Android 5.0 Lollipop heralds a new era for the operating system, one aimed at unifying the Android experience across devices and built with business use squarely in mind. While iOS may have enjoyed early darling status in the enterprise, expect business organisations to take Android much more seriously going forward, thanks to a raft of significant improvements, an extensive set of new developer APIs, and clear signals that Google intends to lead the Android ecosystem more intentionally than ever before.
Lollipop is in many ways a reimagining of what Android can be, and Google has rebuilt Android Lollipop from the ground up with the future in mind. Injecting new support for faster and more efficient hardware, Google has laid a strong foundation for developers and device makers to take the platform to new heights in powering the next generation of smartphones, tablets, and wearables.
Lollipop is currently rolling out to most Nexus-branded devices and some Motorola and LG devices, and it's in the hands of device makers like Samsung and HTC for testing and rollout in the coming weeks and months. Here is a look at the improvements to Android Lollipop that make it the most powerful and adaptable Android yet.
With Lollipop, Google has streamlined device setup, a welcome improvement over previous versions of Android. Connect to a Wi-Fi or cellular network, and Android will automatically download any available updates right out of the box, rather than waiting until the setup process is complete as in versions past. With Lollipop installed, you'll enter your email address and password, then begin setting up your Google profile on your new device. Android Lollipop's setup process also now supports NFC transfer which will allow you to tap your previous NFC-enabled device to your new one to transfer your settings, apps, and profiles. (Note: Over-the-air updates will still require manufacturer and carrier approval.)
Android Lollipop's most notable improvement to the setup process is the ability to restore your device from a specific backup. Rather than automatically downloading every app and setting affiliated with your Google profile, Lollipop now allows you to restore from a particular device's profile. Simply choose your backup profile, and you can handpick the apps associated with that profile that you want to load to your updated device. This new feature is particularly handy for those who use multiple Android devices, enabling them to keep separate sets of apps on each device.
Material Design: A fresh, new unifying face
Lollipop introduces a complete and aptly named visual overhaul of the Android UI: Material Design. Google's reimagined look and feel for Android is more vibrant, fluid, and cohesive than in previous versions. The impact of Material Design can be felt throughout the entire OS, from its new navigational buttons and reimagined menus all the way to Google's portfolio of stock apps. Thanks to this new unified aesthetic, everything about the new Android looks and feels like it fits together seamlessly.
Tap and flick your way around Android Lollipop, and you'll quickly see that the "surfaces and edges" with "seams and shadows" approach does in fact readily reveal what can be touched to trigger actions, as Matias Duarte, Google's vice president of design and lead architect of Material Design, said at this year's Google I/O. This translates into richer, more colorful apps with vibrant transitional animations and visual cues that make navigation more intuitive. It also means a shallower OS, ditching the deep, often confusing menus and rabbit holes of Android's past and placing more of what you need at the surface.
Google's Material Design guidelines give developers the tools to create a unified experience across device sizes. It's true that the Android tablet experience is in some measure that of an enlarged phone, as some have suggested, but it is clear that Google aims to improve this based on Lollipop's developer guidelines. This emphasis on uniformity is also in evidence in Google's simultaneous rollout of the Nexus 6 smartphone and the Nexus 9 tablet, enabling developers to target the latest smartphone and tablet at the same time. Material Design should extend that unified experience to wearables and beyond.
Lock Screen, notifications, and the app drawer
Some of Lollipop's most notable improvements can be found among Android's central elements: its lock screen, notifications bar, and app drawer.
Android's new lock screen provides a quick view of unread notifications, which can be swiped down to reveal more content, double-tapped to open, or simply swiped away. You can control which notifications, if any, that you would like to be displayed on the lock screen by navigating to the Sounds and Notifications settings.
And if your device is locked with a PIN or password, you can choose to show only the top line of a notification instead of its sensitive content (defined by either the user or the app developer). As in previous versions, the lock screen also provides direct access to the notifications bar, camera, and the device's various user profiles (more on that in a bit).
Lollipop's notifications bar can now be swiped down once for a top-line view of your notifications and pertinent Google Now cards or swiped down twice (alternatively, with two fingers rather than one) to reveal Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and location settings, along with toggles for airplane mode, rotation lock, and a flashlight.
The notifications bar also contains a slider to control your display's brightness and a one-touch button to "cast" (aka share) your screen with any compatible device (such as Chromecast) on the same Wi-Fi network. In addition, the bar provides access to your device's full settings menu and user profiles.
Notifications have undergone a significant overhaul. Android Lollipop now prioritises notifications based on what you will likely find most important. These prioritised notifications always find their way to the top of the list, surpassing chronological order in both the notifications bar and on the lock screen.
Lollipop also introduces heads-up notifications -- visual "cards" that appear at the top of your screen for certain real-time alerts that you can chose to interact with or file away for later.
You can also now manage which and when notifications appear through your device's volume menu: quickly toggle between displaying all notifications, priority notifications, or no notifications at all. Alternately, dive deeper to program specific times to display all information and other times to display only certain information.
Finally, Android's app drawer has been given a fresh coat of paint for the first time since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, so it seems more connected to your home screen, with a folderlike look and feel, rather than spun off as an entirely separate area of the OS. The app drawer is brighter, offering a white background rather than a black or transparent one, and it is now limited to apps, with access to widgets restricted to a long press on your home screen.
