New Android features
We know a good deal about what the Android Team has been working on lately. 2014 should bring us two new versions of the Android OS, along with a ton of features that have been leaked one way or another.?It’s hard to say how Google will choose to release some of these features, as it now has a ton of ways to push new code out to users: an OS update, an app update, and a Google Play Services update.
Android in your car
Cars are one of the next big mobile devices. The capabilities of infotainment systems have been steadily growing, and it will soon be time to give those systems a real OS running real apps instead of the proprietary, manufacturer-specific operating systems of today. Apple is planning an “iOS in the car” feature, and while the company hasn’t been forthcoming with details, what is public doesn’t appear to be a full, app-enabled iOS experience running on the car’s hardware. It looks more like a limited iOS-like experience that isn’t expandable with apps.
Google wants to take things a step further and embed an Android device in every vehicle. At CES 2014, Google announced the?Open Automotive Alliance?(OAA), a partnership with Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Nvidia to bring the Android OS to every dashboard. While there is really no info other than the initial announcement, the OAA claims that the system will ship in cars in 2014.?The FAQ?on the OAA site mentions that developers will be able to “deliver a powerful experience for users,” which is marketing-speak for “there will be an app store.” It also mentions that there are two phases to the project: “enabling better integration between cars and Android devices” and “developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device.” Of course, there are concerns about safety, with the OAA page stating that it’s working with the?National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on guidelines for apps and usage of the infotainment system.
No one knows what the Android infotainment system will look like, but the OAA page does mention “a familiar and consistent experience” as one of the benefits. Based on that language, it shouldn’t stray too far from what we’re used to.
A new camera API
One of most exciting Android features in the works is a new?camera API. Commit comments in the public Android source code describe the new camera API, meaning that we have Google-written descriptions of a future Android feature. The headline of the new API is camera RAW support, which saves a picture as a minimally compressed and processed file that can be “developed” later via image editing software. RAW is sort of like a “digital negative” in that the photographer can capture as much data as possible and make decisions about exposure and white balance after the fact. Other fun features on the way include burst mode, better face detection capabilities, and support for removable cameras.
The improvement everyone is really hoping for is better image quality. It seems like Google is doing a group-up rewrite of the camera stack, so hopefully improved photos will be the end result. Google does seem to care about image quality. Vic Gundotra, the head of Google+,?boasted?in February 2013 that Google was “committed to making Nexus phones insanely great cameras. Just you wait and see.”?The commits made it sound like the new API was due in KitKat, but those ended up being pulled, presumably because the API wasn’t ready in time for release.?The Nexus 5 camera ended up not being great, so perhaps?Gundotra?was impressed with the work being done on the new camera API instead.
Google Home on more devices
Despite being a?headline feature?of KitKat, Google’s?search-based home screen?is currently only on the Nexus 5. It has some nice features, like a new design featuring a cleaner layout and more transparency, an “OK Google” voice search hotword, and Google Now integration. According to?The Verge, the launcher is exclusive to the Nexus 5, though the report said, “The company may change its mind and offer it for the Nexus 4 and perhaps even put it on the Play Store someday.” Changes made to Google Home’s?code would suggest that Google is moving in that direction since the company has been hard at work?fixing bugs?for devices other than the Nexus 5. Google has fixed several alignment and keyboard issues on the Nexus 7 and added a dynamic grid that automatically scales for different screen sizes.
Releasing the search-centric home screen for other devices seems like a no-brainer for Google. Users like it, and Google likes it when users perform searches. We aren’t really sure what the holdup is.
A speedier Android runtime
One of the more interesting changes in KitKat is a developer setting to switch the virtual machine runtime from Dalvik to?ART. In English, that means basically ripping out the aging engine which runs all Android apps and replacing it with a souped-up new engine designed to take advantage of modern smartphones.?Dalvik is the virtual machine that runs all of Android’s apps?when you see Android apps running on other platforms like the Blackberry OS or on Linux, those platforms are implementing Dalvik.
Android and the hardware it runs on has constantly changed over the years, but the one thing that has stayed the same?because changing it is such a huge project?is Dalvik. Dalvik was?originally designed?(PDF) not for speed, smoothness, or power, but to save space. Android devices at the time had very limited storage and memory, and Google’s primary concern at the time was fitting everything into a small footprint. Today, Android runs on much different hardware with tons of power and storage, and Android could see a big performance and battery improvement with a more modern runtime. That new runtime is called “ART,” short for “Android RunTime,” and it’s a newer, speedier replacement for Dalvik.
