Android 10: Google’s most fundamental OS shift?

Android 10 has gone big on privacy and gesture navigation. However, its most significant move might be the way it handles updates…

Traditionally, Google has named its Android OS updates after sweet treats. KitKat, Marshmallow, Nougat, and so on. However, with its latest version – Q – the company decided to scrap the idea. Android 10 would be, just that – Android 10.

Not very imaginative, but far more democratic.

On launching the new upgrade, the company explained that it was time: more sensible, less geeky, and remember – not everyone speaks English. After all, Android started as an experiment. Now, it has more than 2.5bn users.

Sameer Samat, head of product management at Android, explained in a blog:

The names weren’t always understood by everyone in the global community. […] For example, L and R are not distinguishable when spoken in some languages. So when some people heard us say Android Lollipop out loud, it wasn’t intuitively clear that it referred to the version after KitKat. […] We also know that pies are not a dessert in some places, and that marshmallows, while delicious, are not a popular treat in many parts of the world. […] As a global operating system, it’s important that these names are clear and relatable for everyone in the world.

Naming is not the only significant change for Android with this new version. Google has also tweaked the branding for the first time in a while. The changes are subtle. They are the sort of thing that designers agonize over while the rest of us barely notice. A case in point: the curve of the ‘o’ in the Android name now has the same radius as the mascot’s head. 

However, there are good reasons for the changes. For example, Google’s research unveiled that some color blind people struggled with brand colors. For this reason, it tweaked the green a little.

So, there’s something of a ‘new era’ feeling about Android 10. The most significant change is arguably one that the users don’t see at all – but one that is hugely significant for developers. 

project mainline

Project Mainline changes the way Google handles updates. Google knows updates are a problem in the Android world. While iPhone users are nearly all up to date and running the latest version of iOS, Android users are all over the place. They run versions going back years. This fragmentation causes a problem for everyone in the ecosystem – not least developers.

Google has tried to fix this many times. Nothing worked. 

Project Mainline is the latest attempt at a solution. Its approach is to send specific internal OS components directly from Google Play. This means users no longer need to get a full system update from their device maker to access the latest Android Open Source Project (AOSP) code. Google itself thinks this is a huge deal. In other words: Project Mainline lets Google update core parts of Android as if it were an app

In an interview with Art Technica, Dave Burke, VP of engineering for Android, called it “probably the biggest fundamental shift in how we do software development for operating systems since we started.”

Ultimately, Google thinks Mainline will make app development cheaper and more manageable. The blog reads as:

For developers, we expect updates in Android 10 to help drive consistency of platform implementation broadly across devices, and over time bring greater uniformity that will reduce your development and testing costs.

Furthermore, the blog adds that developers themselves will be able to contribute to this ongoing improvement. The source code for the modules will live in the Android Open Source Project. Google explains:

Because they’re open source, updates will include improvements and bug fixes contributed by our many partners and developer community worldwide.

The update will also benefit users, as their devices will update more frequently. The phones will always be running the newest versions of the modules, including the latest updates for security, privacy, and consistency. Meanwhile, device makers, carriers, and enterprises will be able to optimize and secure critical parts of the OS without the cost of a full system update.

Of course, updates are not the only significant change in Android 10. There are plenty more. You probably know all about them, so let’s sum up the biggies quickly: 

As Google is facing all kinds of ethical criticism, privacy has gotten a substantial update in Android 10. Its response has been to give people more control over their privacy settings. Of course, this will impact app developers. For example, access to device location in the background now requires explicit permission from the user

Digital Wellbeing
If privacy is a big crisis, addiction is the other. Silicon Valley knows it needs to help people reduce their screen time, and Android created Digital Wellbeing. Users can set time limits on specific apps, or enable Focus mode which temporarily disables certain apps. These features may allow the user to concentrate on a task without disturbance or distractions.

Dark mode
Users can enable ‘Dark Theme’ for all areas of the phone, as well as for specific apps. It’s easier on your eyes, and gentler on the battery. 

Gesture navigation
By introducing more actionable motions, Google has reduced the need for visible buttons, freeing up on-screen real estate.

Live Caption
The new features add subtitles on the fly to videos. Great for those with hearing issues – or discreet watching.

Smart Reply
Android 10 uses machine learning to suggest smart ways to respond to, and act on, notifications. Without it being necessary for developers to do anything, apps can take advantage of this feature straight away. That said, you can still supply your own replies and actions, if you want to. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll know how popular Android 10 has become, and if the updates promised by Mainline can resolve some of the fragmentation problems faced by Android developers. Further into the future, perhaps years on, we’ll know if Google’s own predictions are correct: will Android 10 be the start of a new era?