Next section: Recents: Reinventing multitasking
Recents: Reinventing multitasking
Google invented mobile multitasking as we know it. With Android Lollipop, it has pushed the concept further via Lollipop's new Recents window, which provides access to nearly all your apps rather than a handful of recently used ones, and is now arranged in cards similar to those found within Google Now. These cards scroll through a Rolodex-like motion, providing a shrunken view of your multiple apps and windows.
The Recents UI goes deeper than Android's previous multitasking solutions, giving you the ability to not only toggle between windows, but also between windows within windows. Suppose you're composing a message within Gmail; click the Recents button and you'll be able to access not only other apps but other aspects of Gmail, such as your inbox. It works for Chrome, too, allowing you to toggle between open tabs through the multitasking menu.
The ability to toggle both between and within apps provides an entirely new way to jump from one point to another within Android, drastically cutting back on the amount of times you'll click the Back button throughout the UI.
Multiple-user profiles: Sharing the power of Android
Another significant feature introduced with Lollipop is Device Sharing, which enables Android Lollipop smartphones and tablets to support multiple user profiles, similar to what Google introduced in Android 4.2 Jelly Bean for tablets only. With Device Sharing, a family or a team of business colleagues can share one device without having to share their personal information.
There are three options for user profiles on a Lollipop-powered device:
In the same vein, you can now "pin" your screen, restricting access to a sole app, window, or piece of content you want to share, thereby preventing your guest from navigating away from the pinned element to anything else on you device.
ART: Shaking up Android to the core
Lollipop's change log includes a plethora of under-the-hood tweaks, the most substantial of which is an overhaul of Android's core architecture, with Android Run Time (ART) replacing the Dalvik VM. According to Google, this shift has made Android considerably faster and more powerful. (Various reviewers report that Android Lollipop doesn't run slower on older Android devices -- a welcome indicator that ART may in fact be faster.)
Whereas Dalvik compiled and processed apps each time they were opened, ART performs ahead-of-time processing, translating an app's source code on initial installation. The result, Google claims, is device performance of up to four times than that of previous versions with smoother, more visually rich applications that open and operate more efficiently.
This performance boost was noticeable on my Nexus 5 at the outset. As you begin to use Android Lollipop, you will certainly realise that navigating the OS, transitional animations, and app switching is far smoother than before.
Android Lollipop is also the first version with 64-bit support, which Google claims will bring desktop-class CPU performance to the OS. Android's core applications, including Chrome, Gmail, and Play Music, are now 64-bit-native, as is the Java engine that many third-party applications are built on. The difference won't likely be felt by users immediately, as nearly all apps are still 32-bit, but it will allow hardware makers to incorporate more powerful yet efficient processors, GPUs, and RAM into the next generation of smartphones and tablets.
Next section: Project Volta: optimising power use
Project Volta: optimising power use
When we first met what was then referred to as Android L in June, one of the most exciting and promising features was Project Volta, an initiative that Google claimed would yield massive improvements in mobile battery efficiency.
First, similar to a trick already used in Samsung, HTC, LG, and other Android devices, is a new native power-saver mode that helps Lollipop devices limit ravenous background data, haptic feedback, and the like to squeeze extra life out of a nearly empty battery.
Behind the scenes, Project Volta's Job Scheduler API batches battery-intensive tasks and schedules them for optimal times. Instead of completing each background task immediately, Android can now put off certain functions until a device is connected to Wi-Fi or a charger, thus reducing the number of times the OS draws power from the battery.
Project Volta also provides developers access to a battery historian, which illustrates how and when apps use voltage, as well as how efficiently they're doing so.
In practice, you might not notice Project Volta right out of the box -- in fact, multiple early reviews of the Nexus 6 and 9 have reported merely average battery life -- but it holds exciting promise once developers and hardware makers begin utilising its tools.
Enhanced security and Android for Work
Lollipop heralds the first iteration of Android built with enterprise use squarely in mind. Thanks to improved security features such as default encryption on new devices, contextually aware device unlocking, and Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) malware protection, devices running Android Lollipop are now more enterprise-friendly than ever.
Among the security enhancements is Lollipop Smart Lock, a feature that allows you to associate one or more Bluetooth devices (aka Trusted Devices) as automatic unlocks, such as your key fob in your pocket. Smart Lock also includes Trusted Faces, a previously available feature that uses facial recognition to unlock a device. Look for it now in the Smart Lock group in Settings. Also of interest is the newly available Trusted Locations, which enables you to set locations where your phone could be left open for easy access, such as at home or the office. Trust Locations is currently available through Google Play Services, as opposed to Lollipop itself, so you may need to download and install it yourself.
Most exciting, though, is Android for Work, a dual-persona system Google acquired from Divide last spring that also is said to include Samsung's Knox technology. Google's Android for Work keeps work and other sensitive data separated from your personal information and media. When Android for Work becomes available in mobile management servers some time next year, IT personnel will be able to deploy apps in bulk to business-user devices and maintain centralised control over sensitive functions.
Google's Android for Work is built around three major concepts: device and data security, support for IT policies, and mobile application management. Lollipop implements its multiuser support to create a behind-the-scenes user profile that employs block-level disk encryption to keep sensitive data protected, similar to Samsung's approach with Knox's Workspace or BlackBerry's Balance. With Lollipop's new enterprise-friendly APIs, IT admins will have more tools than ever to configure system and application settings and restrictions.
Android for Work is part of Android Lollipop, and Google says it will be available as an app for devices running Android 4.0 and later as well. Several mobile management vendors promise support for it.