ART is present in KitKat and can be enabled in the developer settings, but it’s still experimental. Coming up with a Dalvik replacement has been a two-year effort by Google, and the work still isn’t done yet. Early benchmarks show minor improvements, but we’ll have to wait for the finished product to properly judge ART.
A fitness API
Fitness tracking is all the rage, usually involving clipping a device with an accelerometer?like a Fitbit?to your person.?Smartphones have accelerometers too, but keeping them powered on all day would suck up a little too much power. To take over the Fitbit use-case, KitKat added support for two new low-power fitness sensors: a step detector and a step counter.?This is new hardware that is included in the Nexus 5 (and could be packed into other smartphones). Along with KitKat, it allows your phone to collect all the data a Fitbit would.
To share this data with multiple apps, Google is working on a?fitness API, which?would upload your fitness data to the cloud and allow you to share it with more than one app. Besides tracking data from a phone, it could be integrated into a smartwatch and take over the duties of a Fitbit Flex
A Chrome remote desktop app for Android (and?iOS)
Google makes a fully featured remote desktop application for Chrome in the form of?an extension.After installing the extension on all your computers and registering everything with your Google account, it’s possible to access any computer running Chrome from any other computer running Chrome. The only problem is that since mobile devices?don’t run Chrome extensions, they are left out of the party.
Google is working on rectifying that.?The company has been openly developing an?Android client?for Chrome remote desktop, and a few days ago there was word that?an iOS app?was even in the works. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see it sometime this year.
YouTube: Background audio and a subscription music service
YouTube contains just about every single piece of music ever made. It’s great resource for streaming a song you want to listen to?right now,?but on Android, that means staring at the YouTube player. The second you leave the YouTube app, the video playback stops, even if all you wanted was to hear the music. Hidden in a YouTube update was some inactivate code that described a?background music playback?feature. Clearly, Google is working on making YouTube a little more music-friendly.
A few months ago,?Billboard reported?that Google was close to launching a YouTube music subscription service. The service was described as basically a rebranding of Google Play Music All Access. The report described the free tier of the service as “unlimited, on-demand access to full tracks on all platforms, including mobile” and that the paid tier would add offline listening and ad removal.?Play Music All Access is currently subscription-only, so an ad-supported free tier would certainly net Google more eyeballs than the company currently has.
It’s not clear why Google would have two music services. Google Play has always been the “content” arm of Google, and moving a music subscription service to YouTube would certainly muddy things. YouTube is a huge brand, though, and it would get more people to consider Google’s music service. However, the entire YouTube interface would need to be changed, as the current app isn’t really cut out for browsing songs or albums.
Google Voice integration with Google Hangouts
When Google Hangouts was just rumored as a project with the codename “Babel,” Google had?fourAndroid texting clients: Messaging (the stock SMS client), Google+ Messenger, Google Talk (the stock IM client), and Google Voice (SMS over the Internet using a virtual number). Google shut down Google+ Messenger, and Hangouts replaced Google Talk. Hangouts eventually gained SMS capabilities, killing Messaging. Now we’re down from four texting clients to two: Hangouts and Google Voice. Google Voice gives you a Google-issued phone number and allows you to send and receive texts the same way you do e-mails: read or respond from any of your devices or from a website. But Google has promised that the all-encompassing Hangouts will eventually take over Google Voice duties, too; it’s just a matter of time.
Google Maps lane guidance
One of the few features a standalone GPS has over Google Maps is the ability to offer lane guidance. Something?like a TomTom?will tell you that the road you are on has three lanes, and you need to get into the right lane to make your exit.
Almost a year ago, Google Maps had hidden text to report problems with a?lane guidance?feature. It mentioned that Maps would show the numbers of lanes and turning arrows for each lane, and it would recommend which lane the driver should be in. Google collects enough road data to make this work?if you’ve ever added a road in Google Map Maker, you’ll be asked for number of lanes, along with a thousand other road attributes. While it has certainly been a while since we’ve heard any movement on this, it’s just a feature that makes sense for Google Maps.