This year’s big Android update has finally arrived, but there’s not quite the excitement around its release that was common just a few years ago. Given the current worldwide pandemic and Google’s shift to working from home, it’s impressive that Android 11 arrived even close to on time, but the upgrade seemingly crossed the finish line with little fanfare.
The upgrade process has long been a point of criticism for Android, so much so that Google has pulled most public information about how many devices are running the latest OS version. Apple can roll out iOS updates across its entire portfolio of phones and tablets at once, but Google is only a small cog in the Android upgrade machine — chipset makers have to update their hardware drivers, then device manufacturers add their own modifications on top of that, and finally carriers give the final sign-off (sometimes with even more changes, like custom VoIP implementations).
These more staggered updates often limit excitement around new Android versions to the platform’s most devoted fans. Over the years, enthusiasts have largely been responsible for getting others pumped about Android OS updates — folks on Reddit, writers at tech blogs, and of course, the fantastic readers of Android Police. However, as Android becomes a more mature software platform, even enthusiasts don’t have as much to talk about as they did in previous years.
Android 11 focuses almost exclusively on platform changes instead of new features.
Android 11, just like 10 and 9, focuses almost exclusively on underlying platform changes instead of shiny user-facing features. Scoped Storage and temporary permissions continue to rein in unruly behavior from third-party apps, 5G is better supported, apps can’t replace the system navigation anymore, and so on. As with Android 10 and 9, many of the new APIs are there to replace legacy implementations that aren’t as secure or manageable. For example, the new Bubbles feature largely exists to encourage developers to stop using screen overlays. Android updates have also focused on adapting to new form factors, with notch support in Android Pie and compatibility with foldable screens in Android 10.
Simply put, Android updates aren’t necessarily for you anymore. Android is no longer the consumer-focused product it once was, with highly-publicized announcements and tie-ins with candy brands. Android has become a software platform first and foremost, intended for manufacturers to build experiences with, rather than itself being the experience. When so much of the Android experience depends on the OEM or app updates delivered through the Play Store, the underlying version mostly only matters to developers.
It’s easy to look at this change from a cynical perspective. Part of me still sees Google’s lack of updated distribution data as an admission of defeat to the “Android is fragmented!” crowd, but the truth is that the average person wouldn’t notice much of a difference between Android Pie and Android 11. Most of the changes to Android in that time have been behind-the-scenes improvements to privacy and security, and all the core applications (Chrome, Google Photos, Gmail, etc.) have been updated through the Play Store for years. Project Mainline has accelerated this trend, by keeping even more components of Android updated without the need for full system upgrades.
The de-emphasis of features in the OS update cycle has also led to some proclaiming that Android updates are now overrated or don’t matter, which couldn’t be further from the truth. While manufacturers like Samsung and LG often ship features on their devices months or years before they appear in ‘stock’ Android, they can’t make drastic changes to security and APIs, or they would risk breaking compatibility with most apps. TikTok has dominated the news cycle for months over claims that it has been collecting too much personal data, which is exactly the behavior Google has been attempting to curtail with newer platform releases.
Android updates aren’t that exciting anymore, but they’re still as important as ever. Just like a decade ago, updates bring new APIs to developers, much-needed core changes, and new building blocks for manufacturers to use when creating new devices and form factors. The only difference is that most of the new features you and I care about aren’t usually attached to OS upgrades anymore.