The next billion people to adopt smartphones aren’t going to be shelling out $1,000 for one. Many are upgrading from feature phones, and to ensure their experience isn’t ruined by a poorly-performing device, which will likely be running Android, Google has been continuing to improve its Android Go platform. The new version is called Android 10 (Go Edition), based on the latest version of Android 10, and it brings key security and performance improvements to the operating system.
Android Go is an offshoot of Android, meant to run on budget phones with 1.5GB of RAM or less. It launched in 2018 (as Android Oreo (Go Edition)) out of necessity because Android wasn’t entirely optimized to run well on ultra-low-cost smartphones.
“The one-size-fits-all Android platform wasn’t scalable as [smartphones] were getting more and more advanced on the CPU side and RAM,” Sagar Kamdar, Director of Product Management for Android, told Digital Trends. “We had to figure out how to tailor the experiences depending on the hardware configuration.”
You get many of the same features you’ll find in traditional Android, but the OS is optimized to run with less memory, it takes up less internal storage space, and the apps pre-installed — particularly those from Google — are “lite” versions, meaning they are not as data-hungry and don’t take up much room as well. That’s critical, as data is often expensive in emerging markets and many of these phones don’t come with a lot of internal storage.
“We want to make sure users don’t have to sacrifice or compromise on the features that they want.”
With Android 10 (Go Edition), Kamdar said the team has improved app launch time by 10% over Android Pie (Go Edition), and switching between apps is also faster. These improvements come from optimizations to memory management, changes to how certain services are run, and a reworking of the notification system.
The tweaks the Android Go team makes for the OS to run more efficiently can benefit Android as a whole as Kamdar said, “the team will do some experiments and use it across the whole platform.”
Encryption for all
The next key upgrade in Android 10 (Go Edition) is Adiantum, a new form of encryption that offers entry-level devices protection without impacting performance.
“The team was like, ‘We should really help everyone get the same level of security and privacy,’ Kamdar said. “They’re like, ‘how do we actually accomplish this in a really constrained environment?'”
The current storage encryption protecting your data on Android smartphones utilizes the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES). Low-cost phones often don’t have processors that support AES, which in turn results in “a poor user experience,” according to a Google Security Blog post.
“Apps would take much longer to launch, and the device would generally feel much slower,” according to the post. “While storage encryption has been required for most devices since Android 6.0 in 2015, devices with poor AES performance are exempt. We’ve been working to change this because we believe that encryption is for everyone.”
Adiantum, announced earlier this year, is exactly that solution. It uses a new cipher to deliver disk encryption that’s significantly faster than AES without dramatically impacting performance, and it means people using these low-cost phones don’t need to lose out on security because they can’t afford a more powerful phone.
“We want to make sure users don’t have to sacrifice or compromise on the features that they want,” Kamdar said.
Go and lite apps
Optimizing the operating system is just one part of the process — more efficient or lite apps are crucial, too. Google has released a wide number of “Go” apps, including Assistant Go and Google Maps Go. The latter takes up to “100 times less space on your device,” offering fundamentals like real-time traffic updates, directions, and public transport information.
But just because these apps are lite versions of the originals, doesn’t mean they lack interesting features. The Google Go app, for example, has an artificial intelligence-powered feature called read-out-loud that reads text out on webpages so people can follow along at various speeds (the A.I. voice sounds incredibly normal, too).
“Some first-time smartphone users may not be as literate or may have issues reading the different web content,” Kamdar said. “We have voice input where you can say, ‘Show me the latest cricket scores,’ and you can get the answer, but we actually wanted to be able to read out the answer.”
Gallery Go is one of the more recent additions, spawned from the Google Photos team, and it’s designed to work offline whereas Google Photos is largely about cloud backup. It’s not a simple gallery app, though. It uses on-device machine learning to categorize your images based on the subject; your baby photos, pet photos, and selfies will all be grouped separately, automatically.
Several other companies have also created lite versions of their flagship apps, like Facebook with Facebook Lite and Messenger Lite. There’s also Spotify Lite, Opera Mini, Skype Lite, and more. Facebook also recently announced Project Lightspeed, an effort to shave down the Messenger app’s size even lower to just 30MB and make it launch in under two seconds.
The update problem
Perhaps the biggest downside of Android Go is that there is no promise of version or security updates, unlike Android One smartphones that come with a promise of two years of OS upgrades and monthly security updates for three years (and no bloatware).
The decision to issue updates will be up to the manufacturer and domestic carrier, so not all phones running Android Go will get the latest Android 10 (Go Edition), further perpetuating Android’s problem of fragmentation.
Growth across the board
But Android Go continues to grow. Kamdar said there are now 500 manufacturers around the world creating Android Go-powered smartphones, with more than 1,600 devices in 180 countries ranging from the U.S., Brazil, India, and Nigeria. These manufacturers include brands like Tecno, with the Tecno Spark 2, but also well-known companies like Samsung, with the Galaxy A2.
In the entry-level market, he said Android Go accounts for 80% of activations, and nearly 50% of people buying them are first-time smartphone owners.
“We’re seeing devices as low as $27,” Kamdar said. “It’s been cool to see that the phones can get so cheap, and users are actually getting a high-quality performance.”
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