Google’s Android operating system has undergone a pretty incredible metamorphosis since it debuted on the T-Mobile G1 on October 22nd, 2008. A decade might seem like a long time, but on the scale of the PC’s growth, it’s a blink of an eye. You could make a pretty convincing argument that no consumer technology in history has evolved as quickly as the smartphone, and Android has been at the very center of that evolution.
When Android launched, the OS came into a crowded but troubled market. Apple officially entered the smartphone market the year before, BlackBerry was still at its height, Symbian was on its way out, and Microsoft would soon replace Windows Mobile with Windows Phone. But today, Android is on nearly every device that isn’t Apple, edging out nearly every other competitor along the way. As of 2017, there were over 2 billion monthly active Android devices in the world. On smartphones, Android accounted for more than 85 percent of those devices.
After 10 years of being the world’s most dominant S, we wanted to take a look back at how Andy Rubin’s brainchild has evolved into the industry titan that it is today. What’s changed? What has (sometimes stubbornly) stayed the same? What new updates came with every version? Because Android is an open sourced OS, different manufacturers have applied their own skins — i.e. Samsung’s TouchWiz, OnePlus’ OxygenOS — so we’re focusing on stock Android for this visual history. The Android we know today — with all its machine learning capabilities and digital voice assistant — wasn’t without its fair share of clunkiness before getting to where it is now. Its many innovations would inspire, borrow, or improve upon other features seen on its main rival, Apple’s iOS.
Where it all began
The Android era officially began on October 22nd, 2008, when the T-Mobile G1 launched in the United States. Initially, many features that we couldn’t live without today were missing — an on-screen keyboard, multitouch capability, and paid apps, for instance — but the foundation was in place, and a few lasting trademarks of the platform debuted on those very first G1s to roll off the assembly line.
The pull-down notification window. Though these early phones clearly weren’t without their flaws, it was almost universally acknowledged that Android nailed the notification system on day one. It would take iOS another three years before launching a design as effective at triaging messages and alerts coming from users’ ever-growing collection of mobile apps. The secret was in the G1’s unique status bar, which could be dragged downward to reveal every notification in a single list: text messages, voicemails, alarms, and so on. The fundamental concept lives on (in a refined form) to today’s latest version of Android.
Home screen widgets. If you had to pick an enduring differentiator for Android as a phone platform, it’d be rich support for widgets on the home screen. Google had big plans for widgets from the very beginning, but there was one big hang-up at launch: developers couldn’t create their own widgets.
Deep, rich Gmail integration. By the time the G1 was released, Gmail had long since supported POP and IMAP for integration with mobile email clients. But the problem is that neither of those protocols were well-suited for supporting some of Gmail’s more unique features like archival and labeling. Android 1.0 fixed that in a big way, and it shipped with by far the best mobile Gmail experience on the market.
The Android Market. It’s hard to imagine a smartphone without a centralized app store now, but when Android first shipped, it did so at the very start of the mobile app revolution. Indeed, the Android Market on those first G1s bore little resemblance to the Play Store of today: it launched with just a handful of apps (as you’d expect from an entirely new ecosystem), and didn’t have the rich, multifaceted curation that has been added over the years. Instead, it just had a single row of handpicked selections at the top of the app’s home screen. Perhaps more importantly, it lacked support for any sort of payment system, a problem that wouldn’t get fixed until the following year.
Notably, Google developed Android 1.0’s UI with help from The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a Swedish interaction design firm responsible for some truly amazing interface concepts over the years. (If you looked closely, you could see where TAT left its mark on the platform: the analog clock widget included in Android versions 1.0 through 2.2 read “Malmo” in small, light gray type near the bottom of the face, a tribute to TAT’s hometown of Malmö, Sweden.) The company would later be acquired by RIM to focus solely on advancement of its BlackBerry and BBX platforms, so Google’s collaboration with TAT came to an end.
The first upgrade to the Android platform came in February 2009, a little over three months after the launch of the G1. Version 1.1 wasn’t a revolution by any stretch of the imagination — it patched a fairly lengthy list of bugs, primarily — but if nothing else, it validated Android’s ability to roll out updates over the air and make them nearly effortless for users to install. At the time, that was a big deal, and it was something that no other major smartphone platform was doing.
It’s no coincidence that Danger’s Hiptop platform, which gave birth to the Sidekick, had been offering painless, phased over-the-air OS updates for years. Android’s Andy Rubin had previously founded Danger and would later go on to create the Essential Phone, the smartphone that marked the start of the now-ubiquitous notch design trend.
Dessert is served: 1.5 “Cupcake”
Android 1.5 — perhaps better known by its codename “Cupcake” — marked much more of a milestone. It wasn’t just about the fact that it added several hotly anticipated features that were critical to keeping the platform competitive. It was also the first version to use Google’s “sweet” naming convention: every major release since Cupcake has been named after a sugary confection in alphabetical order. The trend has continued and is expected to go on. Next year’s version 10 Q is set to be Android’s biggest naming challenge yet.
In many ways, Cupcake was about refinement, polishing some rough edges on the user interface that had originally launched. Some of these changes were nearly imperceptible if you weren’t looking for them. For instance, the standard Google search widget — a staple on many users’ home screens — gained a hint of transparency, and the app drawer was decorated with a subtle weave pattern beneath the icons.
Hover over the image below to get a sense of just how subtle these changes were. If you used a device running 1.1 and 1.5 in succession, you might not notice anything; in reality, though, everything from text alignment to shading on the status bar had gone under the knife.
Most G1 users probably flew past those UI tweaks without noticing them because the extensive list of new features Google had thrown in was far more exciting, noticeable, and immediately relevant in day-to-day use:
An on-screen keyboard. In retrospect, it’s amazing to think that Google could’ve shipped Android without any sort of soft keyboard, but that’s exactly what it did. It helps explain why the first Android device at retail was a landscape QWERTY slider, and it also explains why it wasn’t until Cupcake was released (in April 2009, some half a year after the G1 shipped) that we saw the first touchscreen-only phone on the market, the HTC Magic.
In conjunction with the soft keyboard support, Google took a bold step: it integrated the hooks necessary for third-party developers to create their own replacement keyboards, which is a capability that continues to differentiate Android from competing platforms even today. (Neither iOS nor Windows Phone support it.) At the time of Cupcake’s release, the official Android soft keyboard was considered by many to lag after iOS for accuracy and speed, which ultimately led OEMs like HTC to quickly develop replacements on their own devices. Indeed, it was one of the first forms of “skinning” Android would see.
Extensible widgets. While Android 1.0 and 1.1 technically included widgets, their full potential had yet to be realized because Google hadn’t exposed the SDK to developers. The only widgets you had available were the few included in the box. That changed in 1.5, and today, many (if not most) of the third-party applications on the platform ship with one or more widgets available to the user. It’s a big deal for Android, which continues to enjoy the most flexible, extensible home screen of any mobile platform — and that title traces its roots to the addition of this feature in Cupcake.
