It seems like we just started getting Android 4 on our devices and we’re already looking forward to Android 5. Looking back at previous versions of Android, what might Google roll up into the next version of Android?
To refresh our memories, the Android operating was initially developed by Android Inc. as a new OS for smartphones and other touch-screen devices. Android, Inc. was founded by Andy Rubin and others in 2003. Google financially backed Android, Inc. in the beginning, purchased them in 2005, and unveiled the Android OS in 2007. The first consumer device based on the Android OS was sold in October 2008.
Since then we’ve seen a lot of improvement as we moved to Android 1.5 Cupcake and later up through Android 4.2 Jelly Bean.
The first round of Android essentially laid the framework for things to come. Updates were later added to give us widgets, voice text entry, speech synthesis, and the search framework was laid.
Many of us have multiple Google accounts for home, school, and work. Android 2 finally let us add more than one account to our devices and aggregated content from each one seamlessly across our smartphones — including Microsoft Exchange support. Later versions would bring a native SIP client for VoIP (though most of us don’t use it), super-high resolution screens (up to 320 ppi), and support for 720P. Aesthetically the app drawer was changed, the icon dock was made more useful, and Google Wallet made its first appearance.
Honeycomb was the red-headed step-child of Android. It was a necessary evil to allow Google to compete with Apple’s iPad in the tablet space. Nonetheless, it brought us the ability to video chat in Google Talk, support for multiple-core processors and hardware acceleration, introduced a new SDK so developers could write one application and have it work and (theoretically) look good on both smartphone and tablets, and allowed users to encrypt user data for added security. Love them or hate them, Honeycomb also brought us soft buttons, which some manufacturers are still trying not to implement.
Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
With Android 4, Google completely revamped the style of the user interface and added social network integration all over the place. Android Beam was introduced which let us quickly and easily share information with other Android’s by simply tapping our devices together.
Unlocking our smartphone or tablet got more personal with the inclusion of Face Unlock. The hardware acceleration that Honeycomb brought to apps was extended to the core UI which sped up every aspect of the operating system.
Android 4.1 Jelly Bean
Building on Ice Cream Sandwich, Google improved hardware acceleration through an initiative they called Project Butter which aimed to make the Android experience “buttery smooth” and eliminate much of the “lag” some users had complained about. Google Now was introduced as a competitor to Apple’s Siri.
Android 4.2 Another Flavor of Jelly Bean
The latest version of Jelly Bean brought a new and ridiculously fast camera app, and a new feature called Photo Sphere which lets users take 360-degree, immersive panoramas. Those of us with tablets were finally able to let other members of our family set up their own account and keep their settings form mixing in with our own. Select widgets were extended to the lockscreen so users can access their important information without the delay of unlocking their devices. Support for wireless displays was added.
For the most part, minor versions of Android (the numbers after the dot) are typically feature additions and major versions (the number to the left of the dot) include an overhaul to the user-interface. Will we see a radically new launcher and UI elements in Android 5? Probably not. However, what we have now will very likely be iterated, polished, and made even better than what we have now.
Currently Android does a good job letting you specify what you want it to do (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, brightness, etc.) but you’ve got to turn each item on individually, which can be somewhat time consuming.
We hope that Android 5 will expand “profiles” beyond “car mode” and “desktop dock” to something more useful — yet simple to set up. For example, at work we may want to enable Mobile Hotspot and turn off Bluetooth. In the car Bluetooth and Mobile Hotspot should be on. At home Bluetooth and Mobile Hotspot should be off, and when I go to bed, all alerts should be turned off so we’re not woken up every time someone updates their Facebook status.
Seamless Storage in the Cloud
Google’s done a tremendous job at keeping our contacts and calendars up-to-date and synchronized across both web and device. They’re doing a fair job with books and movies, too — as long as you’re using the Google Books and Google Movies apps, and bought your content through the Play Store.
Google Music, on the other hand, lets you upload your own content to the cloud and play it back on any compatible device. Google should allow users to do the same thing with ebooks and movies they’ve ripped.
Although cloud technologies are huge, Google must also mitigate on-device storage with cloud storage. The cloud is great, but not so much when you’re out of range or when you’re on a metered data connection. Google could include a sufficient amount of offline storage in their Nexus devices, then (while connected to Wi-Fi) intelligently populate that space with content that users are likely to want (when you’re out on a cellular connection). Google is already doing something similar when they pre-cache YouTube videos from channels to which you’re subscribed. This shouldn’t be terribly difficult — as long as the on-device storage space is large enough.
Google’s approach to screen size and various resolutions is arguably the platforms biggest strength — and its worst nightmare. Developers must build their apps intelligently to take advantage of both smartphone and tablet sizes, and include elements that are high-enough resolution to look good on high-ppi screens. Unfortunately, many developers haven’t done this, and tablet versions of apps either look ugly or are simply stretched to fill the (much larger) screens on tablets.
Software Updates and the Nexus Strategy
People are continuously complaining about “fragmentation”, and to a certain extent they have a point. Android is much more like Windows on a desktop PC than iOS. Apple keeps the playing field fairly level with updates to iOS, whereas Windows PCs might still be running XP, Vista, Windows 7, or even Windows 8. No one complains about “fragmentation” there, but perhaps that’s because users are technically able to buy a new version of the OS and install the upgrade themselves. Operating systems on mobiles devices don’t offer us that luxury — perhaps they should.
With Apple, that’s not a problem because they have a limited number of devices to support, and updates come directly from Apple — not from your cellular carrier. Android has 3rd party device manufacturers and carriers between users and the newest version of Android. Somehow this has to change. Google may already be testing this by including some Sony smartphones in the AOSP repository.
Hopefully Android 5 will simply be the operating system, and entirely de-coupled from the “vendor layer”. A vendor layer could include drivers, cellular radios, custom apps (bloatware, etc.), and custom launchers which would be “overlaid” on top of the core operating system. This would allow Google to push updates to the OS directly to your device and end the cursed “fragmentation”.
What about you?
Of course we’re just speculating, and some items we mentioned are more likely to come to pass than others. We’re interested to know what you’d like. What features do you hope Google will include in Android 5.0?