The evolution of Android is continuing with Android N, which we should see the final release sometime in August or September of this year. Google dropped the Developer Preview on us earlier this month, and it has showed us all kinds of features that Google is baking into the operating system this time around. While on the outside it appears to be a somewhat minimal update to Android, it’s actually a pretty big one. Which we talked about already. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, features in Android N is multi-window. This is a feature that has been requested for years – literally. And it’s finally here. However, building on multi-window, Google appears to be working on a freeform window feature.
What freeform windows does is it allows you to have many windows open and on your desktop at the same time. The best way to describe it is comparing it to Windows 10, or Mac OS X El Capitan, and even Linux distributions like Ubuntu. While this may not be a big deal on an Android smartphone like your personal device, it is a big deal on tablets like the Pixel C and Nexus 9. Which were made to be used as a desktop replacement – even though they won’t replace the desktop for many users. Seeing as Google sold both of these tablets with optional keyboard accessories. Freeform windows may not be something that many users were asking for, but it’s not a feature that people are complaining about either. It definitely is going to help some make the switch to Android as their primary device, and perhaps even get rid of a laptop. Which is what Google’s goal is here, or to bring everyone to a Chromebook or Chromebox.
Mobile OS like Android and iOS, have always felt like they only belonged on mobile devices. And not laptops and in some cases not even tablets. If you’ve tried using a stock Android tablet lately, then you definitely know what I mean. But Google is looking to change that, and this could be the way that they are changing it. We’ve already seen a few laptops come out running Android, and let me just say that the experience wasn’t amazing. However, with Android N, that could change dramatically.
Imagine being able to have Chrome open on one side, visiting and browsing your favorite Android site, while on the other side you have a messaging app like WhatsApp, WeChat, Hangouts or Skype open, and you also have a calculator open for crunching some numbers if need be. That’s a whole lot of computing going on at the same time, but if there’s one thing that Android is good at, it’s power. Many of our phones are sporting 2GHz or faster processors with 3GB and 4GB of RAM (there are even rumors of a 6GB RAM smartphone coming soon). Which means, on the spec sheet, these phones are more powerful than some laptops from a few years ago and even some of the cheaper ones available today. So in terms of having enough power to have all of these apps open and not in the background, Android can definitely handle it. Although Google may want to look at optimizing the processing power that is being used in Android with freeform windows, to make everything run smoother. Which will come later on, as always.
It’s important to remember here that freeform windows may not even make its way into Android N’s final release. With Android M last year, we found multi-window, but it was taken out before the final release as Google didn’t think it was quite ready for primetime. And that could happen with freeform windows, considering it wasn’t an announced feature when Google announced Android N with the first developer preview. And it’s definitely not in plain sight. You actually need to go in and flash a custom recovery and then run some commands in a command prompt or terminal, to get freeform windows to appear on Android. That means that it’s definitely not ready right now, and there’s a 50/50 chance that it won’t be ready in the final version of Android N. Always important to remember when talking about Developer Previews, as things may change and may even be cut out of the final version altogether.
Google’s sole purpose for Android is to have the OS running on everything. And right now you could argue that it really is running on everything. We have Android on smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, refrigerators, and even our cars use Android in Android Auto – they don’t actually run on Android but do use it to an extent. But there’s one place that Android is missing and that’s the desktop. Google is looking to bring Android to the desktop, however, and Android N may be the start of that, whether that be in the real world or at Google’s headquarters with their engineers working on it. While freeform windows is a step in the right direction in making Android suitable for a desktop or computer experience, there’s still more that would need to be done. For example, we’ll need better physical keyboards. And while there are a few good ones out there, having to touch the screen to go home, back or jump into the overview, is a bit cumbersome and not that user intuitive. Especially when you’re using a keyboard all day long already. Some keyboards do have those three softkeys on the keyboard already, but it would be good to see that go universal.
Of course, to be a better desktop replacement, Google is going to need to work with their partners to put out some new hardware. Now Google already partners with Dell, HP, and a few other PC makers for Android tablets and smartphones. So it likely wouldn’t be hard to have them create a desktop and/or laptop for Android. In fact, HP already has. They created a 15-inch laptop that ran Android 4.3 JellyBean (at the time, Android 4.4 KitKat had just launched a few months prior). It was an interesting experience. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t terrible. While reviewing it, I did try and use it as my main machine, it was a bit tough getting used to using Android as a desktop OS, but it is possible. Then there’s the Dell Venue 10, which also had a keyboard accessory. The keyboard on the Dell Venue 10 was really amazing. I was quite impressed with just how good it truly was, to be honest. I also used that as my main machine for a little while, and it was a very different experience compared to HP’s laptop. Although the Dell venue 10 was also running on Android 5.0 Lollipop (again, at the time it was the latest version of Android). So the partnerships are there for Google, it’s going to be up to them to work with them to create desktop hardware, once they make a more desktop oriented OS.
Can Android replace your desktop operating system, whether that be Ubuntu, Windows 10 or Mac OS X El Capitan? Yes, just not yet. For some, it already has replaced their desktop, but it isn’t mainstream just yet. With Android N, that tide might start to change. It’ll be interesting to see what Google does with freeform windows and if they bring it into Android N’s final release without needing to go out and run some commands in terminal to get it enabled on your smartphone or tablet.