Clipboard improvements. Android had a rather rough road to gaining “full” support for copy and paste. The platform technically supported it from day one, but it was largely limited to text fields and links. That meant that text couldn’t be copied out of browser windows or Gmail, two places where you’re very likely to want to do it. Though full clipboard capability wouldn’t come to Gmail for several more versions, Cupcake added support to the browser, allowing you to copy plain text out of a page.
Video capture and playback. It’s difficult to imagine a smartphone shipping without any support for shooting video now, but that’s the situation that T-Mobile G1 buyers originally found themselves in. Cupcake would fix the problem, but like Android’s built-in soft keyboard, the operating system’s built-in camera interface became one of the more reviled parts of the platform. It’s also a part that OEMs quickly replaced with their own improved interfaces, frequently adding support for additional scenes, modes, options, and conveniences like touch to focus.
And a lot more. Miscellaneous updates included batch operations in Gmail (you couldn’t delete or archive multiple emails at once prior to 1.5), upload support for YouTube and Picasa, and ubiquitous access to contacts’ Google Talk status throughout the platform in places like the Contacts screen, the Messaging application, and Gmail. (In a way, this feature — synchronization of rich contact information across multiple apps and screens — would foretell the direction that Android was moving, particularly in 2.0.)
Though it wasn’t as big of an upgrade as Cupcake, Android 1.6 Donut was still a far bigger deal than its “0.1” increment would let on. It made another pass of minor visual refinements throughout the platform, but much of the big news was under the hood. CDMA support was first offered in Donut, opening the door to American carriers like Verizon and potentially hundreds of millions of subscribers across Asia.
But perhaps none of the “under the hood” changes had a more profound effect on the platform than resolution independence. Donut marked the first time that Android was capable of running on a variety of screen resolutions and aspect ratios, which opened the door for phones that featured displays of something other than 320 x 480 in a portrait orientation. All these scaling capabilities trace their roots directly to 1.6.
Donut also introduced the notion of the Quick Search Box, a concept more generally known in the mobile world as “universal search.” Prior to Donut, pressing the Search button on an Android phone’s keypad while on the home screen would take you to a Google search box for searching the internet, which was no different than navigating to google.com and typing your search there. With Donut’s enhancements, you could search a variety of local content — applications, contacts, and so on — plus the internet all at once from a single box. What’s more, Donut exposed functions for developers that allowed them to plug in so that their applications could be searched as well.
What other features debuted in Android 1.6? A redesigned Android Market — in the white and green accents so closely associated with Android’s mascot — included some additional curation to expose lists of top free and paid apps, which was particularly important at a time when the platform’s third-party app catalog was starting to explode. A redesigned camera interface was also included with better gallery integration and significantly reduced shutter lag, although it didn’t garner any more critical acclaim than the one it replaced; Google would continue to make small changes to it through 2.3, though most users would never see it since manufacturers typically replaced it in their skins. It wouldn’t be until Google released its newest flagship, the Pixel, that the company would begin to be considered the best smartphone camera on the market, UI and all.
2.0 / 2.1: “Eclair”
In early November 2009 — about a year after the G1’s premiere — Android 2.0 launched right on Donut’s heels. “Big” would be an accurate description all around: it was a big deal, it made big promises, and it was deployed on big phones offered by big carriers. Eclair, as it was known, was initially offered exclusively on Verizon on none other than the Motorola Droid — the phone that kicked off one of the most successful mobile franchises of its time.
What made Eclair so important? It represented the most fundamental refresh that Android had seen since its debut, both visually and architecturally. Of course, with an unheard-of 854 x 480 display, it didn’t hurt that the Droid was by far the most powerful Android handset the world had seen up to that point. But the significantly improved nuts and bolts of the platform played a big role in the device’s retail success, too:
Multiple account support. For the first time, multiple Google accounts could be added to the same device — separate work and personal accounts, for instance — with access to email and contacts from each. Support for Exchange accounts was added, too.
Eclair also gave third parties the tools they needed to plug their own services into this account framework, which would then permit them to be automatically synchronized on an ongoing basis. One key advantage is that shared information between your account types can be automatically synchronized into a single contact on the phone, a one-stop shop for all the information about the individuals in your address book. Facebook was an early adopter of this functionality — in fact, it shipped on the Droid — but a spat with Google over where Facebook’s synchronized contact information was ultimately stored ended with its account sync privileges being revoked.
Google Maps Navigation. Released in conjunction with Android 2.0, Google Maps Navigation was a totally free turn-by-turn automotive navigation product using Google’s own mapping data for guidance, and it included many of the features you’d expect to find on a typical in-car navigation system: a forward-looking 3D view, voice guidance (including street names), and traffic information. Considering that drivers previously needed to choose between paying a significant amount of money for a turn-by-turn app, a monthly fee, or a dedicated navigation unit, Google’s move was disruptive to say the least. Early versions had some flaws that still made alternatives quite appealing — they required continuous internet access, for instance, and couldn’t cache — but the system has been closing the gap ever since.
Quick Contact. Just as Cupcake had added contacts’ Google Talk statuses throughout the platform, Eclair added the Quick Contact bar, which amounted to a pop-up toolbar that you could use to interact with contacts in a variety of ways: email, text, call, and so on. Wherever in the platform a contact’s picture appeared, you could press and hold it to pull up the bar, which would spring into place with a neatly designed row of icons. The bar was designed from the outset to be extensible, too, so different types of information got synchronized to your contact. Twitter handles, for instance, could be added to the bar.
Soft keyboard improvements. Like the G1, the Droid launched with a full physical QWERTY arrangement, but Google still saw fit to use it as an opportunity to showcase a revised virtual keyboard. Although multitouch still wasn’t fully supported throughout the platform — the Browser and Maps apps both lacked pinch-to-zoom, for instance — Eclair used multitouch data on the keyboard to detect secondary presses while typing rapidly, which made a big difference in accuracy for fast typists.
Revamped browser. As mentioned earlier, Eclair’s browser still didn’t feature support for multitouch zooming, but it advanced in a number of other critical ways. Considering that Android 2.0 launched on a device with a capacious (for the time) WVGA display, it was critical that the Browser app was up to the task of displaying complex, desktop-optimized sites. To that end, Google added HTML5 support, including video (albeit only in full-screen mode). This was also the first time that Android’s browser had a proper address bar, which Google had designed to mimic Chrome by doubling as a search bar. And to help alleviate the lack of multitouch, the new version added double-tap zooming — a convenient alternative to the zoom-in / zoom-out buttons.
