Typically, Google releases a preview of the upcoming version of Android sometime in March. This year, it’s doing it earlier than ever with the release of the first developer preview of Android 11 for Pixel phones.
The emphasis this year is on the developer part of the developer preview, as it doesn’t seem as though there will be major UI or UX changes in this early iteration. (Those will likely come at the Google I/O conference in May.) Because it’s so developer-focused, you’ll need to manually flash a full system image onto your Pixel 2, 3, 3A, or 4 in order to test it out.
For the record, it’s called Android 11, though you’ll likely find references to “Android R” here and there. As for a dessert reference, you’re on your own. Whatever it is, Google’s new policy to keep that codename internal to its engineers.
The release includes system-level updates for lots of new technologies. It has a better awareness of 5G bandwidth and metering, more enhancements for foldable screens, support for SHAKEN/STIR call screen authentication, better low-latency video decoding for streaming game services like Stadia, better HEIF support, a new version of Google’s neural networks API, and more.
Android 11 will also support what Google calls a “dedicated conversation section in the notification shade.” Presumably, that means — like with iMessage — you’ll be able to see more than just the last message in a chat thread when you are replying directly from the notification. Those in-notification replies will also support replying with images. If those are enough options for you, Google is including the nearly infamous chat bubble feature for messaging apps again, so it may finally be a thing that actually gets used this year.
There will also be a new location permission option. Now, users will be able to grant one-time location access to an app instead of granting it while the app is open. It will mean those location apps have to keep asking if they want your location, but it will also mean you won’t have to do an audit of what apps have your location as often.
Those are most of the high-level features that users could notice, but the reason that Google is releasing this preview earlier than usual is that there are a lot of under-the-hood changes for privacy and security that will affect how Android apps function. While Google has been signaling some of these changes for some time, in Android 11, some of them will switch from suggestions to requirements.
At the top of that list for Android apps is probably “scoped storage,” which limits apps’ ability to look at storage outside of their own silo (similar to how the iPhone works). It was introduced last year with Android 10 but Google is implementing it more aggressively in 11. Users will apparently be able to opt apps in to broader access if they choose, however. Google is aware this could be disruptive for a bunch of apps, so it will be publishing a separate blog post about it.
There are a bunch of other security improvements to Android 11 that should be less disruptive. It will recognize differing levels of biometric security and support securely storing personal IDs like drivers licenses. Google is also adding 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 isn’t an exhaustive list of Android 11’s changes. For developers, Google’s post has more details about how apps will have opt-in capabilities to new features, and it’s announcing that it will declare “platform stability” for the OS in June.
For the rest of us, there will be more to come later this year. We’ll be installing the developer preview ourselves to see if there are any notable, unannounced changes, so stay tuned for that. If you’re not a developer, it’s probably best to hold off on trying to flash this OS on your Pixel. It’s so early and so clearly positioned as a first preview that there are likely to be plenty of bugs.