With Android N, Google steps up efforts to convince device makers to adopt the latest generation of its mobile software. Android chief Hiroshi Lockheimer shares his take on what's new -- and how Google is trying to solve an old problem he calls the "F word."
Sitting on a long, red couch in the heart of the Googleplex, Hiroshi Lockheimer dives into a discussion about the latest advancements in Android, the world's most popular mobile software.
Four out of every five smartphones are powered by Android, which is why each new generation of the operating system is noteworthy. Now Google is sharing details about this year's version, known for the moment as "Android N," with 7,000 developers attending the company's I/O conference this week in Mountain View, California.
But we're talking about more than just what's new -- virtual reality mode, which fuels a Google-designed VR system called Daydream, and how Android N will suck down less battery life. We also talk about what Lockheimer, Android's chief since October, is doing to make sure Google doesn't get F'd by the "F word."
Not that F word. At Google, "F" stands for fragmentation. Simply put, fragmentation is about Google's partners -- more than 500 wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon and 400 device makers including Samsung and HTC -- letting older versions of Android linger on their phones and tablets and not adopting the latest, and greatest, iteration. Fragmentation could be one of the key issues holding Android back from world domination.
Google has released 14 versions of Android since its 2008 debut, and there are 1.4 billion people actively using it. But as of May, only about 7.5 percent of Android users are running Google Marshmallow, announced at I/O last year and released in October. More than half of those users are on 2012's Jelly Bean and 2013's KitKat (named after Lockheimer's favorite candy.)
That means over 50 percent of all Android users are on a version of the software that's three to four years old. That's pretty old in tech years. Compare that with the world's second most popular mobile software, Apple's iOS, which drives iPhones and iPads. About 84 percent run the latest version, iOS 9, a point Apple loves to make.
"The fact that we're less than 10 percent on [Marshmallow] is a problem," Lockheimer candidly acknowledges. "The results with Android, frankly, are disappointing."
Just how big a problem are we talking about? As big as Google's massive ambitions for the software. Essentially, it wants Android to be the fabric of our ever-evolving digital lives: The anchor to VR, the software behind Internet-connected things from cars to smartwatches, and our gateway to Google's popular services -- Search, Maps, YouTube and the Play Store, each of which is already used by over 1 billion people.
But if you're an Android developer designing an app or trying to decide which shiny new features to add to one of the 1 million Android apps in the Google Play store, a fragmented customer base puts a major dent in your plans.
Lockheimer says part of the problem has been a lack of "coordination" with device makers. That's why two years ago, after those partners complained that Android's fall announcement schedule was too late for them to get the new version into phones by the holidays, Google started debuting the next-generation of its operating system at its spring I/O developer fest.
And it's why this year, Android N, which will get its official name as part of a crowdsourced contest, was previewed even earlier, in March.
"When it's more than one manufacturer, it means those manufacturers -- plural -- have to figure out when they're going to update their devices," he says. "We're working very diligently with the manufacturers and operators to work through how can we speed this up and how can we make it so that these latest improvements and innovations reach customers more swiftly."
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who oversaw Android for two years before handing the reins over to Lockheimer, agrees that fragmentation poses a challenge. But he also points to an upside: Those versions make it possible for partners to offer all sorts of devices with varying levels of functionality, selling at different price points.
"It's not a simple thing that fragmentation is bad, because fragmentation is what causes diversity...and the diversity of Android is a big strength in itself," Pichai tells us while sharing his thoughts about Google's "journey" with Android, VR and the artificial intelligence he's building into search.
Still, Pichai admits he'd liked to solve for the F word. "We would love important attributes to be available to all users."
Count VR on that list of important attributes.
Whatever confection it's eventually named after, Android N will most likely be remembered as the version that turned the software into a consumer platform for VR. That's because Google has made N a key ingredient in Daydream, a new hardware and software platform unveiled Wednesday that relies on Android to turn a smartphone into the engine driving your VR experience.
Google's approach with Daydream, which also includes a VR headset and remote control, is different from Facebook's Oculus Rift and HTC's Vive. They offer high-end VR viewers that need to be tethered (literally, there are cords) to powerful computers. Google's aim, says Lockheimer and VR chief Clay Bavor is to make VR both friendly and mobile: Slip your phone into a lightweight headset, strap the thing onto your face and use a simple remote control to navigate your way through VR worlds.
WIth Cardboard, Google's first foray into VR, the idea was to place a smartphone -- any smartphone, really, as long as it was reasonably current -- into a do-it-yourself brown cardboard box of a headset. With roughly 10 million Cardboard viewers out there, it's arguably the most widely used VR system in use today.