There were countless other changes that touched nearly every screen in Eclair, too. Google continued its trend of warming over the UI in the latest version, but the changes generally felt more cohesive in 2.0 with cleaner, simpler icons and widgets designed to work well at the Droid’s crisper resolution. Android 2.0 was essentially a lone wolf — outside of the Droid and its European equivalent, the Milestone, virtually every phone to launch after Eclair’s release came with Android 2.1 instead, which did little more than fix a few bugs and add a small number of API capabilities. The telltale sign that it wasn’t a big release? Google didn’t grant it a new name; both 2.0 and 2.1 were known as Eclair. There were, however, a couple notable additions in 2.1.
Live wallpapers. One of Android’s quirkier features, live wallpapers first made an appearance in Android 2.1. The concept is simple enough: instead of a static image, the home screen’s background was an actual application that can be animated and have some limited interaction with the user. Google demonstrated the power of the feature when it added a live wallpaper to a Google Maps update, which turned the home screen into an overhead map of the phone’s current location. I wasn’t particularly easy on battery drain, but it made for a great conversation piece.
Speech-to-text. Google had been pushing the power of text-to-speech (TTS) since it added a developer framework for TTS engines in Donut. But now, users could talk into their phones as a replacement for traditional keyboard input. To facilitate that, Android 2.1 replaced the comma key on the soft keyboard with a microphone; when you tapped it and talked, whichever text box you had highlighted would receive the dictation. And by all appearances, the capability isn’t going anywhere. Apple added a similar feature to the keyboard in iOS 5.
A new lock screen. Android 2.0 had actually included a new lock screen of its own that featured the ability to swipe the screen to unlock and change the phone’s mute mode, but it was tweaked a second time in 2.1. The functionality remained largely the same this time, but Google changed the clock typeface from a standard sans serif to a distinctly more Android-esque, high-tech font and modified the unlock and mute functions to require a straight swipe rather than a curved one.
Though it wasn’t a huge update, Android 2.1 marked a strategic shift for Google. Possibly concerned about its hardware partners’ trend toward skinning and significantly altering the “stock” Android experience, Google chose to work directly with HTC to make its own flagship device, a phone that would showcase pure Android 2.1 without any modifications. Android the way Google intended, as it were. That’s how the Nexus One was born: a slim, keyboard-less device with one of the first 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processors on the market and an advanced AMOLED display at WVGA resolution. It was well ahead of its time, and it has since gone down as one of the most well-regarded Android phones ever produced.
Google actually started down this path in Android 2.0 with the Motorola Droid. Google and Moto worked very closely together in the development of the phone, and the Droid received Eclair well before anyone else did. But it wasn’t quite “pure” — the Droid made some user interface tweaks that don’t appear in the stock builds of the platform — and Google never sold the Droid to users directly. That changed with the Nexus One.
Android 2.2 was released in mid-2010, and the advantage of the Nexus program was starting to become clear: the Nexus One was the first to get updated. What did Google have to showcase in Froyo? Plenty. From the first power-on, the redesigned home screen was instantly recognizable: the old three-panel view was gone (which dated back to Android 1.0), and it was replaced by a five-panel one with a new group of dedicated, translucent shortcuts at the bottom for the phone, web browser, and app launcher. Additionally, dots on either side of the shortcuts gave the user an indication of what panel they were currently viewing. In some ways, Google was playing catch-up here; third-party skins like HTC’s Sense had already done all of these things.
Froyo also included a completely redesigned Gallery app that showcased the platform’s 3D chops for the very first time: tilting the phone would cause the images to tilt on the screen, for instance, and it included a variety of high-quality animates when moving between individual galleries and photos. Really, though, the app was little more than a one-off, not an indication of Android’s direction as a platform. (Google had actually outsourced its development to an outside firm.)
Other big features included mobile hot spot support — which many carriers would disable or provision at extra cost when selling their own Froyo devices — and better support for copy / paste in Gmail, patching one of the platform’s bigger clipboard shortcomings. Google also added a traditional password / PIN lock screen for users who didn’t like Android’s unique pattern lock or required something more secure as part of their corporate policy. More generally, it was around the launch of 2.2 that it appeared Google intended to start taking Android seriously in enterprise environments where BlackBerry traditionally held an unbreakable stronghold, and a handful of Exchange-specific enhancements here helped drive that point home.
About a half year after the launch of Froyo on the Nexus One, Google came back for another round of the Nexus program to support the release of Android 2.3. This time, it had selected Samsung to produce the Nexus S, a derivative of the company’s wildly successful Galaxy S line. Though it actually wasn’t much more advanced than the Nexus One it replaced, the two phones couldn’t have looked much more different, thanks largely to a new curved-glass display and a glossy, all-black shell. The ubiquitous trackball beneath the display was no more. With the Nexus S, it appeared that Google was finally ready to bid adieu to hardware navigation of the user interface. For Andy Rubin, the transition might have been a tough call to make: the trackball had always been a marquee feature in Danger’s line of devices, and he’d brought it over for the G1.
Gingerbread was, in many ways, a relatively minor release, but there were enough “minor” changes to collectively make for a fairly large improvement in the platform. For one thing, it was the most significant reskinning of the platform since Eclair: stock widgets were refreshed (including the ubiquitous “Malmo” analog clock), the home screen’s UI elements gained a hint of green, and the status bar was inverted so it had a black background with white text. This seemingly trivial change actually had a pretty big effect on the appearance of the platform. It instantly looked cleaner and more modern. But in reality, Google probably did it primarily to reduce battery drain and the effects of burn-in on AMOLED displays.
Android 2.3 included a good mix of new functionality, too.
More granular control over copy and paste. Android’s support for clipboard operations had been lagging iOS since Apple released version 3.0 in mid-2009, which offered a fantastic level of character-by-character highlight control using a magnifying glass to make the cursor easier to operate with a finger. Prior to Gingerbread, stock Android only offered the ability to copy the contents of entire text boxes, which was frequently (usually, even) not what you wanted to do. Gingerbread fixed this, adding word-by-word highlighting with finger-draggable anchors on either end to facilitate adjusting the highlight. Like the home screen improvements in Froyo, this was another area where Google was catching up to the innovations that some of its OEMs had already been including in their skins for some time. HTC had already grafted similar functionality into prior releases.
An improved keyboard. Google once again tweaked its stock keyboard for 2.3, and this time, it was noticeable to the naked eye. The design and coloration of the keys changed significantly for the first time since the keyboard’s introduction in Cupcake. Multitouch support also improved with “chording,” which allowed users to press multikey combinations to quickly access the secondary symbol keyboard.
