Google tries to get jump on Apple with early release of new Android -- sort of

The search giant releases Android N, though it's meant only for developers for now. Regardless, Android N is Google's latest software volley in its smartphone war with Apple.

Google's new Android software N features split-screen view.

Google is hoping it can make the newest flavor of its mobile software sweeter than Apple's.

The search giant on Wednesday launched the next generation of its Android software, which powers more than 80 percent of the world's smartphones and tablets. The software release, though, is an unfinished version specifically meant for software developers to tool around with.

For now, the new version is only called Android N. Google routinely names its new Android software in alphabetical order and after sweets. The last version is called Marshmallow. Before that was Lollipop. You get the picture.

Some of the newest features include split-screen views for running multiple apps and the ability to reply directly when you receive notifications. (You can actually already do that on Android Wear, Google's software tailor-made for wearable devices like smartwatches, and on some Google apps like Gmail.)

With Google's new release, the company has waged the latest strike in the smartphone war. Specifically in its sights are Apple and its iOS software for iPhones and iPads. The two companies have sparred for years, trying to one-up each other with new features for their mobile software. Now, it seems the modus operandi for each company is to make sure its platform can do everything the other can.

For example, Android N's direct replies to notifications are something that Apple's software already does. The split-screen feature is also available on Apple's iPad Pro, which was released in November. (Some Samsung phones running a modified version of Android actually already offer the split-screen feature, too.)

The timeline for Android N's launch marks a big change to how Google puts out its Android software. The company typically unveils the new version in May, during its annual I/O conference for software developers. The point of the earlier release is to get the software in their hands as soon as possible and get their feedback on how to improve it.

"By releasing a 'work in progress' build earlier in development, we have more time to incorporate developer feedback," Dave Burke, Google's vice president of engineering, said Wednesday in a blog post. Google hopes the preview release will help it get a final N release to device makers by this summer, Burke said.

Google's big challenge, though, is getting people to use the latest version of its software. On Tuesday, Google said only 2 percent of Android devices are running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, the most current version of the software. The most popular version -- now on 36 percent of Android devices -- is Lollipop, released as Android 5.0 in November 2014. However, it took until this week for Lollipop to finally take that crown from Android 4.4 KitKat, released in October 2013.

Google knows that the slow uptake of Android updates is a problem.

"That has been frustrating, to be honest," Hiroshi Lockheimer, Google's Android chief, told CNET last month.

Other promised tweaks include improved battery efficiency with Doze, which saves power when the device is stationary. Under Android N, Doze will offer additional battery savings when the device's screen shuts off.

Google also said the new version of its operating system will offer better support for Oracle's Java 8 programming language. The move should make programming more efficient so developers don't have to waste time on busywork, Google said.

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