Last week, Android 5.0 Lollipop (formerly known as "Android L") reached its six-month birthday, and in the midst of this celebration, Google has begun teasing us about its upcoming unveil of Lollipop's successor, Android M. It's commonly speculated that Android M (yet without a finalized name) will be a major-but-not-really-major update, as it is presumed it will bear the version number 6.0 but not deliver the sort of sweeping changes Google brought to us with Lollipop last year. Android M is expected to be announced at Google I/O at the end of this month, and to be released several months from now. It will of course incorporate all of the bug fixes and miscellaneous tweaks that have arrived in the several minor Lollipop revisions that Google has been steadily landing since last November. Though not much else is known about the mysterious-to-date Android M, as Google has been very reserved in their mentions of M.
Now's the time, then, that speculation runs rampant and everyone wants to know what's to be expected of this upcoming upgrade. We've given our best shot to separate fact from fiction regarding what changes we can, or should, or at least would like to see arrive with Android M. Here are a few strong suggestions.
Less Fragmentation From Now On
Android suffers terribly from market fragmentation. It's just a fundamental characteristic of the way Android is developed, delivered and utilized. Google develops Android in-house, then publicly releases the Android code to anyone in the world who wants to use it and tweak it to their heart's content. Not all devices are the same, nor does every device run the same flavor of Android. Over the years this approach to market has naturally led to the cultivation of a seriously fragmented Android ecosystem. It's become inhabited by Androids of all form factors, having different hardware specs, and which - just to throw some more complexity into the mix - are running with whatever version of Android a manufacturer (e.g. Samsung, LG, HTC) decides to fork for its in-house customization (e.g. TouchWiz, UX, Sense).
This causes problems, for Google, and for the digital ecosystem at-large. Manufacturers aren't bound by any legal covenant that compels them to release updates to their devices whenever Google releases a new version of Android. This lack of explicit obligation by manufacturers to their users (and Google) creates all sorts of crazy havoc for marketers, developers and users alike. It exposes the manufacturers' outdated devices (and their users) to the attack vectors, known and unknown, that are discovered inside whatever outdated version of Android their users are running. It means that their users can routinely expect that their "outdated" phones might not ever showcase and take advantage of new features and enhancements that are exclusive to newer Android versions. As if enough obstacles don't yet already exist, there's always the additional delay caused by carriers who take too long to roll out an update that the manufacturer wants to push to its users.
I'll illustrate my point through a solid example: Material Design. If your phone isn't running Android 5.x Lollipop, you are really missing out on something beautiful. Any device running Android 4.4 KitKat or earlier does not feature OS-level integration of Material Design, because Material Design arrived as a key feature of 5.0 Lollipop and was not backported. (Apps can still implement the Material Design spec, so some apps will look Lollipop inspired though the underlying Android OS still bears the Holo look.) The Holo design spec featured in versions 4.x appears old and lame when put next to a device running with Material Design on Lollipop. Less astute users will wonder why they don't have Material Design on their devices, and everyone will be waiting for a new version to come along whenever (and even if) their phone manufacturers and carriers decide to push out an OTA update.
Google can't force manufacturers to devote more investment of time and money towards building and shipping Android updates to their users. So long as the Android universe is held together by such a loosely federated structure, the Android ecosystem's collective marketing efforts will always be limited and restrained by the fact that Android market stakeholders, unlike Apple with iOS, can't possibly execute coherently on a marketing message that stresses a new major release for Android. Without reliable commitment, by manufacturer-developers to consumers, to regularly update Android device firmware, Apple can always have the higher ground in a debate with a consumer who's just trying to make a wise purchase and not have to feel stuck and unlucky if their phone ends up on the list of infrequently (if ever) updated Android technology. Lots of people are in that pickle of a situation.
Alright, so you might reply, what's the solution to this deeply-rooted problem? The longer-term solution involves slimming down the OS so apps and other non-essential elements of the Android core can be installed, upgraded, and (why not) deleted from the rest of the system as the user chooses. Essentially, with this approach Google would be circumventing the manufacturers about the decision whether to update outdated devices; they could deliver as much improvement to older Androids as they could, for the features that could run on an outdated version of Android. Getting more Androids running on later, more-secured versions is just a good approach to 21st-century security in today's world of advanced malware and hacking. In the mid- to long-term, Google can solve this fragmentation problem for Android so long as it keeps iterating on this strategy, whereby more truly non-essential elements currently existing inside the Android core are jettisoned from the core and then updated as frequently as needed via the Google Play Store.
Cross-Device Continuity In Android Notification Behavior
Have you ever received an Android message notification on your phone where you responded to it, but then had to deliberately take another step and dismiss it on the other Android devices you're signed into? Annoying, right? Why doesn't Android communicate between your multiple devices and clear out notifications whenever they're addressed, wherever they're addressed? That's a question that has puzzled the Android community for a long while - iOS does it, why can't Android?