Better battery and app management tools. Android had been dinged by some for being too effective in supporting multitasking. By letting software run free in the background, battery life was always at risk of taking a big hit, particularly if a user had loaded poorly designed apps. Gingerbread helped make that a little easier to fix with a new bundled utility for graphically viewing battery drain over time and seeing exactly what apps and system functions are eating the most power. (Of course, the onus was still on the user to uninstall offending apps or adjust their usage.)
Support for front-facing cameras. Though it wouldn’t be until mid-2010 that Google Talk would gain mobile video chat support, Gingerbread laid the groundwork for that functionality by supporting multiple cameras on a single device. Indeed, Google had the foresight to specify a front-facing camera on the Nexus S, though you couldn’t use it for much other than taking pictures of yourself when the device first launched.
Other new features of Gingerbread were targeted more at developers than end users: NFC support, for one, was available on the Nexus S by way of a special antenna embedded in the battery cover. For many months, this capability was little more than a novelty — you could scan Google Places signs in some cities to collect URLs with more information on the location, for instance, much as you would with a QR code — but Google later used Sprint’s version of the Nexus S to launch Google Wallet, a major mobile payment initiative. Many companies are still betting the farm on the future of NFC and mobile payments, and Gingerbread was on the bleeding edge of that push.
Google also used the launch of Gingerbread as an opportunity to gain some footing in the mobile gaming market, an area where it had lagged iOS significantly. The new version gave developers lower-level access to audio, device controls, graphics, and storage, which allowed them to write considerably faster native code. This was absolutely key for creating the rich, graphics-intensive 3D games that the platform lacked.
Honeycomb was, to say the least, an oddity. It was a divergence in Google’s hard-charging path toward smartphone dominance. In fact, Honeycomb wasn’t for smartphones at all. Instead, Google returned to Motorola — the company that it had worked with to deliver Android 2.0 exclusively on the Droid — to produce a device in the same vein as the Nexus series that would showcase “stock” Android 3.0, a variant of Android targeted exclusively at tablets. That device would become the Xoom.
Though Honeycomb hasn’t seen the levels of market traction that Google was probably aiming for, it previewed a fundamental redesign of Android’s user interface that would be more thoroughly built out in Android 4.0.
A move from green to blue accents. Green was, is, and likely forever will be associated with Android. The Android logo is bright green, and Google’s official Android site is covered in green accents. On the actual platform, though, green was shown the door with the release of Honeycomb. In its place, a light, desaturated blue was used for the battery and signal indicators, the clock widget, and a variety of highlights and trim pieces throughout the interface.
Redesigned home screen and widget placement. Rather than choosing home screen widgets from a list, sight unseen, Honeycomb ratcheted up the user friendliness a couple notches by showing visible previews for each type of widget available on the system — and once you choose your widget, you can place it on any of Honeycomb’s five home screen panels from a single, zoomed-out view showing all five at once. Though Android had always used a grid for widget and icon placement on the home screen, Honeycomb did a better job of embracing it and exposing it to the user — below each widget preview, you can see exactly how many “grid squares” it’ll consume once placed.
The death of physical buttons. On a Honeycomb tablet, there’s no need for dedicated, physical buttons for Back, Home, Menu, and Search as there had been on phones running 2.3 and below — instead, Back and Home have become virtual buttons that occupy a new “system bar” at the bottom of the screen. Because they’re virtual, the operating system has the flexibility to show, hide, or change them when it makes sense to do so — and for hardware manufacturers, less bezel space needs to be devoted to supporting hardware buttons.
Improved multitasking. Borrowing a page out of webOS’s playbook (keep in mind that webOS design guru Matias Duarte was employed by Google by the time Honeycomb was released), a new Recent Apps virtual button at the bottom of the screen produces a list of apps recently used — and more importantly, screen captures for each. On Gingerbread and prior, seeing recently-used apps involved a long-press of the Home key — something users would rarely think to do — and you were presented only with each app’s icon, not a helpful thumbnail.
A new paradigm for app layout. Honeycomb introduced the concept of the “action bar,” a permanently-placed bar at the top of each app that developers can use to show frequently-accessed options, context menus, and so on — it’s something of a dedicated status bar for each individual application. Additionally, Honeycomb introduced support for multi-column app layouts, a nod toward the version’s tight focus on tablets.
Android 3.1 and 3.2 were primarily maintenance releases (hence their continued use of the Honeycomb name), but they did produce a couple important features that have been retroactively deployed to most Android 3.0 tablets on the market. 3.1 added support for resizeable home screen widgets using anchors that appear when pressing and holding; a variety of third-party skins had supported widget resizing previously, but Android 3.1 pulled the functionality into the core platform.
4.0: “Ice Cream Sandwich”
Android 4.0 arrived first to the Galaxy Nexus, Google’s return to the Nexus program — and a second visit to Samsung, which had provided the Nexus S for the launch of Gingerbread. Ice Cream Sandwich is, without question, the biggest change for Android on phones at the time — but many of its new features and design elements got their start in Honeycomb, including virtual buttons, the transition from green to blue accents, improved widget support, multitasking with a scrollable list of thumbnails, and “action bars” within applications.
Longtime Android users are well acquainted with Droid, the custom-designed typeface that’s been used since 1.0. Ice Cream Sandwich replaces it with another bespoke font — Roboto — that is said to be designed to take better advantage of today’s higher-resolution displays.
Google’s Vice President of Design Matias Duarte noted that the old font “struggled to achieve both the openness and information density we wanted in Ice Cream Sandwich,” whereas Roboto is said to avoid some anti-aliasing pitfalls (“grey mush,” as he calls it) at any scale. Google would later open source Roboto in 2015, four years after the release in 4.0.
And one of Android’s defining (and oldest) features saw a thorough refresh in 4.0, too. The aging notification screen is still one of the best implementations available in a mobile platform, but ICS improves it by making individual notifications removable simply by swiping them off the screen. In older versions, your only options were to clear them all — not always the desired behavior — or to acknowledge the notification in question by pressing it, which would usually send you into an application that you may not want to be in.
Google has quietly tweaked Android’s soft keyboard in virtually every version since it launched in Cupcake, and ICS is no exception — in fact, it’s as big of a leap forward as Gingerbread’s was. The physical design and layout of the keys is largely unchanged, but the correction intelligence driving it has been overhauled, and real-world suggests that the changes are working wonders. Alongside, the platform gets an attractive implementation of inline spellcheck and replacement — not unlike iOS — with red underlining for misspelled words and on-the-spot dictionary adding. For the first time, text entry, clipboard support, and soft keyboard quality feel as though they’re as good as anything on the market.
And that’s just the start:
More home screen improvements. ICS’s home screen adopted many of the changes that Honeycomb brought into the fold, but it added a couple new tricks, too. Folders can now be created simply by dragging one icon onto another, at which point they appear as a three-dimensional stack of icons rising out of a black circle — a nice look. The home screen also gets a “favorites tray,” which mirrors the configurable dock functionality seen on third-party launchers and some OEM skins over the last couple years. Unlike Froyo and Gingerbread which had the Phone and Browser apps permanently docked to the bottom of the screen, the favorites tray lets the user decide what shortcuts should lie there (the defaults are Phone, People, Messaging, and Browser, but you can have whatever you like).
