Android 10 Q beta 3 is available today on more devices than any previous Android beta has been available on before.
A full release is expected this fall, but Google is announcing new major features for the tenth version of Android today at Google I/O. Android Q has oft-requested UI changes like dark mode and improved gestures. Even though those are the things most people will notice, they aren’t the most important (or impressive) parts.
The more important parts are things that address real user needs and resolve longtime problems with the Android platform. There’s a new accessibility option called Live Caption that’s genuinely amazing. There are also improvements to Android’s security and privacy models, many of which have been a long time coming. Finally, Google is also trying once again to solve Android’s perennial update problem with a new solution that’s a head-smackingly obvious “finally” moment.
It’s hard to come up with an overarching theme for this grab bag of features and improvements. Put to it, I’d say that what we’re looking at here is Google trying to finish a lot of the work it began with Android 9 Pie.
Google tells me that a bunch of people on the Android team expect the new Dark Theme to get the biggest applause during the Google I/O keynote. We’ll see, but it does seem to be a popular request — and also a trend, with macOS following Windows 10, as well as iOS support rumored for later this year.
I am not totally clear on why Google chose to call it “Dark Theme” instead of “dark mode,” as there doesn’t seem to be support for other themes, which are available on other variants of Android. Maybe that will come in a future update.
Anyway, activating Dark Theme in Android Q is pretty straightforward. You pull down the Quick Settings menu, tap a button, and the interface goes from white to black. True black, not the very dark gray we’ve seen on some dark modes. That theoretically will help with battery life — and, in fact, toggling the battery saver on Android 10 Q will also automatically activate Dark Theme.
App support is just as important as the system-wide Dark Theme itself, and Google is committing to releasing dark themes for all of its first-party Android apps. Some will likely be available sooner than others. I’ve seen dark themes in Calendar and Google Photos, though they’re more dark gray than true black.
For third-party developers, Google is, of course, creating an API to let apps know when Dark Theme is on. It’s also giving developers the option of adding a single line of code to their apps to create a quick-and-dirty dark theme. If a developer chooses to use it, their app will simply have its colors inverted when Dark Theme is enabled. It’s very clearly a hack, but I can see some apps taking advantage of it while they work to implement a more elegant dark theme.
Gestural navigation and the back button
I expect the new gestural navigation system to be the most controversial part of Android 10 Q. There are two reasons for that. The first is that Q just lifts its core set of gestures from the iPhone. The second is how Google has decided to implement the back button into a gesture. Let’s take them one by one.
In Q, there’s a long, thin white bar on the bottom of the screen. You swipe up to go home. You swipe up and drag across to go into a multitasking view. You swipe across it quickly to switch between apps. (How you’ll get to the Google Assistant is still to be determined). To get to the app drawer, you swipe up from the home screen.
Really, the biggest difference between this system and the iPhone’s is that the bottom bar is in its own separate part of the screen instead of covering the bottom of the app you’re using. I suspect all of these iPhone-esque gestures and animations will garner some combination of angst, schadenfreude, mockery, or relief depending on who’s doing the reacting.
I’m on team relief.
Not only is this system familiar to anybody who’s switching away from the iPhone, but it’s also more consistent than Android 9 Pie, which mixed buttons and swipes. I called Pie’s system a risky bet when it launched, but in retrospect, it wasn’t big enough. Navigating around Android 9 Pie often ended up just feeling awkward. You lost a ton of screen real estate whether you were using buttons or the gestures, to no clear purpose.
I’m also happy to report that the quality of animations is much improved over Android 9 Pie. Where moving around the system previously felt jumpy, now everything is smooth. I’ve only tried the new system on Pixel 3 phones, so I can’t say how well it will work on lower-power phones.
So with the core gestures, Google just went ahead and gritted its teeth and did the obvious thing: copy the system that already works well on iPhones. With the back button, Google did something much more surprising.
