P is for Pie

Surprise! Apparently the rumors that Google was going to be releasing Android’s next dessert-named goodness at the end of August were wrong. On Monday, Android 9.0 Pie landed in the hands of Android users that own Pixel, and impressively, Essential phones. Other phones that were involved in the beta program, such as the OnePlus 6 are expected to see their updates soon. Which brings us to the first point of P:

Getting Into Treble

Android 8.0 Oreo saw the introduction of Google’s “Project Treble”, an initiative by the company to re-architect the platform and better abstract the Android Operating System from the underlying hardware specific code. Device manufacturers were spending too much time and effort reworking hardware specific code whenever they wanted to ship a platform update, increasing the cost of supporting phones, and slowing updates down. Project Treble’s separation of that hardware specific code reduces the effort required by device manufacturers to support platform updates for their devices.

All devices shipped with Android 8.0 or 8.1 Oreo were required to support the abstraction that Project Treble mandated. This makes Android 9.0 Pie the first major release since then, and the first chance for Project Treble to make a big difference in device’s update times. Google also upped the ante even further by allowing seven other manufacturers have their phones eligible for the preview program. It’s unclear what sort of agreements had to go on behind the scenes for this, but so far, things are looking good. Now that Pie is released, one of those phones, the Essential PH-1, already has its Android Pie update available to the public, and it’s not unreasonable to expect the other six to follow soon. If all seven of those devices are updated to Android 9.0 in the next month, that would be fastest adoption of a new Android version the platform has ever seen. Hopefully this trend keeps up, more device manufacturers hop on board, and stale Android platforms become a thing of the past. Which is important because Android is chugging ahead to bring more useful features so that users can do less.

AI All the Things

It’s 2018; is your product using AI yet? AI is Google’s big selling point for Android 9.0 Pie. They want you to be able to “adjust less, scroll less, charge less, tap less, and get more”. So how does Android 9 really make any of that possible with AI?

Adjust Less

Pie includes AI-powered adaptive brightness. The idea of automatic brightness isn’t new, but this is adaptive. The idea here is that the display brightness will automatically adjust as the user interacts with their phone in different lighting scenarios, same as automatic brightness. Where the adaptive idea comes in is clever; the brightness slider is still shown while automatic brightness is on, as the user moves through different lighting scenarios and tweaks the brightness with the slider as they see fit, the system learns what brightness the user prefers in those scenarios. I’ve been using this a couple days now and can already attest that it is significantly better than the old automatic brightness system, in which the slider just adjusted the bias applied to whatever brightness curve was programmed in.

Scroll Less

This claim is referring to Android’s “Digital Wellbeing” which is now offered in beta form, only on Pixel devices running Android 9. Digital Wellbeing and features like it seem to be coming up on multiple fronts in our technological lives as we seem to have started realizing that maybe we’re using technology too much, endlessly scrolling through social media.

Google’s take on this provides a dashboard that breaks down your app usage based on screen time, notifications received, and times opened. It also allows you to set daily time limits on apps, after which app becomes “paused”, the icon becomes grayed out, and the app can’t be opened. Interestingly enough you can’t set limits on all apps, for example, neither the Play Store nor the Phone can have a limit, so spend as much time as you see fit downloading WillowTree apps and calling your friends about how great they are. There’s also a feature that Google calls “Wind Down" which can automatically put the phone on do-not-disturb mode, and turn the screen grayscale to help you put the phone down at the end of the day.

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Charge Less

Over the past few years Google has been working to improve battery performance on Android through a number of initiatives, the most significant being Doze, which started with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. Through the following iterations, Doze was refined and made more aggressive, doing what it had to do to stop background apps from eating up user’s precious milliamp hours. Android 8.0 introduced the ability to restrict an app’s background usage, as well as a notification if Android detected an app that was using up a lot of battery in the background, however the process was still largely manual, and it was unlikely that an average user would go through the steps necessary to restrict certain apps. Now in Android 9.0 Pie, Adaptive Battery will go even a step further and monitor which apps you use frequently, automatically limiting battery use by apps that you don’t. Google has also updated the battery UI to make it a little more clear to the user if there are any run-away apps that need to be restricted.