Android Beam. NFC support was heavily touted with the release of Gingerbread and the Nexus S — but apart from the limited rollout that Google Wallet had seen so far, there’s been virtually no practical application to the capability whatsoever. ICS looks to change that with a new feature called Android Beam that allows two Beam-enabled phones to transfer data just by touching them together, and it’s open — developers can extend it and use it however they see fit.
Face unlock. In addition to the pattern and password locks already supported, Android 4.0 adds a face unlock that uses the phone’s front-facing camera to look for a match. It’s arguably more of a novelty than anything else since it can be defeated with a picture of the individual who owns the phone. This concept would go on to be a major part of Apple’s iPhone X in 2017, which arrived with its own Face ID system that uses IR sensors to detect the user’s facial features.
Data usage analysis. Just as Gingerbread improved visibility into battery usage by application, Android 4.0 did the same thing for data usage. You can see overall usage broken down by any time period you like (and set alerts to prevent overage), but additionally, you can drive down on an application-by-application basis and see what’s eating your megabytes.
New calendar and mail apps. The Gmail and traditional email experiences on Android 4.0 have been extensively overhauled with new, crisper designs and “action bar” support — functionality carried over from Honeycomb. The calendar app has a unified view for the first time, convenient for those using multiple accounts on their device.
Announced at 2012’s Google I/O conference, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean is arguably a much bigger deal than its mere 0.1 increment over Ice Cream Sandwich would have you believe. It represents both a reboot in Google’s flagging tablet strategy (having been introduced alongside the Asus-sourced Nexus 7) and a big refinement in the completely redesigned user experience that debuted in Android 4.0.
A quick glance at 4.1 — starting with the home screen — doesn’t give you much indication that anything has changed, but a deeper look reveals a host of tweaks and new features. And one of its most important features is under the hood, away from view: “Project Butter.” Google says that it set out to significantly improve Android’s visual and touch performance with this version by triple-buffering graphics, locking all drawing to a 16-millisecond refresh time, and making a number of tweaks to the touch input subsystem. Since Android’s launch, the platform has always seemed to lag iOS’s touch responsiveness by a hair (particularly when scrolling) and these changes help close the gap.
4.1: “Jelly Bean”
Of all the user-facing changes, Google Now was undoubtedly the biggest, most important, and most ambitious — would that would predate how Google Assistant today helps manage your daily tasks. Google Now sought to do a lot of your day-to-day thinking for you, predicting what you need to know before you ask. Accessed with a screen swipe, Now processed a variety of data — your schedule, location, time of day, and so on — and presents a series of “cards” that slide into view depending on what it perceives as the most important information right this moment (it might give you a drive time home if it detects that you’re at your office, for instance). It also integrated a revamped natural language search function with perhaps the most realistic text-to-speech system ever offered on a phone. With Jelly Bean, voice dictation became available offline for the first time, meaning you didn’t need to be connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network to use it.
A small selection of 4.1’s other headline features include:
Roboto refresh. Android’s signature font, first seen in Android 4.0, has been reworked. New styles and weights are used throughout the UI (italic is seen in Google Now, for instance) and the font renders a little differently than it did before.
Expandable, “actionable” notifications. Android has long had the best and most flexible notification system in the business (with webOS arguably the exception) and Android 4.1 takes it to the next level. Developers can now create more dynamic notifications that can expand right inside the notification dropdown to reveal more information and controls without opening the app itself. Notifications can also now be toggled off on an app-by-app basis, a useful feature first introduced by Apple with the debut of the Notification Center in iOS 5.
Widget flexibility. Resizable home screen widgets first came to the platform in Android 3.1, but Jelly Bean makes them more useful — they can resize dynamically. The task of trying to fit all your widgets and icons on a single panel is a notoriously frustrating one, but now, widgets will adjust to fit the available space. Icons will also move out of the way to accommodate your drop target, much as they do in iOS.
Predictive text. Google has aggressively refreshed Android’s stock keyboard with almost every new version of the platform (an effort that is largely lost because OEMs almost universally choose to replace it with their own), and 4.1 is no different. This time, focus has turned away from word correction and towards word prediction, a capability made famous by the widely popular SwiftKey and adopted by BlackBerry 10: the keyboard will now attempt to guess the next word that you want to write and adapt to your writing style over time.
4.2 “Jelly Bean”
While Android 4.1 Jelly Bean introduced a new confectionary-based name and significant improvements over 4.0, Android 4.2 kept the Jelly Bean moniker and can be looked at as more of a refinement of the platform instead of a major update. Announced just six months after 4.1, 4.2 tightened up performance, introduced improved animations, and offered an even more cohesive design over 4.0 and 4.1. That isn’t to say there weren’t any user-facing additions: Android 4.2 offered a new control panel accessible from the notification shade (via a rather obscure two-finger gesture or a more obvious button), the ability to access widgets and launch the camera right from the lock screen, and the ability to trace words on the stock keyboard a la Swype.
One of the biggest additions to come with 4.2 was Miracast support, which lets you wirelessly stream video and audio from your device to a television or other display. Google’s apparent answer to Apple’s AirPlay, Miracast is considered an industry standard, and there are some set-top boxes on the market that support it. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of improvement in Miracast support since Android 4.2 was released in the fall of 2012, and there are relatively few smartphones on the market that take advantage of it, even if they have been updated to Android 4.2. Eventually, this feature would make its way into a standalone hardware called Google Chromecast, a device that continues to be iterated to this day.
Though it wasn’t a software feature, per se, Android 4.2 also saw the release of ”Google Play edition” phones — popular devices from Samsung and HTC that had their custom software stripped and replaced with a “stock” Android experience. For customers who didn’t love the Nexus hardware but still wanted to get Android 4.2 out of the box, the Google Play editions became the best option around.
Here’s a quick rundown of some of the other new features introduced with Android 4.2:
Redesigned clock app and clock widgets. One of the biggest visual changes in 4.2 is the new clock app, which features oddly-bolded hours and skinny minutes, as well as quick access to a countdown timer, stopwatch, and world clock. Google also added new analog and digital home screen widgets to the clock app.
Multiple user profiles. Android 4.2 added the ability to have multiple user profiles or accounts on the same Android tablet, letting families easily share the same device. Profiles work very similarly to multiple user accounts in Windows or OS X, and are something that the iPad still doesn’t offer today.
