Google kicked off Google I/O 2021 on Tuesday, May 18th. The event is completely virtual this year, and will span three days of content and sessions. Top among the day-one announcements are a handful of new Android 12 updates that we’re now seeing for the first time, and that will be key for Android app development going forward into the coming year.
Google I/O 2021: Day One
Android 12 brings a host of fantastic improvements to the Android experience.
Performance and power-management optimizations are always a part of any major mobile OS release, and Android 12 promises to speed up app performance and launch speeds, while simultaneously reducing battery usage. Performance classes will also allow developers to provide enhanced experiences to users running particularly powerful hardware configurations.
And related to the improved launch experience, app launches will now offer a handful of improved animation options. Android 12 provides a new default launch animation that all apps will inherit by default, and this animation can also be customized per app as needed. The animation smoothly segues from the app’s icon to the launch splash screen and is intended to finish quickly and get users right into their apps. And if the default animation isn’t quite right, a completely custom launch animation can also be implemented instead.
Notifications are also getting a few updates in Android 12, primarily centered around improving look and feel, performance, security, and configurability. Animated images can be presented inside new notification types, notification actions can now require the device to be unlocked before initiation, notification trampolines have a new set of restrictions that should improve performance, and custom notifications feature a new UI treatment that adds clarity for users. And the notification control center has received general updates that better align it with the new Android design update.
Other general visual and animation improvements such as a new stretching overscroll effect on scrollable views, the ability to apply a blur effect to elements within apps, rounded-corner effects, color filters, and ripple and sparkle animations, all add engaging adornments throughout the entire Android 12 experience, giving it an exciting and fresh overhaul.
And Google continues adding to the machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities offered on Android with updates to their processing frameworks. Image analysis, object tracking, language identification, and more, are all available directly on-device, making them incredibly performant and able to handle real-time operations with ease. And the ability to leverage pre-trained models for much of this functionality means developers can spend more time building out functionality and less time painstakingly training their own models.
Android 12 beta 1 is available to developers starting today, and the final release should be available publicly around the fall of 2021.
The biggest and most noticeable change coming to Android 12 is the introduction of the “Material You” design paradigm. Dubbed “a mode for every mood”, Material You is a significant update to the original Material design system, and gives users the controls to more substantially personalize their own experiences on their devices and the apps that run on them.
Material You allows users to choose from a variety of color schemes that are applied to the components across the entire Android OS interface, as well as individual apps. Elements such as buttons, labels, and view background colors can all inherit the styling that the user has applied. And rather than requiring users to manually select a theme, Android 12 can automatically generate a color profile based on the wallpaper image that the user has chosen for their device.
Mobile design has been gradually progressing towards more adaptive, personalizable, and responsive paradigms for years now. Features like dark mode, dynamic text sizing, accessibility features, and the multitude of device screen sizes and layouts on the market, have all been trending towards the goal of giving users the experiences that are just right for them on their own devices. Material You takes the next major stride in that direction and drives home the philosophy that modern apps are fluid, adaptable, flexible, and should become whatever each individual user needs them to be.
Material You will debut on Google Pixel devices starting in the fall.
Widgets are getting a major UI overhaul in Android 12.
Widgets have a new rounded appearance and are themed to match the user’s “Material You” theme. When a user changes their color preferences or toggles dark mode, widgets are now automatically rethemed to match.
And Google emphasized that these new widgets are not meant to simply display information - they’re being built with interactivity in mind, allowing users to interact with their apps through the widgets as an interface.
Widgets can now also be presented to users from within the Google Assistant conversational experience in response to voice prompts. This buys them greater flexibility and now allows them to be used for hands-free interactions, breaking them free from the home screen. So, rather than thinking about widgets purely as a home screen-based experience, newer and more impactful experiences can now be crafted by building widgets that target the Google Assistant conversational flow.
According to Google, 84% of users have at least one widget installed on their home screen. That, coupled with the additions being rolled out with Android 12, suggests that widgets will continue being an integral part of the Android experience.
Wear OS has been largely stagnant over the past few years, but that changes now. Google has a new partner in Samsung and together they are combining Samsung’s Tizen platform with the existing Wear OS platform to build something new.
There is a new Tile API that will allow us to build custom watch tiles that are accessible to users with a simple swipe. These are lightweight apps that give users access to glanceable information. You can also still build complications, custom watch faces and ongoing activity apps that take full advantage of the unique watch formfactor.
Wear OS 3 will launch on new devices this fall from Samsung, Fitbit (now part of Google) and other partners this fall.
The Play Store is also being updated to allow users to search and install watch apps directly from their phone.
Privacy and Security
Privacy and security have been especially critical concerns in mobile apps over the past few years, and Google focused intently on both today.
Android 12 features a Privacy Dashboard app that provides a holistic picture of how apps are using technologies and permissions such as camera access, location tracking, microphones, and so on. Users will also be given additional reminders and controls throughout Android to encourage them to more granularly manage per-app privacy settings.
Between these updates from Google, and Apple’s rollout of their App Tracking Transparency and privacy “nutrition” labels earlier this year, it’s clear that the industry as a whole is leaning more strongly towards building awareness and offering controls over how personal information is used, and how users are tracked.
Android apps will require development updates in order to integrate with the new privacy APIs in Android 12. It will also be important to continue honing the implementation strategy around integrating with technologies requiring user permissions, as users may be more likely to opt out of certain functionalities now that they have greater visibility and control around some of those features.
The Android developer experience also continues improving in exciting ways. We’re especially eager to see that Jetpack Compose, Android’s declarative UI framework, is nearing maturity, and is marching towards a 1.0 release in July. Google cites developers who have cut their development time by as much as half with Jetpack Compose (https://android-developers.googleblog.com/2021/05/mercari-improves-ui-development.html), and we’ve seen noticeable reductions in our own development time with declarative UI frameworks in general, including Jetpack Compose, SwiftUI, Flutter, and React Native. This is a major milestone, and will be a big boost in developer confidence in building production apps with Jetpack Compose.
Android Studio and Kotlin are both seeing other general improvements to the development and debugging process this year, making the overall Android developer experience better each day.
We recently wrote about the introduction of Flutter 2 (https://www.wundermanthompson.com/insight/flutter-2), and Google have now announced the upcoming release of Flutter 2.2. Flutter is an incredible cross-platform development platform, and, with over 200,000 apps currently using it, it is picking up an enormous amount of traction in the industry.
Flutter 2.2 brings enhanced support for developing desktop apps across macOS, Windows, and Linux. This, combined with the recent addition of stable-track web app support, makes Flutter an especially compelling technology for anyone looking to deploy to as many platforms as possible with a single codebase.
Other additions include enhanced debugging tools; first-party plugins for in-app purchases, payments, and ads; and enhanced access to Google APIs. Flutter 2.2 also includes support for the Material You design paradigm, so Flutter apps will feel right at home in Material You environments such as Android 12.
Google I/O sessions will be continuing over the next few days, and we’ll be tuned in to explore more of the exciting platform updates and details that will be unveiled then. We’ll be working with our clients to build plans for modernizing our apps and ensure they’re up-to-date and taking full advantage of the latest technology being rolled out to the platform!