Usually Google releases a preview of the upcoming version of Android somewhere in March. This year it does it sooner than ever with the release of the first preview for developers of Android 11 for Pixel phones.
This year the emphasis is on the developer part of the developer’s preview, because it doesn’t seem like there will be significant UI or UX changes in this early iteration. (They will probably come to the Google I / O conference in May.) Because it is so focused on developers, you must manually flash a full system image on your Pixel 2, 3, 3A or 4 to test it out.
For the record, it’s called Android 11, although you’ll probably find references to “Android R” here and there. As for a dessert reference, you are on your own. Whatever it is, Google’s new policy of keeping that code name internal for its technicians.
The release contains system-level updates for many new technologies. It has better 5G bandwidth and measurement awareness, more enhancements for folding screens, support for SHAKEN / STIR call screen authentication, better low-latency video decoding for streaming game services such as Stages, better HEIF support, a new version of the neural networks of Google API and more.
Android 11 also supports what Google calls a “special conversation section in the notification shadow.” This probably means – just like with iMessage – that you can see more than just the last message in a chat when you reply directly from the message. Those responses to notifications also support answering with images. If those are enough options for you, Google will include the almost infamous chat bubble feature again for messaging apps, so it may be something that is actually used this year.
There is also a new option for location permission. Now users can grant one-time location access to an app instead of granting it while the app is open. It means that those location apps must keep asking if they want your location, but it also means that you don’t have to check which apps have your location that often.
These are most high-level features that users might notice, but the reason Google is releasing this preview earlier than normal is that there are many changes under the hood for privacy and security that affect the operation of Android apps . Although Google has been reporting some of these changes for some time, some in Android 11 are switching from suggestions to requirements.
At the top of that list for Android apps is probably ‘scoped storage’, as a result of which apps are unable to look at storage outside their own silo (similar to how the iPhone works). It was introduced last year with Android 10, but Google implements it more aggressively in 11. However, users will apparently be able to choose apps for wider access if they wish. Google is aware that this can be disruptive for a number of apps, so it will publish a separate blog post about it.
There are a number of other security enhancements for Android 11 that should be less disturbing. It recognizes different levels of biometric security and supports the safe storage of personal IDs such as driver’s licenses. Google also adds more system-level components to Project Mainline, allowing the company to update more parts of the system via Google Play instead of a full OS update.
This is not a complete list of the changes to Android 11. For developers Google’s message has more information about how apps have opt-in capabilities for new features and announces that it will explain “platform stability” for the operating system in June.
More will come later this year for the rest of us. We’ll install the developer preview ourselves to see if there are any remarkable, unannounced changes, so keep an eye on this. If you are not a developer, it is probably best to have this OS flash on your Pixel. It is so early and so clearly positioned as a first preview that there are probably enough bugs.