Photospheres. Android 4.2 was the first time that Google introduced Photospheres to the world. A Photosphere is a 360-degree panoramic image that is captured by panning the device around to encapsulate the whole scene. Unfortunately, Photospheres were difficult to share — they can only really be shared through Google’s own Google+ social network — and were not the best at stitching many disparate images together. As a result, they’ve remained a novelty and aren’t something that most users bother with.
Daydream screensavers. As head of Android design, Matias Duarte’s influence on how Android looks and feels is fairly significant, and the Daydream feature in Android 4.2 might be one of the most obvious. Daydream essentially replicates the Exhibition mode that came with webOS 2.0 (Duarte came to Google from Palm, where he led design on webOS), and is a screensaver that can display pictures, images, information, or widgets whenever the phone is plugged in or docked.
Accessibility enhancements. Android 4.2 added a number of improvements for the disabled, with the ability to triple-tap to magnify the entire screen, pan and zoom with two fingers, and speech output and Gesture Mode navigation for blind users.
Though we had been waiting for Android 5 for some time, Google threw us a curveball by once again sticking with Jelly Bean and a point update: Android 4.3 was announced alongside a new Nexus 7 on July 24th, 2013. As you might expect from the small jump in numbers, this update had an equally small jump in features. The most high-profile change to 4.3 was designed specifically with the Nexus 7 (and other Android tablets) in mind: improved multiuser support with restricted profiles, which put the tools were put in place to ensure kids didn’t go crazy with in-app purchases.
Google had begun making a big push for Android gaming earlier in the year, and with 4.3 the company began promoting it in earnest. The new version was the first operating system to support OpenGL ES 3.0 graphics, an advanced software engine for gaming. Apple followed suit with its own OS later in the year, though, and still maintains a significant edge in the gaming ecosystem.
4.3: “Jelly Bean”
Android 4.3 also brought some other minor improvements: TRIM support for improvement memory management, Bluetooth Smart for low-energy accessories, virtual surround sound, a predictive dial pad, and improved Wi-Fi location services.
For Android users, the relatively minor updates in 4.3 may have been blessings in disguise. For one thing, there was less consternation about the inevitable delays that every Android phone faces in getting the latest version of the OS. However, the biggest changes to the experience of using Android over 2013 didn’t come from OS updates, they came from app updates. As Android director of engineering Dave Burke explained to The Verge, Google has embarked on a process of modularizing Android. Many core apps like Gmail, Chrome, and Calendar get updated on a regular basis without the need for a giant OS refresh. That means that Android users get the benefits of those improved app right away, instead of having to wait for manufacturers and carriers to go through the long, slow process of customization and approval.
While Android 4.3 might be the pinnacle of Google’s new philosophy of making OS updates more about plumbing than about user-facing features, that doesn’t mean that users aren’t waiting for the next big thing. Google has already teased that the next version is coming — and it has a surprising name.
Google released Android 4.4 KitKat in October 2013, coinciding with the launch of the Nexus 5 smartphone. KitKat was the first time that Google has partnered with an outside brand for the Android mascot, and the company launched a massive marketing campaign with Nestle for it. Google would then repeat a similar partnership in 2017 with Android 8.0 Oreo.
Despite being just a point update, 4.4 brought the largest visual change to the platform since the release of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Google took the visual concepts used in 4.1 and 4.2 and pushed them even further, and modernized the platform in other places as well. The familiar blue accent color seen throughout versions 4.0 to 4.3 was been replaced with white, excising the last remnants of the Tron-inspired aesthetic introduced in Android 3.0 Honeycomb. Additionally, a number of stock apps were redesigned with lighter color schemes.
But the biggest change was found in the home screen: Android 4.4 introduced a transparent notification bar and on-screen buttons; a refined, condensed version of the standard Roboto font; a new app drawer; and most importantly, Google Now integrated directly into the home screen.
In addition to the visual overhaul, Google said its “goal with Android KitKat” was “to make an amazing Android experience available for everybody.” The company focused on making the new OS more efficient, faster, and less resource intensive. This allowed it to run on lower-end and older hardware, encouraging manufacturers to update their existing devices and launch new devices with KitKat instead of resorting to older versions of Android. It was Google’s biggest move yet to end the dreaded version fragmentation that has dogged the platform since its early days.
Here’s a look at some of the top features introduced with Android 4.4:
Google Now in the home screen. The biggest feature for Android 4.4 KitKat was the redesigned launcher, and the star of that show was Google Now. The predictive search service was pulled out of hiding behind a swipe up gesture, giving it prime real estate as the leftmost page of the new launcher. Google Now’s features became more powerful — it coulddirect you to the right app for your search, instead of just launching a web search — and the pervasive search box at the top of every home screen began listening for an “okay Google” voice command at any given time.
New dialer. The dialer was updated to plug into Google’s vast database of businesses and services, letting you search for things right from within the app and get results that might not be in your address book. It was a two-way street, too: if a business called you and you didn’t have its number stored, the dialer automatically identified the caller. In addition to the new searching features, Android 4.4’s dialer had a new, lighter design that better matches the People app.
Full-screen apps. Complementing the new transparent status bar and navigation buttons was the ability for apps to run completely full screen. Apps had the option to hide the status bar and navigation buttons entirely, providing a more immersive experience. The lock screen also offered full-screen album art and cover art for when you are listening to music and playing movies or TV shows on a Chromecast.
Unified Hangouts app. Android 4.4 expanded Google’s Hangouts messaging service with the ability to send and receive SMS messages right from within the app. Though the new features were also available to earlier versions of Android, they made their debut with KitKat and the Nexus 5. The integrated SMS feature wasn’t perfect — Google doesn’t thread SMS messages in the same conversation as Hangouts messages — but was a big step towards Google making Hangouts the focus for all of your messaging activity.
Redesigned Clock and Downloads apps. For the second time since Android 4.2, Google has redesigned the standard clock app in KitKat. The new app offers a more intuitive interface for setting alarms, and does away with the odd bolded hours and thin minutes look of the earlier app. The Downloads app was also been redesigned with a lighter color scheme and more modern look and feel.
Emoji. With Android 4.4, Google finally built colorful emoji characters into the standard keyboard. Other platforms and third-party apps had offered emoji, but users were granted access to the various smiley faces and icons anywhere in the Android operating system.
Productivity enhancements. Google made productivity a big focus in Android 4.4, with a new version of the Quickoffice app and the ability to print to any printer connected to Google Cloud Print. The new Quickoffice gave users access to files stored on cloud services such as Dropbox, Box, and others, in addition to Google Drive. It also received the lighter design treatment, and fits in better with the rest of Google’s existing productivity apps. Google also updated its long-neglected standard email app (not Gmail) with better navigation, nested folders, and other improvements.