On Android 10 Q, you swipe in from the edge of the left or right side of the phone to go back. As you do, a small “<“ symbol will slide in to indicate that the action is working. This back swipe works across the entire edge of the left and right of the screen and is similar to how Huawei has implemented gestures on its version of Android.
I also suspect that Google is going to push hard to make this whole system the standard across all variants of Android Q devices, to ensure there’s consistency and predictability. Given the trends in Android app design and the trends in how some manufacturers like Samsung have customized the OS, this is a big deal.
A ton of Android developers took the guidance Google offered on its new Material Design system in 2014 and created apps with left-hand-side app drawers. It’s very, very common across Android apps to see a drawer with a bunch of options appear when you swipe in from the left side of the screen. Since then, Google has tried to get developers to come to a broader view of what Material Design means, and has emphasized bottom-row buttons — but the left drawer is still the standard.
So what happens in Q when you swipe in from the left edge? Well, here’s the plan as of today: the default is to “opt out” of the first swipe working as a back button. Instead, the first swipe would open the drawer, and a second would go back. And individual developers can change that behavior. And this whole plan could still change when 10 Q ships. Woof.
But the back button gesture is going to present a bunch of difficult choices to Android manufacturers. The entire right and left rail of the screen is a huge amount of space — space that companies have already begun using for other things like Samsung’s Edge screen feature.
I have no idea how all of this will shake out, and it’s possible that reaction during the beta phase could change Google’s plans. I’m willing to give the whole system the benefit of the doubt, but then again I’m also a right-hander and will probably just get used to swiping in from the right to go back.
Every year, Google tries something new to make Android OS updates happen faster and more consistently. It’s always something different, but only recently has it made any real traction, and it still has a long way to go. So this year, it’s doing something a little more aggressive, at least when it comes to security updates.
There are two main kinds of Android OS updates to know about: the major ones that get cute dessert names like Oreo and Pie, and the smaller, monthly updates that provide security patches. But those monthly security patches aren’t getting to enough phones. It’s still up to each manufacturer to apply security updates to their phones and distribute them — and carriers often get involved, too.
So Google created a new initiative called “Project Mainline” to get those smaller security patches out to more phones more consistently by distributing the updates itself using the Google Play Store infrastructure. It’s the obvious solution to the update problem: the middlemen have slowed things down, so Google is trying to eliminate them from the process.
Project Mainline is very limited in what it can update, with an emphasis on security. To start, Google is focusing on 14 “modules” of the operating system that it will be able to update directly, which include stuff like media components. Basically, in the same way that Google can update Chrome on Android whenever it feels like, it will also be able to update certain critical security components of the OS at any time.
Most Mainline updates are simply updated by an APK download, the same basic file of which Android apps are made. A few use a new system called APEX, which I’m sure Google will explain this week (Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica has some smart guesses about it here, in the meantime). Here’s the list of modules:
- Captive portal login
- DNS resolver
- Documents UI
- Media codecs
- Media framework components
- Network permission configuration
- Networking components
- Permission controller
- Time zone data
- Module metadata
One thing you should notice is that this list is indeed a set of pretty unsexy, non-user-facing stuff. Mainline will not be a feature on Android phones that are upgraded from P to Q, but instead on new phones that ship with Q by default. Lastly, some manufacturers can opt out of some of these updates.
All of those caveats should tell you something: Mainline could be a big deal, but again, it’s just for some security updates and it won’t have an immediate impact on the entire Android ecosystem. I always say that the Android announcements at I/O take two years to really filter out into the ecosystem, and Mainline is no different.
For phones that are not on Google Play’s infrastructure (everything in China, for example), Google is still open-sourcing all the updates that would come from Mainline and may also work with companies to come up with alternate distribution methods to speed their delivery.
It will be fun to see what the European Union thinks of all this. Google was hit with a $5 billion fine by the EU for antitrust and forced to create a browser ballot. If nothing else, Project Mainline means Google’s taking a stronger hand in updating Android than it used to.