But Daydream won't work with just any phone. Phone makers are going to have to build high-end (aka costly) phones specifically with VR experiences in mind. That means adding sensors, chips and software with the chops to pull it all together. The upgrades are necessary to make sure your Daydream-ing doesn't have a problem with latency, because even a subtle disconnect between the real world and VR can cause motion sickness. (Check out our VR glossary.)
Daydream depends on N, which injects VR into the very core of Android. "It's really important that the operating system is built from the ground up with that in mind," says Lockheimer. "The purpose of all that isn't just for the technology. It's to make it comfortable for customers to use."
Consider this: Once you put your phone into a Daydream headset, it automatically shifts to VR Mode. But just because you're using it for VR doesn't mean it should stop working as a phone. If you get a call or text message while exploring the surface of Mars, Android will display a notification that lets you pause and take the call. Or you can ignore it and keep jogging (in place) through the Valles Marineris.
Google is also improving notifications outside of VR Mode. You'll now be able to reply directly to texts when they pop up, like you can on Apple's iPhones, rather than needing to go into the texting app. N also lets you run more than one app at the same time, with a split-screen view. Up until now, only the iPhone 6 Plus, 6S Plus and iPad Pro supported split-screen, along with some Samsung phones running a modified version of Android.
Android's also been optimized to save on battery life, one of the features Lockheimer says might not sound sexy but actually matters to everyone. In Marshmallow, a feature called Doze made sure the background computing your phone usually does comes to a halt when it's sitting idle on a table or desk. In Android N, the new "Doze on the Go" makes sure the phone takes that break even when it's not completely still, like when it's in your pocket.
But here we have to go back to that pesky fragmentation problem: None of these new features will be available on phones until manufacturers and cellular carriers explicitly offer them. Since the majority of Android phones don't even run last year's Marshmallow, they're already lacking earlier improvements like the original Doze.
There is some good news for Google fans. One of Android's most intriguing new features works with more than N. With Android Instant Apps, Google is exploring how to handle apps you really don't need to download -- because, say, you might use them just once. (Think: an app you download when attending a conference, like Google I/O.)
Instant Apps lets you tap on a link to gain access to that app without downloading it. If you're searching Google on your phone for a new camera bag, for instance, you can tap on a link from camera retailer B&H in your search results and it will take you right to the shopping cart in the company's app.
Or, if you're at a parking meter, you'll be able to tap the meter with your phone using NFC, a chip found in most newer phones that can sense when you're close to payment terminals and other devices equipped with the same technology. If you're already signed up with Android Pay, Google's mobile payments service, you'll be able to feed the meter without having to download a separate app.
Along with B&H, Google is partnering with a handful of other companies, including Disney, which will have an Instant App version of its theme park app for checking wait times on rides and showing schedules.
Fragmentation may be a big issue, but it isn't the only one for Android. Antitrust regulators in the European Union are investigating whether Google is using its mobile software dominance to push its own services, like search and the Chrome browser, which are preinstalled by mobile phone makers, over rival services.
Lockheimer won't comment other than to say that Android "fundamentally" creates choice and that Google is working with the EU to address its concerns.
Even so, for Android to keep growing, Google needs the support of partners. Google will release the first Daydream viewer and controller in the fall, and they'll work with one of the only Daydream-ready phone out there, Google's Nexus 6P. The company is counting on partners, including Samsung, the largest maker of Android phones, to hop on board. The thing is, Samsung already has its own VR setup -- called Samsung Gear -- that's based on tech from Facebook's Oculus
Google also needs app developers to continue developing for Android. To encourage them, it unveiled a set of tools at I/O called Firebase. The software lets them optimize and maintain their Android apps by tracking, for instance, how and when their apps crash. Firebase also allows them to run tests to see how their apps will perform on about 20 different Android phones from various manufacturers. "Our hope is that people don't have to have drawers full of devices anymore," says Jason Titus, vice president of Google's Developer Products Group.
For any of these features to really matter, though, people have to be able to access them. Instant Apps works on phones running software as old as Jelly Bean, which makes that feature available to almost 96 percent of Android users.
For other features, Google has to deal with that F-problem and convince wireless carriers and phone makers to step up. Lockheimer sees Android's security updates, which the company started pushing out monthly last year, as a compelling reason for partners and users to update to newer versions.
"One of the many advantages, in my humble opinion, of Android is that there's a lot of choice. It's not just one device from one manufacturer...It's not a 'one size fits all' type of thing," Lockheimer says. "But I don't think more choice needs to equal less...rapid version updates. I think we can fix this."
Google's F'ing future depends on it.
CNET's Sean Hollister also contributed to this story.