HDR+. On devices such as the Nexus 5, Android 4.4 introduced support for HDR+, a new HDR mode that is said to provide sharper images with less noise and greater dynamic range. It still required capturing multiple images and stitching them together, so it didn’t work well with moving subjects, but it was impressive on landscapes and other still-life scenes.
Three years after the release of 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, Google finally moved forward to the next version of Android with 5.0 Lollipop in November 2014. Lollipop would be the first to introduce a new design language called Material Design that would change the look and feel of apps across Android, including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, and even stock apps like Dialer and Calendar. This update also brought on Google’s ambitions to expand outside of mobile devices and into wearables, televisions, and even automobiles.
Material Design. Again, the most noticeable change is the introduction of a new design language across Android. Material Design was built on the Cards metaphor first seen in Google Now, establishing a hierarchy of transitions and animations to imitate real life. The colorful interfaces, playful transitions, and animations looked straight out of Disney’s playbook. The Material Design ethos would later be incorporated into Google’s web applications as well, including the desktop interfaces for Google Drive, Google Docs / Sheets / Slides, and Chrome OS.
Multitasking redefined. With Android Lollipop, Google had redesigned how multitasking functions. Rather than simply showing you previews of your recent applications, the new Recents menu let you jump right into the part of the app you’re interested in. This means that tabs in Chrome or documents in Drive will show up as separate preview panes, and developers will be able to tap into the new functionality, too. Apps like Hangouts, Messenger, and WhatsApp can now take advantage of this new view to break conversations into tabs that are accessible from anywhere.
Notifications. Lollipop also saw a big emphasis on the lock screen as the home of notifications in Android. It’s similar to the system already in place in Android 4.4’s notification drawer, but each item is neatly segmented into Cards. The update allowed you to dismiss or deal with notifications straight from the lock screen, with granular controls in place to define which apps can be managed without unlocking your device. There are also new drop-down notifications for when you’re in an app that look like large, floating Cards.
This lock screen notification design would become a large part of how mobile operating systems operate today, emphasizing quick actions like replying to messages or snoozing pings without ever unlocking the device.
Project Volta. Named after Alessandro Volta, the Italian physicist who invented the battery, Project Volta is a broad set of optimizations and tools that Google says will improve battery life in Android. Battery Historian is a new tool that will give users and developers a greater understanding of how apps are consuming energy, while a new API lets developers make more power-efficient apps by giving control over when background tasks are performed. There’s also a Battery Saver mode coming that Google claims will give users another 90 minutes of usage by switching off all but the most vital functions.
Android everywhere. Google’s dominant mobile OS is no longer just for phones or tablets. Android Wear, an initiative to get the mobile OS onto wearables, was a large focus. Google wants Android on all wearables, whether they’re smartwatches like the Moto 360 or headsets like Google Glass. The first Android Wear smartwatches became available to order through Google Play, with Lollipop enabling functions like unlocking your smartphone without a passcode or pattern if you’re wearing a paired smartwatch. It also integrated Google Fit into the devices, tracking physical fitness activities like walking or biking.
Additionally, Android TV became another attempt to get Google services into your living room. Built on top of Lollipop, Android TV has all the functionality of the company’s Chromecast device, but it pairs that with a more traditional media streaming setup (think Apple TV, Roku, or Amazon’s new Fire TV). Google would later build Android TV into a 4K HDR, Chromecast-like dongle, but so far, it has only released this to developers, not consumers.
Android Auto puts often-used features from smartphones directly into your car. The platform offers calling, texting, navigation, and music, all controlled via a Google Now-style home screen optimized for voice commands or in-car controls. Today, it’s replaced by Google Assistant, the software now found in many of Google’s smart home devices including the Home line of speakers and Home Hub smart display.
There were other smaller announcements with Lollipop, too, such as the ability to run Android apps through Chrome OS and also receive Android notifications directly on your laptop. The message is simple: Google wants Android Lollipop to be the release that takes its dominant mobile operating system and puts it everywhere — your phone, your tablet, your laptop, your TV, your wrist — as the future of Google computing.
Android Marshmallow was released in October 2015 alongside Google’s Nexus 5X and Nexus 6P. The update had only a couple truly exciting features, but altogether, the changes represented an important quality-of-life development and an overall maturity of the OS. App permissions offered users more control, the system got smarter about conserving battery, and long-standing pain points like copy and paste were fixed.
It also made Android work a lot more like iOS at a time when the gap between Android phones and iPhones was finally starting to narrow. At long last, their operating systems were starting to move toward each other, with Google adopting some of Apple’s caution and Apple starting to make iOS feel as ambitious as Android. The result was an important update that moved Google’s operating system in a smarter direction as apps, devices, and users began demanding more.
Granular app permissions. Like iOS had long done, Google began allowing users to accept or deny permissions for features like camera or location access on an individual basis, rather than requiring them to accept all or nothing. The transition was slow — developers had to update their apps to support the new scheme — but it was an important move that offered users more control and added safety.
Android Pay. Though not strictly a Marshmallow feature (it hit other Android devices a month before launch), Android Pay was preinstalled on Marshmallow and began allowing users to make payments at supported registers over NFC. Google had been trying to break into mobile payments for a while, and after many failures — and the sheer force of Apple paving the way — Google was finally able to launch a service that worked.
Google fixed copy and paste. Finally. Instead of indecipherable glyphs at the top of the screen, Google borrowed iOS’s approach and made cut and copy options appear directly above what you selected, which is way easier.
Smarter app management. Another meaningful inspiration from iOS came in the form of how Android Marshmallow managed apps. The system began doing a more thorough job of freezing and closing apps lingering in the background using a pair of features called Doze and App Standby. Doze would freeze apps when Android detected that a phone wasn’t in use. And App Standby would block background apps from updating if they hadn’t been opened in some time.
Now on Tap. Now on Tap was Marshmallow’s big new feature, and it was a neat and extremely Google-y one. You held down the home button, and the operating system would automatically scan what was on your screen and pull up relevant information about what it found. It was, in some ways, a precursor to Google Assistant, which would later get this functionality built into it. Now on Tap didn’t always work perfectly, but when it did, it was one of those things that really made a smartphone feel smart.
Fingerprints and USB-C. Neither feature was strictly new to Android devices, but Google helped the them take off by building support directly into the OS, offering a standard way for manufacturers and developers to interact with them.
A smarter app drawer. Instead of flipping through pages of apps, Marshmallow overhauled the app drawer in a few smart ways. First, it sorted the apps in alphabetical order and displayed big letters to help you find what you were looking for. Second, it added a search bar to the top, so you could just type in what you wanted. And third, it added a row of suggested apps to the top, which would go ahead and guess what you were looking for. The guesses got it right… some of the time.
