In a somewhat unexpected move, Google this week gave developers what it described as a "really early" look at the next version of its Android mobile operating systems.
Codenamed Android N, the operating system will offer several updates, including support for a split-screen or multi-window mode, faster responses to incoming messages, bundled message notification, better battery efficiency and more Java 8 language features.
Google's Developer Preview includes a software development kit that developers can use to test Android N apps on Google's line of Nexus devices and on the company’s Android emulator. Google is offering a $150 discount on its Pixel C tablet for developers willing to test the new OS on Android tablets.
In a blog post, Dave Burke, vice president of engineering at Google, called the Android N preview release as being different from other releases. "We're doing something a little different this year by releasing the preview early… really early," Burke said.
The goal of releasing a "work in progress" version of the Android is to give Google an opportunity to incorporate any feedback that it receives from developers, he said. The earlier preview will also give Google an opportunity to get a final Android N release into the hands of device makers this summer, which is earlier in the year than when they typically receive such updates, Burke said.
The Android N initial preview release is meant only for developers and is not ready for consumer use. The plan is for Google to keep pushing out updates frequently during the Developer Preview program. When the product is closer to being finished, Google will give consumers an opportunity to put the new operating system through its paces, according to Burke.
Google's Android N preview comes just five months after it began rolling out devices based on Android Marshmallow, the previous major release of the operating system. Like previous versions, Android N refines and updates existing features while introducing some new ones.
The support for split-screen mode, for example, is new with Android N. The feature will allow Android users to view more than one app at the same time on their smartphone or tablet screen. The two apps can be viewed either side-by-side or one above the other on the screen. Among other things, the split-screen support would let a user compose an email on one screen while browsing a Web page on the other.
Other features in Android N build on existing capabilities. For instance, the improved battery efficiency that Google claims will be available in Android N takes advantage of Doze, a feature that Google introduced in Marshmallow for recognizing when a device is idle and automatically putting it into a energy-conserving deep sleep state.
The question, as with all other Google Android releases, is how quickly the update will be available to the actual users of Android smartphones and tablets. Unlike Apple, which is directly responsible for all iPhones and iPads, a vast majority of Android devices are manufactured by third parties who have very different schedules for updating operating system versions on their devices compared to Google.
One result is that the Android versions on most devices sold and in use in the market are at least one or two generations behind Google's latest versions.
The latest numbers on Google's Android developers dashboards show that Marshmallow is currently installed on a bare 2.3 percent of all devices. Some 36 percent are on Lollipop, the previous version of Android while 34 percent are still on KitKat, an Android version released in Nov 2013. More than one in five Android devices, a full 22 percent, run the Jelly Bean edition that Google released in October 2012.
Apart from the owners of Google's Nexus devices who get new versions of Android promptly, it is unclear how many other current Android device owners even pay attention to the updates, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT. "However, I believe it's important for Google to continue pushing the boundaries of Android in order to keep top tier developers and handset makers engaged."
The glacial pace at which handset makers have upgraded Android on their devices has prompted some rumors lately about Google planning to take more direct control over the process.
But that may not be as important for Google as many assume, King said. "Not doing so doesn't seem to be greatly hurting adoption of the OS," he said.
The continued access to older versions of the operating system has benefited thousands of developers and consumers in the form of more affordable Android devices in many regions of the world.
"Google's strategy directly contradicts those pursued by Apple, Microsoft and other conventional vendors, but in many ways that's arguably a good thing," King said.