Earlier this year, Google surprised us all by releasing Android N in a Developer Preview much earlier than we had become accustomed to. Sure, we've only had two Android previews prior to N, those of L and M, but they were both released during Google I/O and they both followed a similar path to handsets all over the world. So, when they released Android N in a preview much earlier than prior versions, people started to wonder whether or not Android N is going to be the huge release that many have been waiting for. During last week's Google I/O 2016 we were shown more of what Android N is going to bring devices later this year, but for the most part it's the same old story we've heard for the last two years; many more small improvements throughout the OS and lots of under-the-hood improvements. The question many will be asking themselves is whether or not Android N is going to be all that. Has Android lost its name for being an innovator in mobile software, and has it lost some of the excitement that used to surround each and every release of Android?
If you take a look at the big features that are coming to Android N, you'll end up staring at a pretty short list, or at least that is the case if we're talking about user-facing features. The features that users are most likely to notice are multi-window, the changes in notifications and perhaps some polish around the UI and such. In fact, many of the new features in Android N – which we neatly rounded up here – are already found elsewhere in the custom UIs that Google's partners like Samsung and HTC ship on their devices. The majority of the features added into Android N will benefit developers and app publishers more than anyone else, but surely better apps and games means a better experience for all of Android's users?
Multi-window is perhaps the headlining feature of Android N right now which probably has a lot to do with the fact that it's a feature easily explained to people on the street. The problem here, however, is that a lot of consumers – especially those that are in the know – will be wondering why Android didn't already have this feature and if they've used an LG or Samsung phone from the past three years they will probably think nothing has changed. If anything, multi-window could be considered just one more "me too!" feature that has come far too later for Google. It could have been the one feature that made Android tablets seem a lot more capable than say, the all-conquering iPad, but it has launched too late and again, the major name in Android tablets, Samsung, has been shipping this very feature for years now. The next thing to ask is whether or not the average consumer really needs a feature like multi-window on a phone, I have a Galaxy S7 Edge and multi-window is something I have very little interest in. It's helpful when checking pieces of text against each other, but the reason I went with a larger-screen phone is to make great use of it, not to have two smaller apps open at the same time.
Saying that Android N is just a release about multi-window and some other tweaks would be naive and misleading as there's a whole lot going on underneath the hood with Android N, and many of these changes will be for the better. One of the bigger changes in this regard is the introduction of the new Vulkan API. A massive improvement over the OpenGL ES API that's currently used in Android for rendering 3D games and apps, Vulkan opens the door to a whole new world of mobile graphics. This is undeniably exciting, and with powerful GPUs lying in the majority of phones from the past two years, Vulkan support should finally help game developers make the most of them. We've seen impressive demos of Vulkan before, and while there's no magic touch to turn a smartphone into a gaming PC, games on smartphones will start to get much better with the Vulkan API. This is reason enough to see Android N as a huge step forward, but for a lot of users it won't be the sort of huge feature they notice right away or even see as something that's new.
Elsewhere, though, and Android N is the sort of release that's just packed full of different tweaks here and there as well as small changes that all come together to offer more polish for Android. This is something that a lot of people will appreciate, but given that most of these tweaks only really apply to the stock version of Android, how likely is it for users with a Samsung or HTC smartphone to actually see these changes? The new Direct Reply system for notifications should be something that all users will start to see, but again this is more of an evolution that it is anything else. Many an app in the Play Store already offers the same functionality, but in their own way. As such, Direct Reply is something that will probably just unify the experience for users, which is important of course, but far from a major feature we've come to expect from big Android releases. There's a sizeable laundry list of these tweaks and changes, and they include small things such as new emoji as well and improvements to the Google Keyboard, changes to the Android runtime and some clever language changes.
In N, it's more of what you don't see that makes Android N a quality release, and things like a new Android runtime to not only shed Google's mobile OS of Oracle's Java code but also provide better performance are some of the highlights. In each big release of Android, we've become accustomed to seeing big changes, and Android N does bring some larger changes, but they're not exactly outward-facing, and given the nature of Android today, this shouldn't be too surprising anymore. After all, Google Play Services is arguably more important to keep any version of Android "modern" and that particular bundle of code runs on versions of Android all the way down to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, so it's clear that big releases that throw out the wheel every year aren't part of Google's agenda any longer, and is that such a bad thing?
Android is a platform, and if we carry on with this analogy, different parts of Android are different floors of a skyscraper. With Google Play Services, the Play Store, Google Apps, new features like Daydream, the Web, apps and games all on top of this platform, it's obvious that Android has become a skyscraper with lots of interesting different floors on it. The thing with skyscrapers is that they're designed to stand tall and only see small changes and renovations during their lifetime. This is the sort of operating system that Google has developed in modern Android. Since Android 5.0 Lollipop's colorful rebirth, Android has been a solid and stable rock that all the other good stuff sits atop of. For a lot of users, this might seem "boring" but developers will no doubt enjoy this new stability that Android has offered over the past few years. Besides, do we really need something radically new every year? The days of Android turning into something very different from its previous release are long behind us, and it makes our devices more familiar and easier to use no matter which manufacturer we decide to side with.
The Android platform is long and established now, and Android N does what any other good release should do; it freshens things up with a lick of paint and gives developers more tools to work with, but the features piled on top of that rock need some attention as well. In terms of "Google Android", the build most of us know and love, Android is no longer just a version number and a tasty name, but a whole collection of tools and building blocks. Multi-window could be considered one of these, but it's something that should have been added to Android long ago, and other features on top of Android are beginning to look a little long in the tooth. Hangouts is one core part of Android that has great potential, but instead of trying to push the "Hangouts" name onto people and make it into something truly great, Google simply introduced Allo and Duo to not only duplicate some features but possibly confuse users in the process. The Play Store has seen a number of improvements over the years, but it still feels much like it did years ago, and this is probably why users have been thinking that Android N isn't all that big a deal. Android is a finely polished operating system and it's one that we should be thankful for, but Google is going to have to do something with the blocks that sit on top of it if they want it to feel fresh forever.