Although the announcement of the new Nexus devices was picked up and carried by most of the technology and mainstream press, it’s the announcements surrounding Android Lollipop that should be of more interest to most people. Google has confirmed that Android L is indeed version 5.0 and called Lollipop. I’ve already covered a little of the improvements Google are making Android, especially around power management and Project Volte, but now we have more details of the latest version it’s time to dig a little deeper.
As I’ve already covered Project Volte I’m not going to go into details here, other than to remind readers that Android Lollipop has built-in network scheduling to make the modem work smarter rather than harder, plus an improved battery management screens and a power saver mode. The power saver mode changes the status bar to orange in what we’ve seen in the final pre-release version of the software. As I’ll come on to, if you’re using a Nexus device, you don’t have long to wait.
Device security should be at the forefront of our minds, from adding a lock code through to using applications such as VIPole. Android Lollipop includes some additional security features plus boosts a couple of existing Google security systems. I’m going to cover device encryption first, because this is something that was introduced with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus back at the end of 2011. At the time, however, it was turned off as default. Google have changed this: now, when you set up a device running Android Lollipop it turns on device encryption. Related to device encryption are some changes designed to harden the device from specialised access attacks. A side effect of these changes will mean that applications requiring root access may be broken, because a rooted device (that is, a device where the user has complete access to any and all parts of the software) is inherently less safe. The biggest change from a user perspective is that we’re going to need a device PIN or password for when we turn the device on. Without this code, it will be significantly tougher for a thief to gain access to your data.
Google is incorporating an optional, built-in “kill switch,” which is a way of preventing unauthorized use of your device. It’s something that has been well publicized in the press and the idea is that if you lose your device, you can lock it down so that it requires the code for access. This can either be a way of preventing a factory reset and subsequent activation, or to factory reset the device and prevent activation. Basically, it renders the device unusable and so makes it much less attractive for a thief.
The last major security improvement concerns using our mobile Android devices in the enterprise environment, which is something that I’m most interested in. Android has been given a poorer reputation within the industry as being less secure than BlackBerry and Apple (let’s not mention iCloud data leaks, then?) and Google is addressing these concerns with improvements to how Android works with enterprise systems. The key improvement is the adoption of a ring fenced enterprise mode, which will segregate company data from user data. This prevent the personal side of the device from accessing the corporate data, which means employees won’t be able to email company secrets using their personal email accounts, nor will third party applications be able to access company data. The enterprise section of the device can be remotely managed by enterprise admin, which is going to open up Android Lollipop devices to a huge number of users involved in a bring your own device scheme for work.
I’ve written about the differences between Dalvik and ART (Android RunTime) in the past. Google’s own data reckons that ART can be up to twice as quick as Dalvik. My own experience of the two modes that Android Kit Kat can run in is restricted to high end devices and I have to say that the difference is slight. Where it should make a difference is with slower, less able devices, because it’s this hardware that can struggle to compile and launch the application or when switching between different applications. Combining improvements to the operating system with ever-more powerful hardware means that I don’t expect there to be any new jerky, sluggish Android devices being sold after the next few months.
Android Lollipop uses Google’s Material Design, which manages to refresh the old Android interface with more consistency, a more fluid user experience and some deep reaching improvements such as improved notifications (including on the lock screen), the ability to pin an application to the lock screen (so if somebody borrows your device, you control the application they use), improved multitasking control. Google are encouraging interface decisions upon the manufacturers too so that these changes to Android are shared around the platform. The idea here is to give Android a more consistent look and feel. We’ll still see Samsung using their own TouchWiz interface, HTC developing Sense and the other OEMs using their own design, but Material Design will be prevalent throughout all of Google’s applications and services.
With every point release of Android so far, there have been a small number of applications that do not work with the new version of the operating system. Unfortunately, I expect the same once Android Lollipop is released and unfortunately, it’s the early adopters amongst us who tend to find out the hard way that certain applications don’t work. Unfortunately, there’s relatively little that we can do about this at the moment other than be prepared for some applications to stop working.
I’ve saved the best to last, because Android Lollipop is going to be officially available for all Nexus and Google Play Editions from the 2012 Nexus 7 onwards. Sadly, this excludes the Galaxy Nexus, but it means that hardware older than two years is going to get the very latest version of Android, but it means that a great many devices will benefit from the new software.
This announcement has surprised a few industry commentators, because the oldest device in the list – the 2012 Nexus 7 – has a relatively elderly processor with 1 GB of RAM, compared with the more modern chipsets with at least twice the RAM. Google are extending Android Lollipop back to older hardware in order to work on keeping a consistent user interface for many people and let’s not forget that the 2012 Nexus 7 was a very popular tablet. It’s not in Google’s interests to release Android Lollipop if it’s sluggish so I am optimistic that the performance improvements in the operating system will improve running performance.
Android Lollipop is expected to start arriving on Nexus and Google Play Edition devices from early November. Other companies have pledged to get their devices updated, including Motorola, Sony and HTC.