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Google launches Android 11, rolling out not just to Pixel phones first

Google today launched Android 11, the latest version of its mobile OS, and pushed the source code to the Android Open Source Project (AOSP). Unlike previous major versions, Android 11 is not only arriving as an over-the-air update to Pixel phones first, but also on OnePlus, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Realme phones “with more partners launching and upgrading devices over the coming months.” Update at 1:30 PM Pacific: Some of the phone makers caused some confusion today by releasing their own “Android 11 beta.” All the betas are for their custom UIs, however, based on the final build of Android 11, a Google spokesperson confirmed.

That’s a major departure for Android, updates for which take months to arrive thanks to carriers and device makers dragging their feet. It doesn’t help that Android is the dominant mobile operating system available on thousands of different device configurations, powering over 2.5 billion monthly active devices. With Android 11 poised to potentially arrive on more devices and sooner, developers who didn’t take advantage of the Android 11 beta process will need to catch up and make sure their apps and games are ready for businesses and consumers alike.

Android 11 has had a rocky beta schedule. Last year, there were six betas. This year, we saw four developer previews and three betas. Google launched Android 11 DP1 in February (the earliest it has ever released an Android developer preview), Android 11 DP2 in March, and Android 11 DP3 in April. Android 11 Beta 1 was supposed to arrive in May, but we got Android 11 DP4 as a stopgap measure. Beta 1 arrived in June, followed by Beta 2 in July and Beta 3 in August. Beta 1 would have normally been shown off at Google’s I/O developer conference, where the first Android beta typically debuts, but the event was canceled due to the coronavirus. #Android11: the Beta Launch Show was supposed to happen in lieu, but Google postponed and then ultimately canceled that as well due to protests over systemic racism and police brutality.

Android 11 features

Android 11 brings a long list of new features. Google originally split them into three themes: People, Controls, and Privacy. But there is also support for 5G, new screen types, and call screening. There’s even a frame rate API for helping apps and games adopt variable refresh rates, which will be a big focus over the next few years as phones and TVs adopt the feature from computer monitors. Google also expanded the Neural Networks API for running computationally intensive machine learning operations.

Android 11 5G experiences

The team also snuck in one more change at the end of the beta process: the latest COVID-19 Exposure Notification API that Google developed with Apple. In late July, Google updated its version of the system with support for interoperability between countries and announced that Android 11 apps can use the API without needing to turn on the device location setting.

Android 11 people features

Android 11 conversations

Android 11 is supposed to be “more people-centric and expressive” so that it “can recognize and prioritize the most important people in your life.” In other words, expect a lot of messaging functionality:

  • Conversation notifications appear in a dedicated section at the top of the shade, with a people-forward design and conversation-specific actions, such as opening the conversation as a bubble, creating a conversation shortcut on the home screen, or setting a reminder.
  • Bubbles help users to keep conversations in view and accessible while multitasking. Google wants messaging and chat apps to use the Bubbles API on notifications in Android 11.
  • Consolidated keyboard suggestions let Autofill apps and Input Method Editors (IMEs) securely offer context-specific entities and strings directly in an IME’s suggestion strip.
  • Voice Access, for people who control their phone entirely by voice, now includes an on-device visual cortex that understands screen content and context, and generates labels and access points for accessibility commands.

Android 11 controls features

Android 11 device controls

Android 11 makes it easier to control your smart devices:

  • Device Controls help users access and control their connected devices. Simply long-press the power button to bring up device controls instantly. Apps can use a new API to appear in the controls.
  • Media Controls let you switch the output device for audio or video content, whether it be headphones, speakers, or even the TV. You can enable this today from Developer Options, and it will be on by default in an upcoming Beta release.

Android 11 privacy features

Android 11 privacy controls

Android 11 also brings more control over sensitive permissions and keeps devices more secure through faster updates:

  • One-time permission lets you give an app access to the device microphone, camera, or location just that one time. The app can request permissions again the next time the app is used.
  • Background location: Developers need to get approval to access background location in their app to prevent misuse, but Google won’t be enforcing this previously announced policy for existing apps until 2021.
  • Permissions auto-reset: If you haven’t used an app for an extended period of time, Android 11 will “auto-reset” all of the runtime permissions associated with the app and notify you. The app can request the permissions again the next time the app is used.
  • Scoped storage: Google has improved this feature to better protect app and user data on external storage, and made further improvements to help developers more easily migrate.
  • Google Play System Updates, launched last year, expedite updates of core OS components to devices in the Android ecosystem. Google is doubling the number of updatable modules. The 12 new modules will help improve privacy, security, and consistency for users and developers.
  • BiometricPrompt API: Developers can specify the biometric authenticator strength required by their app to unlock or access sensitive parts of the app. For backward compatibility, Google added these capabilities to the Jetpack Biometric library.
  • Identity Credential API: New use cases such as mobile driver’s licences, National ID, and Digital ID.

Developer guidance

If you’re a developer, you should install your production app on a device or emulator running Android 11, test all the user flows and features, and make sure none of the changes break anything. Before exploring the new APIs and capabilities, start by testing your current app and releasing a compatibility update.

Android 11 compatibility flow

Top behavior changes include:

These apply regardless of your app’s targetSdkVersion.

While these changes will only affect Android 11 users, either those who updated to it or purchased a new device, that still translates to millions of devices. Android 11 also includes opt-in behavior changes — these affect your app once it’s targeting the new platform.

Google recommends developers dive into the following features for all Android 11 apps: dark theme, gesture navigation, Sharing Shortcuts API, synchronized IME transitions, and new screen types. Notably, the first three were originally added in Android 10. Otherwise, Google recommends exploring these features if they’re relevant to your app: Conversations, Bubbles API, 5G, device controls, and media controls.

You may also want to download Android 11 factory system images for Pixel devices, Generic System Images, the Android Flash Tool, and the latest Android Emulator system images via the SDK Manager in Android Studio.

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