The big, consumer-facing changes will come later this year
Google is releasing a developer preview for the next version of Android, Android 12, for Pixel devices today. As is the norm for Google, the very first previews of Android are full of a lot of developer-facing changes. Android 12 has updates to how the OS handles images, video, and future security updates.
It’s also the norm for Google to hold some of the major UI changes in reserve for its Google I/O conference, typically held in May. Although this developer preview does include some changes to the UI for notifications, until we install it we won’t know how closely it will map to the leak we saw earlier this month.
It’s available for Pixel 3 and newer phones but needs to be manually installed by flashing your device. It’s likely nowhere near ready for day-to-day use, but Google is promising that it will continue its beta program for regular users later this year.
Although the point of this first preview is to give developers a jump-start on getting their apps ready for the new version of Android, there are still features that should make a tangible difference to users. Specifically, Android is going to become more adept at handling different types of media.
Google did not provide images of Android 12’s user interface ahead of time. We will update this post with more details and images as soon as we are able.
There will be a new transcoding layer that will automatically make the HEVC video format work in apps that don’t natively support them. Currently, choosing to shoot in HEVC on an Android phone may mean that third-party apps won’t be able to natively use that video. The new transcoding layer for those apps should let users make the switch with more confidence.
Android 12 will support spatial audio, support MPEG-H, and be optimized for up to 24 channels of audio (up from eight before). It will also make it easier for developers to tie rumble effects to audio.
Google appears to be throwing its weight behind the AV1 Image File Format — otherwise known as AVIF. AVIF is meant to replace JPGs as the de facto image format, offering much better and cleaner compression with fewer artifacts. Netflix in particular has been a big proponent of the format. If AV1 sounds familiar, that’s because it’s an offshoot of the AV1 video format that major tech companies proposed some years back and both Netflix and Google have partially adopted. AVIF also isn’t to be confused with the similar HEIF, which Apple’s cameras have been shooting for some time.
Google says that it does not intend to make AVIF the default image format for the camera app, so this is still just a first step.
Sticking with multimedia, Android 12 will simply do a better job moving different kinds of media between apps. It’s creating a new “Rich content insertion” API that will let you cut and paste or drag and drop multiple kinds of content, including “plain and styled text to markup, images, videos, audio files, and more.”
We will need to install the developer preview ourselves to get a closer look at the changes Google is introducing right now. Its blog post describes what’s new in somewhat general terms. It’s a safe bet that what Google is showing today will be a hint to larger changes due later in the year. Whether those changes really will match up with the leaked screenshots you see above remains to be seen.
Here’s how Google describes the changes it is making to notifications:
We’re refreshing notification designs to make them more modern, easier to use, and more functional. In this first preview you’ll notice changes from the drawer and controls to the templates themselves. We’re also optimizing transitions and animations across the system to make them more smooth. As part of the updates, for apps targeting Android 12 we’re decorating notifications with custom content with icon and expand affordances to match all other notifications.
The app icons do line up with the leaked screenshot above, though, again, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what the final version will look like. The “expand affordances” also line up — the downward-pointing caret you can see in the screenshot above would be easier to tap than the current system. Google also notes that it is asking developers to use an API that makes apps open up more quickly in the right spot when a user taps a notification.
Finally, Google says that it is changing how Android 12 will behave when you’re in a full-screen app like a video, a Kindle book, or a video game. Currently, it often takes two gestures to exit out of those apps — one to bring up the UI, another to actually exit out. With Android 12, Google says that it is “changing the default to allow users to navigate their phone with one swipe.”
In 2019, Google started updating certain components deep inside the Android OS directly, rather than waiting for carriers to push through a major update. Dubbed “Project Mainline,” it meant Google could issue security updates for critical parts of Android using the Google Play infrastructure. Ever since, it’s been adding more pieces of Android to the Mainline system. Android 12’s big addition to this system is the Android Runtime (ART), a fundamental subsystem for making Android apps run. The aforementioned media transcoder will also become a Mainline module.
Android 12 will have a few privacy and security updates, but they won’t be as prominently visible to users. The WebView engine that third-party apps use will adopt one of Chrome’s more recent cookie settings called “SameSite,” which could help mitigate some tracking. Google says that “more privacy and security features [will be] coming in later preview releases.”
Android recently began requiring apps to pop a notification when it needs to run a background activity — which turns out to be really distracting. In Android 12, Google says it “will be blocking foreground service starts from the background,” redirecting developers to a new API. If one of these background activities can finish up in less than 10 seconds, it may not need to display a notification at all.
Google is also releasing an Android 12 preview for Android TV right away, including giving developers the chance to test their apps on Google’s own Google TV platform.
Google is releasing the developer preview today, but again, it requires that you flash your device’s system image, so really it’s meant for developers only right now. Google says it will work on a “Pixel 3 / 3 XL, Pixel 3a / 3a XL, Pixel 4 / 4 XL, Pixel 4a / 4a 5G, or Pixel 5 device” or developers can simply run it inside the Android emulator.
There will be a public beta at some point, but expect it to take a few months. And if Google follows its past habits, there will be a more comprehensive look at what’s coming in Android 12 in May (or possibly June).
Last year, Android’s “platform stability” release came in early July, but this year Google is targeting August — the official release usually comes shortly thereafter. That could mean that Android 12 will arrive just a little later in the year than usual.
In the meantime, we and others will be digging in to the developer preview to see what other details we can find. More often than not there are enough hints scattered throughout the code to give us a good idea of Google’s final plans for Android.
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