Google is doing deep surgery on Android

The search giant's mobile software runs on 2 billion devices. Its next job: Getting those devices on the latest version -- and trying to reach a billion more.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
10 min read
Watch this: 5 new features on Android O

In 2006, Andy Rubin -- who created Google's Android software -- showed an early demo of his mobile operating system to Hiroshi Lockheimer, then a 31-year-old college dropout he hoped to hire at Google. It was two years before Android's official debut, and that first demo was crude.

It was on a candybar of a phone, the HTC Tornado, with a small screen and a physical keypad.

"It didn't look anything like Android does today," Lockheimer, now Android's chief, tells me in a conference room with a glass wall overlooking Google's campus in Mountain View, California. "It was nowhere near [version] 1.0 ... but it just felt so tantalizing."

Android has since become the most popular mobile OS on the planet. On Wednesday, at Google's annual I/O developer conference, the company announced Android now runs on 2 billion devices, up from 1.4 billion in 2015. (By comparison, Apple's iOS software runs on nearly 1.7 billion iPhones and iPads.)


Hiroshi Lockheimer, Android's chief, is trying to fight off fragmentation.

James Martin/CNET

Android isn't just on phones. It's also in cars, watches, TVs and, in the age of internet-connected everything, random devices like security cameras, fridges and routers.

That's why Google is touting new figures about each of its Android offshoots. Android Autos, its in-car dashboard software, runs on 300 models, including cars from Volvo and Audi. Android Wear, software tailored for wearable tech, is in almost 50 watches, from brands like Movado and Emporio Armani. Android TV boasts 1 million activations every two months and has more than 3,000 TV apps. And Android Things, Google's platform for the burgeoning "internet of things" has "thousands" of developers in 60 countries.

Spreading the gospel of Android is crucial for Lockheimer and Google CEO Sundar Pichai because the OS is the gateway drug to the company's services, including Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube and its iconic search engine. To broaden Android's scope, Google set its sights on everything -- from staking a place in your living room to reaching people in remote countries, where entire populations are just coming online.

But even with Android's polished resume, Lockheimer has a problem -- especially as Google and Apple keep jostling for supremacy. Asked what the 10th anniversary of the iPhone means to him, he says, "Nothing. It's great to have really capable competitors." That milestone doesn't matter because, he says, "Every year we're competing with Apple."


David Burke, vice president of engineering for Android, says Project Treble is a "profound change" for Android.

James Martin/CNET

I buy that in part because it's not about getting Android on phones. Google already dominates in that department. Almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped worldwide run on Android.

The problem is getting the newest version of Android in people's hands. Literally.

If you have an Android phone, it's a mathematical likelihood you're using an old version of the software. Only about 7 percent of all Android users currently have the most recent version, called Nougat, installed on their devices. A whopping 82 percent of Android owners are on three older versions: Marshmallow, Lollipop and KitKat. The oldest of those, KitKat, was released in 2013. (By comparison, Apple's most recent version of its mobile software, iOS 10, has found its way onto 79 percent of all iPhones and iPads.)

For the uninitiated, Google's got a sweet tooth when it comes to naming major Android releases. They're in alphabetical order, and all have a confectionary namesake (KitKat is Lockheimer's favorite candy). Now Google is sharing new details about the next version, which for now is nicknamed "Android O." The goal: Getting more people to adopt the software so it doesn't end up being more like "Android Ohhh yeah I remember when they announced it, but what happened?"

Part of Google's plan is something called Project Treble, which tries to clear away some of the roadblocks between consumers and new versions of Android.

"Treble is literally the deepest surgery we've done on Android to date," says David Burke, vice president of engineering for Android. "It's a pretty profound change."

Operation Android

To understand the solution, you first have to understand the problem. Android suffers from a pesky condition the industry calls "fragmentation." (Bear with me. This is going to get a little wonky.)

Though Google develops the software, it's up to device makers and wireless carriers to sign off on it before it gets to you. That's because they usually add their own apps and flourishes then have to test everything before putting it on phones and other gadgets.

But even before the software gets to handset makers such as Samsung and LG, or carriers such as Verizon and AT&T, it makes a pit stop with chipmakers.

One of the targets of Project Treble is those chipmakers, which include companies like Qualcomm. The chipmakers customize bits of Android code to make sure the software works well with their processors. This can be tricky because the code is interspersed throughout Android's framework.

At least, it used to be. With Project Treble, Google separated out the particular code that chipmakers care about to make it easier for them to find everything in one place. That should cut the amount of time it takes for updates to flow down the pipeline from chipmakers to device makers.

"The goal here is, can we cut down the number of months it takes from when there's a new version of Android to the time it gets to users?" says Burke. "Ultimately it's trying to make it easier -- grease the wheels of the whole ecosystem."

Still, it's not a silver bullet. While Project Treble addresses the first part of the pipeline, handset makers and carriers can still take as much time as they want before pushing out Android updates. That's because hardware manufacturers might not find it profitable to update your phone, says Jan Dawson, principal analyst at JackDaw Research. If you get fed up with your outdated software, you could end up buying a whole new phone. "They have mixed incentives," he says.

Lockheimer thinks Project Treble is a big deal, but he also takes a tempered view of its impact. "It doesn't mean automatic updates are going to happen," he says. "It's still work. And someone needs to do that work."

Vital signs

With Android O, officially released later this summer, Google focused on the "fundamentals," Lockheimer tells me. That's things like speed, performance and battery life. Google calls these "vitals," which is especially apt given all its talk about "deep surgery" for Android.

