ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Android L @ Google I/O – The Future of Mobile?

There’s no doubt about it: Android is insanely popular. Even if you fall into the Apple, Microsoft, or Blackberry camp, 1 billion active users is an incredibly respectable number. That’s almost a seventh of the earth’s population, assuming roughly one device per person. That’s crazy. Few products ever achieve such penetration. So you know that when Google takes to the stage each year to talk about the future of their mobile operating system, a lot of people pay attention (apparently even women, who according to Google were up in attendance 8% this year).

So what happens when you take a product so popular, so familiar, so ubiquitous, and totally change how it looks and feels? You will make a certain unpleasable vocal minority upset, that’s for sure. But that group will usually come around after a while. What matters is that you’ve got the quiet majority on board. With the Android L Developer Preview, available as of tomorrow, June 26, does Google have a win on their hands, or does the future of Android look set to take a turn for the worse?

Google I/O Android L

Looks Matter

It may be a common thing for parents to tell teenagers in their awkward years that it’s the heart that matters, not looks, but that sentiment doesn’t ring as true in the business world, especially when we’re talking about technology. Looks DO matter—they matter a lot. It’s not enough to just add bug fixes and more advanced programming to a new version of an operating system. In order to gain adoption for something new, it has to look new. It has to feel new. And for a platform like Android, it’s not just aesthetics that are at stake in a redesign. By changing the standard for how things look, Google is changing the standard for how things are created. A good UI doesn’t just happen on its own—there’s no line between programming and art. The art is literally in the programming. Considering how many developers build apps to suit Google’s design language, the L Developer Preview heralds major changes that are going to affect a lot of people in a very tangible way. It’s not necessarily for better or for worse—we’ll just have to wait and see how well Google’s new ideas play out.

Performance Matters

Let’s talk ART. No, I’m not still talking about how the thing looks. ART is a new application runtime for Android designed to replace Dalvik, the current standard. While ART is already present in recent versions of Google’s mobile OS it is disabled by default and only accessible by enabling Developer Options in Settings. And for good reason—useful as it is, until now ART hasn’t been ready for prime time. Well, Android L is finally ready to put ART in the spotlight. ART handles applications a bit differently than Dalvik, meaning better performance, snappier opening/closing, and most importantly, improved battery life. It will likely still be incompatible with some applications, but the sacrifice is worth it, and switching between Dalvik and ART on-demand will likely remain a possibility for some time to come.

But Google isn’t stopping there. GPUs in Android devices have been growing steadily more and more powerful, and Google wants to encourage graphics-heavy games and applications with a set of its own GPU extensions. These will handle things like tessellation, shaders, and texture compression, giving game developers a head start and performance boost on a few of the trickier matters of game graphics.

RAM has also been steadily increasing as of late, and one can now purchase an Android device packing as much as 3GB of RAM. Not long ago that would have been considered an ample amount for desktop PCs, but those days are well behind us now. Considering roughly 3.75GB is the limit for 32-bit operating systems and CPUs, in order for Android to continue accelerating 64-bit is a must. We’re probably still years away from the average user needing a 64-bit phone, but the time will come before we know it, and Android isn’t one to fall behind the times.

Usage Matters

But how will all this affect the end user? Features on paper are great, features for developers are great, but they’re all only as great as they end up being in practice. Well, the very name “Android L” should be an indication that we’ve some time yet before we see any of these features running on consumer devices—Google hasn’t even decided what dessert to go with yet (or isn’t willing to reveal it). The new UI is sure to draw people in, but not guaranteed to please. Everything is clean and colorful, but with heavy style comes the risk of alienating those who don’t resonate with it. This is still Android, though. Alternate ROMs and launchers will always be there to grant reprieve from the stock UI experience. The same can’t be said for Gmail, Drive, and the like, though. Google’s going all-out with this style, and it will be hard to escape. A learning curve, to some. For those that do enjoy it, Android L will usher in a more attractive, more convenient era of smart devices, and changes like that are always refreshing and exciting. It could be said that is the ultimate goal: to give average users something to be excited about when the biggest changes are mostly invisible. It’s marketing—the very thing Google makes most of its revenue on. Search is about content/product discovery, Android is about selling apps—the list goes on. Everything Google does is directly tied to either creating a marketing ecosystem or pulling users into it. At the end of the day Android L doesn’t need to look good, it just needs to look different, and that it does. That’s the key to getting people on board. Faster performance, better battery life, better gaming—these are the things that will impact the end user’s daily life with Android.

Android L is foundational. Not evolutionarily, not revolutionary, but somewhere in between. It’s a new stage of maturity for Android and even Google as a whole, thanks to a unified interface across all Google products and services. It’s going to draw attention, make some waves, maybe even cause some frustration, but in reality its biggest effects won’t become apparent for another year or longer. Google is definitely thinking ahead for the next major version of Android, but by no means are all the changes and additions too much, too soon. By introducing Android L early in the year they’ve given the world time to warm up to their ideas, and by introducing features like 64-bit before it’s really necessary they’re giving developers the chance to learn how to use it well so that they are equipped when the time for such features is actually here. If it’s a bit too generous to say Android L is the future of mobile, it’s at least a key stepping stone to getting us there.

[Image credit TechCrunch]