Seeing as Android M will most likely be a sort of intermediate-major revision, Android M appears to be an ideal vehicle for delivering some new under-the-hood changes like new notification management plumbing and the raising of awareness through marketing that trumpets this new continuity-style experience that "just works" across whatever Android M devices you're signed into. Apple and Microsoft have made similar efforts as their ecosystems have evolved. This is clearly the time for Google to stretch their muscle and own the cachet of the whole continuity idea - its their market to lose.
Progressive Improvement to Memory Management
A big story that's earned attention this month has been the report and response to users growing dissatisfied by Lollipop's poor management of device memory. While your device is turned on, clean-up processes routinely run in the background, in order to optimize apps' use of limited space in memory. If your device isn't equipped with 3GB or more of RAM, or if it simply reacts sluggishly, your device probably suffers from this issue.
Android M will of course incorporate the memory leak-plugs and improved maintenance code that Google has recently rolled out via carrier OTA updates to resolve the matter. But if it's to put a little more meat on M's bones, it needs to debut M with an even-better improvement to the way the Android core manages memory. Though we're seeing more flagships arrive equipped with 3GB or more of RAM, the vast majority of Androids aren't so lucky, and the problem will get worse before it gets better, due to the fact that Lollipop's gains of market share are outpaced by growth of demand in emerging markets, especially in the East, for low-end and mid-range Android handsets. Android needs to deal with issues like this that cause a lot of underground rumbling and doubt in consumers mind when trying to decide between Android and iOS. People need reassurance that Android will be more proactive at crushing critical bugs before they can make their way out of the Googleplex and into the wild.
Ultra Power Saving Mode
In the absence of a native Ultra Power Saving Mode in Android, manufacturers have independently crafted power-saver schemes for their custom Android flavors. Samsung's TouchWiz and HTC's Sense, to name a couple, offer such a mode that can be triggered manually or automatically. I'm at a loss of words to explain why Google hasn't made this a core feature of Android. Millions of users at this very moment are using Androids that have no such feature. It would be great to see Google answer that call by writing an Ultra Power Saving Mode into Android M. Battery capacity will become less of an issue as more quick-charge compatible phones enter the Android ecosystem, but again I point to the unfortunate group of Android users whose phones don't have that capability and will suffer needlessly in the absence of an Ultra Power Saving Mode.
Continued Employment of 64-bit and ARMv8
I'll start here by saying that, no, the benefit of a 64-bit chip is not really the ability to perform 64-bit operations; it is about the arrival of a new-and-improved architecture for CPUs that operate ARM instruction sets. The ARMv8 instruction set, the successor to the decade-old ARMv7, is the bonafide reason to want your device to be capable of running 64-bit programs.
The new Android runtime (ART), which arrived with Android 5.0 Lollipop to replace the Dalvik runtime, employs superior garbage collection routines and introduced ahead-of-time (AOT) compilation of app code, all with the intent to boost Android's performance across the board. ART was built to run 64-bit apps; Dalvik was not. Which means all those devices running KitKat or earlier can't take the fullest advantage of this one of Lollipop's most critical improvements to overall Android performance. The actual benefit of the 64-bit chip is that ART can intelligently compile apps so they deliver instructions that the 64-bit CPU can handle more efficiently. All great architectural improvements that should result in a markedly smoother experience for users and app developers alike.
The benefits of ARMv8 can be realized only as quickly as manufacturers equip Android devices with ARMv8-compatible processors. An Android M that is given even greater improvements to runtime efficiency will keep Android competitive with iOS in this regard, which is so very important when the word "faster" can elicit so much interest and salivation for a lower-key release.
Android 5.0 Lollipop was an awesome release. It delivered fresh visual aesthetics, improved runtime efficiency, increases in battery life (thanks to the results borne by Project Volta), and the software foundation for a world of Androids running superior ARMv8 processors. One could read off an impressive list of other less headline-noteworthy improvements Lollipop brought along with it, but honestly, with those three major features, we already have enough reasons to crave it.
What Android needs now is an intermediate-phase tune-up: a modernized battery saver setting, more intelligent handling of cross-device notifications, deeper improvement in memory management, and further iteration on ART in anticipation of more ARMv8 devices running wild. At the all-but-certain unveiling of Android M at I/O later this week, Google would be wise to also showcase some demonstrable progress on their longer-term goal to app-ify more programs out of the Android core so they can update independent of carrier consent and simultaneously provide greater security for users' data and devices against digital attacks.
If Google can manage to accomplish that much between now and November, they'll be set up well for a truly major release in 2016, and will have already done a lot to put Android farther down the path toward tighter security coexisting with the great freedom of choice and a user experience that continues to put Android phones, tablets, and wearables in the same spotlight as iPhones, iPads, and the Apple Watch.