Android 7.0 Nougat was officially released on August 22nd, 2016. This update introduced big changes for big phones. The most significant among them was split-screen multitasking, long after Samsung and LG had started building split-screen support into some of their Android devices. Nougat was also the first and only time Google allowed fans to help it name its next version, landing on an official name just a little over a month after crowdsourcing some suggestions.
To this day, version 7.0 remains the most-used version of Android.
Split-screen support. To get two apps running on-screen at once, users could hold down the recents / overview icon and then select a second app to open. But not all popular Android apps immediately supported split-screen, and some of them still don’t to this day.
One of the most useful additions to Android Nougat was a very simple one: quickly double tapping the overview button would hop between the two most recently used apps. This proved even faster than opening the app switcher.
Quick replies get quicker. Nougat also allowed developers to add quick replies directly to their app’s notifications, letting users respond to messages without having to change apps to do so. Google made some changes to the visual style of notifications as well, getting rid of the space between each of them to give the appearance of a single pull-down “sheet.”
With Android Nougat, apps could also bundle several notifications together to cut down on clutter in the notification shade. And users could take control of notifications and change their settings with a long press.
Customizable quick settings. Starting with Nougat, Google put five quick settings icons at the top of the pull-down menu that could be customized — Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, do not disturb, data saver, etc. — to a user’s liking. These could be conveniently accessed and toggled on / off with a quick swipe without fully pulling the notification shade all the way down.
Small user-facing updates and bigger ambitions inside. Android Nougat extended the battery-saving Doze optimizations of Marshmallow, which put devices into a deep sleep state when sitting still on a table, for everyday usage. Now, they’d kick in whenever the screen was turned off to extend a phone’s charge.
Underneath the user-facing features, the update had a lot of important improvements like support for the Vulkan API to allow for higher-quality 3D graphics and better games. And Nougat introduced a new approach to future updates, where a phone would download and install a new Android version onto a separate partition in the background. After that, a user would just need to restart their phone to be on the new software right away.
As previously mentioned, Oreo would be Google’s second partnership to name its next version of Android after a branded snack. Google would coincide Oreo’s name unveiling with the 2017 solar eclipse, revealing the mascot as a superhero with a cape. By this version, Google Assistant had essentially replaced Google Now as the default virtual assistant. Visually, Oreo also brought one of its most controversial moves yet: the death of the blob emoji.
Notifications are more condensed. Android Oreo proved that the lock screen became essential to the Android experience, with even more organization around how notifications are shown and actionable without unlocking your device. Now, notifications are ordered by what Android perceives to be the priority, such as a pinned music player at the top to let you start, stop, or skip songs. “People to people” alerts, such as text messages or social media notifications, would come next, followed by other notifications like news alerts or app updates.
Oreo also brought a new snoozing feature that lets you swipe away a notification and be reminded at a later time. There are a few UI changes, too, such as notification dots on app icons that let you hold down to see what’s new in that app rather than constantly bombard you on the lock screen. Unlike iOS, however, the dots do not show the number of new notifications, just that there is (at least) one.
RIP blobmoji. Initially unveiled at I/O 2017 without major fanfare, Android 8 Oreo had introduced a new set of emoji that would mark the end of the blob-style emoticons that were first introduced with 4.4 KitKat. The expressive yellow blobs were replaced with a more standard, circular emoji that used gradient colors and bolder lines. Animal emoji were also updated to look slightly more realistic, rather than cartoony. Blobmoji would live on as stickers on Allo, Hangouts, and Gboard.
I’m one with the blob, the blob is me ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ.
Picture-in-picture. Google had teased better multitasking with the introduction of picture-in-picture for Oreo, but the feature was underused upon release as it was limited to specific Google services, such as the paid version of YouTube.
Android TV gets more updates. Prior to Oreo, Android TV had only seen tiny updates, but the new version offered new app channels that displayed live previews of what’s currently playing. A new Watch Now queue also pulled up a list of next episodes in your viewing lineup. Google Assistant was now standard on Android TV running Oreo, rather than an OTA update for those on Nougat and Marshmallow.
Project Treble. Android Oreo brought some significant changes to how the platform was built under the hood in the form of Project Treble. At its simplest, Project Treble separated the Android OS framework from the firmware and other low-level implementations installed by device makers such as Samsung, LG, Huawei, and others. The goal is to make it easier for these companies to issue updates to new versions of Android as they are released and shorten the time it takes to deliver them. So far, results have been mixed. Treble has made it easier for modders and enthusiasts to tweak their devices, but we haven’t seen companies really deliver updates any quicker as a result of it.
Of the many good P sweets, Google went with Pie for its 10th anniversary in 2018. With it, core functions of the world’s biggest mobile operating system evolved. When Android P debuted at Google’s I/O 2018 developer conference, it was immediately available to test for Google Pixel users. Shortly afterward, Android Pie became the first release that could be tested on non-Google smartphones since the platform first launched. It’s a welcoming sign considering that in 2018, Android still struggles with update fragmentation.
Android Pie is a turning point for the mobile OS. It now has new gesture-based navigation and a dashboard to monitor and limit your “digital wellbeing” or app usage. It also incorporates AI more than ever, using it to drive Android’s UI in the form of Actions and Slices, which predicts the tasks you might want in a certain app then offers an immediate shortcut. Smaller but still useful updates like an improved Do Not Disturb mode, screenshot editing, an early attempt at a “dark mode,” and a Lockdown feature designed to help protect your personal data in case you’re under duress round out version 9’s enhancements.
Gestural Navigation. The big change in Pie is the removal of the three-button navigation setup of past Android builds.
The main navigational screens for Android P can all be accessed with a gesture starting from the “pill” button at the bottom of the screen. A half-swipe up shows the Overview (or recent apps) screen, a full swipe up opens the App Drawer, a tap goes back to the home screen, a long press launches Google Assistant, and a slide to the right quickly switches between recently used apps. Android Pie is also where Google begins to phase out the back button, only allowing it to appear within apps, rather than at all times.
Digital Wellbeing. Google announced its take on monitoring and limiting app usage before Apple did with iOS 12, but as of October 2018, the Android version of the product is still not quite ready. Instead, Digital Wellbeing is being tested publicly as a beta on Pixel and Android One devices — as Google often does — and then it will assume its position within Android Pie at a later date, via an OTA update.
Digital Wellbeing promises to track the notifications you receive, time spent in apps, and how often you check your phone to see what’s going on. Google is being sensitive to conversations in modern society about better time management for digital devices for younger users as well as teens and adults.
Even More AI. Actions and Slices are still in their early stages, which debuted with Android Pie. If you don’t already know, Google really loves artificial intelligence, and this is the way it lives in Pie’s user interface. These deep links into apps are separated into two parts: Actions operate just like those in Google Assistant, while Slices are a new subset that can show the app’s own UI when you type out a global search. They’re handy additions, but they will need the buy-in from developers before they become true time-savers.