A lot of expectant ears were kept wide open during the Android session of Google’s I/O 2017 developer conference that ended last Friday, but practically nothing major was announced about Android O, the new mobile OS that will be replacing Android Nougat later this year, presumably when the Google Pixel 2 line of smartphones is launched towards the end of the third quarter of 2017.
At the end of the session, there was nothing of significance to excite the average end user. But when you look a little closer at what’s happening with Android, you start to realize that the apps is where the action is really happening, not the OS itself.
Normally, we would see quite a few outward signs of change on a new version of Android, but this time the focus was almost solely on the functionality of apps and how they interact with the user.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a ton of features on Android O, such as a better emoji experience, smarter sharing based on a photo’s content, more fluid icons to suit various devices, notification snoozing, badge notifications, an Android TV launcher, new styles of animation, picture-in-picture and a lot of great stuff.
But none of these is actually revolutionary when you think about it.
This time, Google has decided to make functionality its priority. So, while consumers might not glean anything meaningful from what the Android team explained on stage, the focus is clearly on providing developers with the right tools to deliver an amazing experience. But even clearer is the fact that it is the apps that will provide the real leap in user experience.
Here are just a few examples:
Image Recognition and Information on Camera Apps
Using the AI capabilities of Google Assistant, a smartphone’s camera will be able to pull out relevant data based on what you’re pointing the camera at. Point it at a restaurant, and it will show you reviews; aim it at a show poster and you’ll see ways to book tickets for the show, watch an upcoming livestream on YouTube, etc.; point the camera at an animal and it will pull up information about it.
— Google (@Google) May 17, 2017
They’re calling it Google Lens, and it is geared towards the camera app’s functionality rather than being a feature specific to Android O.
It’s not a new concept. Bixby on Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ can do something similar, and Pinterest Lens also has a lot of the same capabilities, but the fact that Google Lens is tied into Google Search and its entire ecosystem of apps should (we hope) make it far more powerful.
Removing Objects from a Photo
This is another AI functionality not inherent to Android O itself. It’s most likely going to be a feature on Google Photos, and this is how it will work:
This is a static shot of how an object in the foreground can literally be wiped out by the new AI feature. Again, this is nothing new, and Adobe has had such an ‘intelligent fill’ feature for years. But to see it as an in-app feature, like in Google Photos, would be truly game-changing.
Instant Apps – No Downloads Required
This is another app-centric feature that Android O brings to the table. With Instant Apps, you will no longer have to download the full app to use a part of its functionality. These can be saved as quick links on the home page so you can access certain functions of the app without any need to download.
It’s great for memory-constrained devices, and it won’t use up as much data as downloading the full version of the app. Of course, you’ll be able to that as well but, with Instant Apps, you won’t have to.
The Subtle Shift from OS-centric to App-centric Experiences
That said, it doesn’t mean that Android O itself has nothing to offer. Apart from the new features we first spoke about, Android O is also being reworked to be faster and more power-efficient. A Google Pixel running Android O, for example, can boot up almost twice as fast as one running Android Nougat, all else being the same.
Does that mean Android has reach a ‘development peak’ in terms of core functionality? Not necessarily. However, development efforts appear to be skewing towards how well the OS can support app functionality more than anything else.
Microsoft essentially went through the same thing with Windows 10, focusing more on app functionality and Windows being a solid foundation supporting the apps, rather than the OS itself being the centerpiece of it all. UWP apps, 3D, Holographics, better support for games in the form of Game Mode – all of these are certainly part of Windows 10, but the focus is on leveraging Windows 10 for greater app and content functionality.
Even Apple went through that with iOS 10, which saw increased focus on iMessage, third-party app integrations with Siri and so on rather than major feature changes to the OS itself. Find my Airpods and the new APFS file system were the two major features of iOS 10.3, for example, and only APFS can truly be seen as an OS-centric feature.
What seems to be happening is that these operating systems are reaching (or have reached) a point where the look and feel, and basic OS-related functionality, has achieved a significant level of maturity, and the next phase is to focus on what they can actually do under the hood rather than drastic changes to their outward form. Their capabilities are still in focus, but it’s more app-centric than OS-centric.
It’s a subtle shift, and not something everyone will see straight away, but it is unmistakable. Microsoft, Google and Apple are masters of the operating systems world, but they seem to have arrived at a place where user experience is dependent on what functionality an OS can support rather than what the OS itself is capable of.
In the months and years to come, we’ll see more VR/AR capabilities, deeper AI capabilities, more flexible app usage, greater power efficiencies, greater speed and all of that good stuff, and the focus will be on delivering new and exciting experiences via apps, integrations, new technologies like AI and so on.
But the focus is undeniably, albeit slowly, shifting away from the features and functionalities of the OS itself, towards what capabilities the OS is able to support. That’s what Android O seems to be going through right now.