Google’s best new features are in apps, not Android

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Yesterday was the day Google was expected to announce the big new features coming to Android this year. It had already announced some basics back in March, but the I/O conference is usually when we hear about the real highlights — the stuff consumers are actually going to look forward to. But the presentation came and went, and the most exciting thing Android got was app notification badges. Seriously.

Barring any secrets Google is hanging onto, there’s no denying that this is one of the outwardly duller Android releases in recent memory. But the fact that Android O is missing flashy features is in many ways a great thing for users of Google’s products: Google does have a ton of new features on the way — they’re just built into discrete apps instead of the operating system.

If you zoom out from Android and look at the breadth of additions coming to Google’s apps this year, its presentation yesterday becomes far more compelling: there’s a camera that can analyze whatever it’s seeing, a photo tool that can remove objects from pictures, the ability to interact with apps and services by voice without ever installing them on your phone.

Were Google to play the game like Apple, all of these features would be inseparable from its operating system. But for Google, it’s far more important that people are using its apps and services wherever they are — Android, iOS, the desktop, or sitting in their living room. So instead of building these features into a release of Android that will take years to reach a majority of users (the latest release, Nougat, is on just seven percent of Android devices), Google’s biggest upgrades will go out to any device that can receive updates to Google Photos and the Google Assistant. And with Google Assistant now on iOS, that’s a huge number of phones.

This approach also stresses how important Google sees the Assistant becoming. Google is well aware that the Assistant may be the future of Google Search — a core way that people look up information. And the top features Google announced yesterday were about empowering the Assistant to help people look things up: the Google Lens lets the Assistant analyze objects just by pointing a camera at them, like looking up what flower you’re seeing, and new APIs for developers will let the Assistant automatically reach out to third parties to get even more things done.

These features would be exciting as additions to Android O. But they’re a much bigger deal broken off and included inside the Assistant. They build upon the core Google experience, and that’s something even more people will be able to take advantage of.

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Google has also put a renewed priority on making sure that Android can run on a wide variety of devices, including on phones with basic specs and limited data access. Building data-hungry features like Lens directly into the operating system would complicate that goal. By separating these features from the OS itself, Google is able to maintain a simpler Android that’ll scale better across the diverse ecosystem of devices it’s hoping to see the operating system on, potentially building a better experience for people using a more-limited phone.

At the same time, the focus of this year’s Android release — what Google is calling your phone’s “vitals” — is dry but important positioning for the future. Google says it’s reworked the operating system so that everything runs faster and puts less strain on a device’s battery. In a test yesterday, my colleague saw a Pixel running the Android O beta boot up more than twice as fast as a Pixel running Nougat.

Perhaps the largest change to O is one we won’t even experience until the following release of Android: Google claims it’s going to be much easier for phone makers like Samsung and HTC to ship future Android updates to their customers. That’s one we’re really going to have to wait to see the results on — it can sometimes feel like there’s been an eternal promise to fix the issue of slow Android updates — but if Google makes a difference this time, that’d be one of the most impactful changes it could bring to Android.

This shifting focus to apps isn’t unique to Google, either. Apple largely had the same approach with iOS 10 last year — the only difference is that Apple’s apps are intrinsic to its operating system. Just look at the list of updates: an overhaul to Messages, new sorting features in Photos, third-party integrations with Siri. These are the same areas of focus, they’re just only available in one place.

The pace of operating system refinements is necessarily slowing now that Apple and Google have taken care of the basics. That doesn’t absolve them from finding new places to iterate and improve upon their platforms, but it does mean that the way we interact with their operating systems is bound to see fewer changes year to year. As Google’s showing, that can be completely fine: it’s able to have an even bigger impact on the way our phones are used by delivering some app updates instead.

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