Tap Less

This is a broad claim, and Google may have just replaced some tapping with swiping instead, but AI is helping here nonetheless. Pie introduces four major things that should help users “tap less”: slices, app actions, a new overview screen, and a new navigation gestures to tie it all together.

Slices and app actions are both new mechanisms for apps to gain exposure through Google search. Slices are small interfaces that allow the user to quickly see and act on information exposed by an app, while App Actions provide a deep-link into an app to perform an action. Slices and App Actions aren’t being displayed in Search yet, but developers have had access to the Slice SDK for more than a month and now that Pie is here, hopefully the wait won’t be much longer.

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New Navigation

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The new overview screen and navigation gestures are arguably the biggest change to Android in this new version, although the navigation gestures aren’t enabled by default on Pixel phones that received the Pie update. Not enabling the new gestures by default was probably the right call, I can’t imagine my father waking up one day to find out the navigation paradigm on his phone has changed. However those of us ready to brave the future can hop over into settings and turn it on.

Enabling the new gestures removes the overview button from the navigation bar, replace the home button with a “pill” and selectively-hides the back button if it isn’t needed. Then there are several swiping gestures to perform different actions: swiping up on the pill brings up the overview screen, swiping up again will bring up the app drawer regardless of whether the user is in an app or not, and swiping from left to right on the navigation bar will scroll through recent apps.

Regardless of whether the new gestures are enabled, the redesigned overview screen is here to stay, and it looks like it’s trying to replace your home screen. On the overview screen there’s a row of icons on the bottom of the screen that’s populated by, you guessed it, AI. These are the apps that the system thinks you’re most likely to want to open based on the current app you’re in and your usage patterns. In an interview that Android Central had with EK Chung, UX Manager for Android Handheld and Pixel at Google, he reported that in testing, 60% of the time the user opens overview, the app they want will be in the suggested apps row, negating the need to open the full drawer. If the app you want isn’t in that row, then swiping up within overview will also open the app drawer. Chung says this new design is here to break the pattern of home screen, app, home screen, app and take users directly from app to app.

Something to note here is that the app suggestions, and opening the drawer within overview require use of the Pixel Launcher, with no public API for custom launchers to hook into for this functionality. It will be interesting to see how device manufacturers adopt this new overview design with their own launchers, as well as Google’s gesture navigation, especially for companies like OnePlus who already have their own gesture navigation.

At first, using gesture navigation was tough as I’d been using my phone in a certain way for so long, but over the past few days I’ve been getting more used to it. I’m still uncertain if I’ll stick with it for the long term but I do recommend giving it a shot, especially if this is the direction Google wants Android navigation to go.

Other Fun Bits

Google always sneaks in other subtle changes in addition to the big-league ones so here’s a quick rundown of some highlights. Keep in mind some of these features may have already been available in manufacturer-customized versions of Android, but now they’re part of the core Android system:

  • New system font
  • New notification shade featuring more round
  • Ability to annotate screenshots after taking them
  • Button that appears in nav bar when the phone is rotated to rotate the screen even with rotation locked
  • Silent was added as a ringer volume, do-not-disturb is now more fully featured and allows fully blocking notifications
  • New emojis for Emoji 11.0 as well as updates to some existing emojis which has most-notably removed the egg from the salad emoji
  • The nav bar and status bar do not turn orange when power saver is turned on, which can also be customized to turn on automatically anywhere from 5%-75%
  • Support for displays with notches
  • Volume slider has been moved to be near the volume rocker - hopefully manufacturers move this to wherever their volume rocker is
  • Volume memory per bluetooth device - no more blasting your ears out because the volume was up when your phone was connected to your car
  • Smart replies in notifications supported for messaging apps
  • Weather and calendar events now show on the lock screen
  • Notifications from messaging apps support smart replies and images
  • Magnifying glass when selecting text (finally!)