One thing Google did to conserve your phone's battery life is limit what developers can do with apps running in the background. As an example, it's put more restrictions on what an app can do with location services or launching into specific tasks.

"If your battery goes out at 4 p.m., it doesn't matter what features your phone has," says Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, director of product management for Android.

Google said it worked closely with app developers to strike a balance between what was good for the app and what was good for users.

The company is also introducing a new feature on Wednesday called Google Play Protect, which will let people see how Google uses machine learning to scan apps to make sure they won't harm your phone with viruses or malware.

But Google is trying to fix more than just the plumbing. Android O will show off a bunch of new features to the 7,200 developers expected to attend I/O over the next three days.

There's a new smart copy-and-paste feature that seems particularly interesting. When you highlight text in an article or text message, for instance, Android will automatically detect if it's an address or a proper noun. If it's an address, the software will highlight the entire address, so you don't have to. And instead of merely suggesting actions such as "copy" or "select all," it may suggest a map. If you select a phone number, expect to see the phone dialer.

Google is also bringing autofill features to Android, similar to how they work on browsers. If you enter your login information in an app, your phone will ask if you want to save your password or username. The next time you try logging into an app, you'll be given the choice to autofill the information. (The text box will turn yellow, just like it does on Google's Chrome browser.)

Another feature is picture-in-picture, which had been available for Android TV but not on phones. It's not just for videos. Burke says the company is also working on a version for Google Maps. That means you can see a small map at the corner of your screen if you want to switch apps to, say, play a song or look up a restaurant on Yelp.

Living room dreams

"Can we turn off those lights?"

We're in a tiny room at Google's sprawling headquarters that has been set up to look like a living room. There's a TV, a couch, a coffee table and some floor lamps. As CNET's video crew sets up for a shot, one of our cameramen worries the room is too bright. When he asks to kill the lights, Sascha Prueter, director of Android TV, says, "Actually, that's a good demo."

"Turn out the lights," he says, speaking into a video game controller. The lights go out. The crew cheers.


Android TV has a new interface that puts movies and shows front and center.

James Martin/CNET

It's part of the the newest updates to Android TV, Google's software for powering set-top boxes and other TV devices, including the Nvidia Shield, which Prueter is using for the demo.

It may seem a little odd to ask your TV to turn off the lights, but the company wants interactions like this to become second nature to you. Pichai unveiled Google's digital helper, called the Assistant, at last year's I/O. It's designed to compete with Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana. The Assistant can do things like play songs, give you flight information or tell you the weather.

With the Assistant on Android TV, you'll be able to check on things like an internet-connected security camera or use your voice to search for a particular actor on YouTube.

When you highlight text in Android, a new feature gives you more options than just "copy" and "paste."


The user interface for Android TV is getting a revamp too. Content will be front and center now, while you previously had to open up an app first. You'll also see a preview or snippet of a show or movie as you're scrolling through a list of options and rest the selector over a particular title.

This is only the latest phase in the company's assault on your living room. Google already has Chromecasts for streaming video and audio, Google Wi-Fi routers for creating a strong home network and Google Home, a smart speaker with the Assistant built in. Home is meant to take on the Amazon Echo, which was a surprise hit when it was released two years ago.

Your home is fast becoming one of the fiercest battlegrounds in Silicon Valley. Besides the brawl between Google and Amazon, Apple offers its HomeKit software for iOS and is rumored to be readying its own smart speaker. Microsoft just announced it will build Cortana into speakers with the help of outside device makers.

And while Facebook hasn't announced any plans to enter the market, CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent all of last year building his own digital butler, named Jarvis.

Adding the Assistant to Android TV is another Trojan horse for Google's digital helper. Prueter said the company is even working on versions of the service that work when the TV is off. That way, you might buy a Google Home for your kitchen, but use your Android TV in the living room.

If Google gets its way, you'll eventually have multiple devices in your home, all equipped with the Assistant. It could get confusing -- and annoying -- if you try to talk to one device by saying the "OK Google" command and trigger every other Assistant-enabled device.

Google is working on a fix for that problem, but it's not ready yet. Prueter says software will be able to deduce which device you're talking to by measuring things like voice clarity and distance.

Go, Android, Go

Google also has big plans in emerging markets to help it extend Android's reach. With a new initiative, internally nicknamed Android Go, it's working to make the mobile software cater to people with entry-level phones.

That's not the first time it's tried to appeal to the wider market. Two years ago, it had a similar effort called Android One. But that focused on the device instead of the software. Android One initially launched in countries including India, Indonesia and the Philippines, where Google partnered with local manufacturers to build quality phones that were also affordable.


Sameer Samat , vice president of product management, said 'Android Go' is about making Android work better for entry-level phones.

James Martin/CNET

But the focus has since shifted to address issues such as making sure Android phones get regular security updates, says Sameer Samat, vice president of product management for Android and Google Play. And the program focuses on the entire range of the market now, not just the low end.

"While hardware is half the story, the software also has to be tuned for the needs of users that have limited data connectivity," Samat says.

Most of the people who will use Android Go will probably be on prepaid data plans. So the software has a dashboard front and center where you can track all the data you've used and see what you still have available. It also has a special version of the Google Play store that prominently features apps that work better with entry-level phones.

Of everything Android is announcing this year, Lockheimer says Android Go is his favorite because of what it represents: bringing computing to everyone.

"To introduce a lot of new people to smartphones in a good way is something that's pretty exciting," he says.

Kind of like when he first saw Android on that bulky phone 11 years ago.

All the cool stuff Google announced at I/O

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