While Apple is sometimes accused of borrowing a few features, such as the Notification Center, from Android, it’s still true that Google’s mobile OS was heavily influenced by iOS from the very beginning. Before the iPhone came around, Android concepts were, as with other smartphone platforms, heavily influenced by the BlackBerry. How things changed!
More recently, after a number of minor tenth of a point releases, Android’s back in the game with the “L” OS, due this fall. Introduced at this week’s Google I/O event, it’s a sure thing that there are a fair number of changes, though not near as many as in iOS 8.
First and foremost is a new user interface dubbed Material Design, with floating icons, lighting effects and real-time shadows. The impression of floating above the screen appears to be quite a change from the flatter look of iOS 7. But at least Google wants to seem different. There is also the promise of interface consistency among all devices running a Google OS, which reminds you of what Microsoft has been trying to do with limited success.
Yes, OS X Yosemite offers the opportunity for more consistency with iOS 8, but Apple understands the line of demarcation between a handheld mobile gadget and a traditional personal computer.
But when you go deep into the changes, you’ll find some seem highly derivative. So notifications are enhanced with the ability to interact with them from the lock screen, and even respond if you like. Now doesn’t that sound familiar?
User Authentication lets you avoid having to identify yourself with a pin, a pattern trace, or on one or two handsets, a fingerprint. The feature works if you are already in close proximity to an Android smartwatch. But it seems to me that this only lessens security, not enhances it.
There’s also a display of recent apps and indexing. The latter allows you to search for something in Chrome and allow you to open the appropriate app that relates to that content.
There are also said to be graphics performance boosts courtesy of the Android Extension Pack, which sounds reminiscent of the Metal graphics enhancement feature coming in iOS 8. Battery life is also said to be improved. So if you’re running low on power, the OS will reduce CPU load and dim the display to allow you to get up to 90 minutes more battery life.
These are supposed to be the tentpole features, along with support for health and fitness capabilities. But that’s not near as expansive as Apple’s HealthKit.
More to the point, beyond the interface changes, nothing seems to hit you in the face as anything compelling. Very little of Android L appears to change the competitive landscape, although Android fans will appreciate having more powerful games courtesy of those graphics improvements. But as with Apple’s Metal, that would require app developers supporting the new toolkit to offer enhanced gaming experiences.
There’s also support for 64-bit, which means that you should expect 64-bit chips showing up in Android smartphones and tablets later this year.
Oh, and did I fail to mention Android Auto, which allows an Android gadget to present its interface in a car that supports the technology? It’s highly reminiscent of Apple’s CarPlay, and you wonder if auto makers might just decide to include both technologies, and let the driver decide which to use.
At a time when it seemed that Android development had largely come to a standstill, it is encouraging to see the changes promised in Android L. At the same time, the biggest hurdle to overcome is the number of gadgets that will support the new OS. As it stands, the number of units supporting the current version of Android, version 4.4 KitKat, are in the very low double digits according to the latest survey released by Google. Remember that KitKat was introduced last fall, and the recent growth is mostly due to the release of new high-end Android gear, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5.
It’s not that older gear has much of a chance of receiving the update, and it’s questionable how quickly Android L adoption will occur. If nothing has changed in the way Google, the handset makers and the wireless carriers roll out these updates, it may be months before the uptake grows out of the single digits.
The biggest problem, then, is that developers who want to use the new graphics capabilities have to consider whether there are a sufficient number of potential customers for their apps. If a load of Android handsets never upgrade, even considering the potential hardware limitations, building more powerful games for Android might be a big waste of time.
I don’t think I have to dwell on the fact that the iOS adoption rate is always extremely high. Some 90% of eligible gear is running iOS 7, and I would expect the same to be true for iOS 8. But Apple distributes the updates directly. Google, because they allow manufacturers and carriers to customize and update their own Android distributions, will always remain behind the curve. Android L is not expected to change that unfortunate situation.