Google is taking another shot at bringing new features to phones that haven’t gotten OS updates in years. It’s releasing something called the “Extension Software Developer Kit,” which should let developers use features like Android 13’s new photo picker in apps running on some versions of Android 11 and 12. In a blog post announcing the change, the company says the feature lets it “extend the support of certain platform functionality to existing Android versions.”
While more access to the photo picker previously exclusive to Android 13 is definitely nice, Google seems to have much bigger plans for the Extension SDK. “This update also sets the stage for expanding Privacy Sandbox testing on Android,” says Scott Westover, a Google spokesperson. Privacy Sandbox is Google’s in-progress replacement for its current ad-tracking system, and the company is planning to roll out the beta for the system on Android 13.
So far, Google isn’t talking about backporting Privacy Sandbox to older versions of the OS. Instead, it seems like the Extension SDK will help the company update Privacy Sandbox on newer versions of Android without having to put out major OS updates. The blog uses the test as an example of how being able to introduce new features outside of major updates “allows faster innovations.”
The way this works is complicated, and the blog post announcing the news is mainly aimed at the developers who will actually be making use of the system. The TL;DR is that Google’s been laying groundwork for years that lets it update core components of Android through the Play Store. Now, it’s taking advantage of that system to make changes to the APIs that developers use and giving them new ways to check what the system is capable of. In the photo picker example, a developer could have their code check to see whether the user’s Android 11 phone has a sufficiently updated API — and use the new photo picker if it does.
This is just the latest effort from Google to make sure that users can still get new features, even if the company that made their phone isn’t releasing software updates. (Something I deeply appreciate as someone who just bought a phone that will likely stay stuck on Android 11.) With Android 10, the company introduced “Project Mainline,” which is meant to make it so that some parts of the OS could be updated through the Play Store. Mainline itself followed Android 8’s Project Treble, which XDA Developers says was meant to make it easier for phone manufacturers to push out updates.
We’ve actually seen this work pay off. Some of Android’s systems for controlling things like media playback, Wi-Fi, permissions, and even the Android Runtime itself have been modularized, giving Google more control over how they’re updated. And the company has taken to rolling out new features like digital state ID cards (which can theoretically be used on devices running Android 8) via Google Play Services, which gets updates through the Play Store, instead of point releases to Android itself.
As for this latest effort, there will almost certainly be limits. For one, it’s not like Google made everything modular in Android 10. Each OS update has added new modules — Android 12 modularized ART and scheduling, while Android 13 turned things like Bluetooth, AppSearch, and UWB into components. If you’re on Android 11, it wouldn’t be as easy for Google to add features for those systems to your phone because they’re still built into the OS rather than being pieces that can be updated via the Play Store.