Oh, and as for the major, numbered OS upgrades, Google embarked on an engineering effort called “Project Treble” a few years ago. That’s led to an uptick in Android 9 Pie adoption, though clearly there’s more work to be done. The latest numbers are that 10 percent of devices are currently on Android 9 Pie nine months after its public release (with 80 percent of those consisting of OS upgrades). Those aren’t great numbers, but they’re double where Android was a year ago with Oreo.
On the bright side, more manufacturers than ever are participating in Android 10 Q’s beta program. On top of Google and its Pixel phones, there are 12 companies offering the beta on 15 different devices.
Permissions and privacy
Many of the improvements to Android’s privacy and security model have already been announced in earlier betas. Google likes to get the stuff that will have the biggest impact on app developers out early so they can adjust. So we already know that Google is obfuscating hardware IDs, blocking background starts, locking down storage a bit more, and so on.
We also know that Google is finally fixing how location access works on Android. Like the iPhone has done for quite a while, Android will give you the option to limit an app’s location access to only when it’s open and active on your screen. Now, when an app accesses your location, it will also put a little notification up in the status bar saying that it’s happening.
On top of all that, Google is adding a new section to the top of Android’s settings called “Privacy.” Inside, you’ll see a mix of different settings and dashboards to display and control what has access to your data. This includes some of Google’s own settings, meaning you can clear them directly instead of hunting them down on your Google account settings somewhere.
There’s also a hub for all of the app permissions on your phone. It will show you a simple list of the data types that you can grant access to (like contacts, calendar, calls, microphone, and location), tell you how many apps have access to each at the top level, and then allow you to dig in and deny whatever you want.
All told, Google is touting over 40 different updates to the way security, permissions, and privacy are handled in Android 10 Q. As we get closer to the actual release of the OS, we’ll do a deeper dive on just what’s changing and what it means for you.
I started with Dark Theme and gestures because I know it’s what you came to hear about. I moved on to updates and privacy because both are critical issues affecting all 2.5 billion active Android devices on the planet today.
But the feature that impressed me the most and felt the most exciting is Live Caption.
Live Caption lets you get a real-time transcription of what’s being said in any video or audio, in any app, across the entire OS. It uses local machine learning, so nothing is sent to the cloud, and an internet connection isn’t necessary to use it. And from what I could tell in playing around with it over the course of a few hours, it works incredibly well.
After toggling it on in Android’s accessibility settings, a new button appears underneath the system volume slider. Tap it, and a black box appears on-screen and starts providing captions. The lag is usually less than a couple of seconds at most. You can move the box around on the screen, double tap it to enlarge it, and adjust the font size and settings of the text itself.
The system is built on the same technologies that power an accessibility feature Google launched earlier this year, Live Transcribe. As with Live Transcribe, Live Caption doesn’t let you save the text of your transcriptions.
I tested it on some video Google had saved to the camera roll on the device, on YouTube videos, and on podcasts playing inside Chrome. It works whether you have the media volume turned up or fully muted on your phone. Google will allow some apps to block it if they so choose (I hope nobody will). In apps like YouTube that already support closed captioning, the Live Caption button could instead enable the app’s own closed captions.
In one instance, I turned on Live Caption during this episode of the Vergecast, where Nilay is interviewing Aurora CEO Chris Urmson about self-driving cars. Halfway through the episode, Urmson is describing the mathematical model his company chose: quaternions. Live Caption got that word exactly right. Unfortunately, it’s going to be English-only to start, but Google hopes to add more language support in the future.
When it launches officially, I think Live Caption will be a huge boon for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. I am not, but I’m excited to use it myself in situations where I want to watch a video but can’t listen to the audio. It’s simply a great accessibility feature.
Parental controls and Focus Mode
Last year, both Google and Apple introduced dashboards that let you monitor how much time you’re spending in apps and set time limits on them. Google also introduced a Wind Down mode, which turns your screen to gray as a reminder to put your phone down and go to bed.
