With Android 6.0 Marshmallow only installed on 2.3% of Android devices, Google is already looking ahead to the next major release of its mobile operating system, Android N.
On Wednesday, Google released a Developer Preview of Android N, far earlier in the year than it typically releases Android software.
Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior VP of Android, Chrome OS, and Chromecast, explained the company's rationale for shifting its release timeline.
"By releasing the first preview and asking for your feedback now (in March!), we'll be able to act on that feedback while still being able to hand off the final N release to device makers this summer, so they can get their hands on the latest version of Android earlier than ever," said Lockheimer in a blog post.
Early feedback offers a way to improve software quality. Apple took a similar path in 2014 when it expanded access to beta versions of its software beyond developers.
But as Lockheimer notes, the early release also provides developers with more time to implement new operating system features in their apps. Earlier delivery to Google's hardware partners, which have traditionally been slow to update their devices, could encourage more timely updates. According to Lockheimer, there are 400 Android OEMs, 500 carriers, and 1.4 billion Android users worldwide.
Among Android N's new capabilities, "multi-window" is one of the more noteworthy. It offers support for split-screen multitasking, a feature that will help Google's Pixel C tablet compete more effectively with Apple's iPad. Coincidentally, Google is offering the Pixel C to developers at 25% off its $499/$599 list price.
"Direct reply notifications" offer a way to respond to notifications without leaving the notification window. "Bundled notifications" allow apps to group notifications together, a potentially useful way for developers to curb notification spam.
The Doze power-saving feature introduced in Android 6.0 has been expanded to save battery power more efficiently when the screen turns off.
Android N is getting better Java 8 compatibility, as well. "With Android's Jack compiler, you can now use many popular Java 8 language features, including lambdas and more, on Android versions as far back as Gingerbread," explained Google VP of engineering Dave Burke in a blog post.
When the Jack compiler was introduced in 2014, there was speculation that lack of Java 8 compatibility at the time signaled further divergence from Oracle Java. Yet earlier this year it became clear that the opposite had happened. Android N is moving closer to Oracle Java by moving away from its Apache Harmony-based libraries and toward OpenJDK, the open source implementation of Oracle's Java Development Kit.
Google has not explained its rationale for doing so, but presumably the change reflects Google's assessment of its ongoing court battle against Oracle's claims on Android.
That doesn't mean Android will use Oracle's proprietary Java APIs. According to VentureBeat, Android will remain distinct from Oracle Java, but that distinction will be based on OpenJDK rather than Apache Harmony going forward.
Android N also includes new Android for Work APIs, such as the ability to set a separate security challenge for apps running in the work profile, the ability to turn off a work profile, and the ability to ensure that work apps always connect through a VPN.
Lockheimer declined to reveal the release name for Android N, but his refusal offers a strong hint: "We're nut tellin' you yet."
Given Google's pattern of naming each major release of Android after a sweet treat and Lockheimer's hint, "Nutella" might be a good guess.