uber. In fact, she would only meet me if I promised not to reveal where. ... “I do live my life a lot differently now,” she says. “I’m always looking over my shoulder.”

┏ Folding glass: how, why, and the truth of Samsung’s Z Flip. Sean Hollister with a very deep look at how folding glass actually works. I learned a lot reading this, including how catastrophic a nick or scratch can be to glass that’s so thin it can bend. “Ye cannae change the laws of physics!”

Samsung didn’t lie about the primary innovation here: the Galaxy Z Flip is truly a folding glass phone. It’s just that glass is actually made by German manufacturer Schott, it’s got a soft, scratchable plastic layer up top, and — hopefully — future folding glass phones won’t require that extra protection.

┏ Dish Network floats merger with DirecTV over pace of cord-cutting. Nilay Patel puts it best: “After promising to definitely spend the next year building a 5G network from scratch using unproven technology, Dish Network also wants to.... merge with DirecTV.”