This year, Google is extending its so-called “Digital Wellbeing” features by integrating parental controls into the same section of your settings. Android has actually had parental controls for quite some time via the Family Link app in the Google Play Store, but in Q it’ll be built right into the OS. I’m not a parent myself, but I think my favorite feature is a button on the parent’s device called “5 more minutes,” which grants exactly that to a recalcitrant child who wants to keep using their device.
I’m intrigued by a new feature called Focus Mode, though I do think it could stand to be better differentiated from the usual Do Not Disturb mode. With Focus Mode, you can select a list of apps that you find distracting or tempting. When you toggle it on, those apps become grayed out and their notifications are hidden.
The idea is that instead of waiting for a timer to go off and alert you that you’ve wasted a bunch of time in an app, you can proactively lock yourself out of it right away. That’s neat, but I think Android is maybe presenting us with options instead of solutions here. You now will have app timers, Do Not Disturb, Focus Mode, and ridiculously granular controls over notifications — including how they appear, whether they make noise, and even more itemized controls inside each app. It’s a lot.
Every year, Google does something to tweak how notifications work on Android. Early Android Q betas revealed that you can’t swipe in both directions to dismiss a notification anymore. Instead, one direction dismisses and the other reveals options like snoozing or changing settings.
The main notification change in Q is a new way to auto-reply to incoming chats. At an OS level, Android Q can recommend replies based on the context of the message you’ve received. So if somebody texts you an address, you can hit a button to reply with “Be right there” or another button to open up Google Maps. The company is careful to point out that it only uses local machine learning and nothing is transmitted to the cloud.
It’s handled by a system called “Notification Assistant,” and XDA Developers has uncovered evidence that in addition to handling auto-replies, it might also be able to change the priority of a notification for you. So it may be that Google has more planned for how notifications work that it isn’t announcing today.
We’ve also seen a new thing called “bubbles,” which is sort of halfway between a notification and an app window. Like Facebook Messenger’s Chat Heads or Samsung’s windowing system, you can set an app to show up in a little pop-up window that you can drag around, then it collapses into an icon that stays persistent on top of your screen.
If you squint your eyes at bubbles, app continuity, and resizable Android app windows on Chrome OS, you can almost see the beginnings of a new windowing system for large-screened devices. I’m absolutely not saying this presages the return of the Android tablet, but it could mean more interesting options for foldables and Chrome OS tablets.
Last year, Google introduced a ton of new concepts to Android. I called Android 9 Pie the “most ambitious update in years.” It was, but as I reviewed it later in the fall it became clear that though the ideas in it were ambitious, they were too big to fulfill in a single update. Android 10 Q is trying to make progress on many of the ideas we first saw in Pie: Digital Wellbeing, an AI-enhanced OS, and gestural navigation all take steps forward.
The same modest year-over-year improvement vibe applies to updates. It takes around two years for Android releases to really hit the mainstream, and that’s too long. I hope that Project Mainline solves the security update issue, but the bottom line is that Android may never have the update adoption numbers iOS enjoys.
There’s no grand theme to be found in Android Q, no paradigm shifts in mobile computing. I called it a grab bag at the beginning of this piece, and that’s true. There’s even a bunch of stuff I haven’t mentioned yet, like app continuity and other support for foldables. Google also says Android is ready for 5G, too, because the system will finally tell apps how good their internet connection actually is.
Many of the changes in Android Q are long overdue, if not late. But they’re paired with genuinely useful features like Live Caption and intriguing things like Focus Mode. And how the Android world (users and manufacturers) will react to this new gesture system is really anybody’s guess.
Because you can’t easily nail down a single theme or even one standout feature, I think it’s likely that Android 10 Q will probably be seen as an iterative update when it’s all said and done.
That’s okay: iteration is underrated.