It’s that time again. Marshmallow is starting to roll out. OS images for those Nexus devices still being supported are already available, for those who don’t mind wiping their devices to install the new operating system. Those who want to keep their setup the way it is will have to wait for the over-the-air rollout, which should be starting now. Reportedly, people with non-cellular Nexus devices are first on the list, which would be nice—I remember it took a couple of months for my 2013 Nexus 7 to get Lollipop when it debuted.
The New Permission Paradigm
Articles are already starting to pop up about the most attractive new features. The big one folks are lauding is the new finer-grained app permission requests—instead of a single pop-up when you install the app, which most people ignore anyway, apps will henceforth ask for permission to use a service the first time they actually need to use it. If you’ve ever gotten a pop-up on Windows Desktop saying “(such-and-such an app or website) wants to use your camera,” that seems to be on the same principle.
Instead of all or nothing, apps designed for the new OS update will allow permissions to be granted or revoked on a service-by-service basis after they’re already installed. Some apps may not work correctly without access to particular services, but apps that are updated for the new paradigm will pop up a notification explaining why they don’t work right. Also, apps are encouraged to use a “warm welcome” screen to explain why they want access to a particular feature, so Spotify can tell you it wants to track your location so it can match the tempo of its playlist to how fast you’re jogging.
Now On Tap
Another interesting feature is Google’s “Now on Tap,” which seems to be essentially Google Now on steroids. It effectively adds a context menu to apps, so that you can use other apps to get information on what’s going on within the one app at any particular time. The example they use is getting a text from a friend to meet him at a restaurant. Long-tapping on that text will then pull up things like a map to the restaurant, an OpenTable reservations page, and so forth.
Ars Technica has a more in-depth OS review that touches on everything, including one of the more interesting features from an e-reader perspective that doesn’t usually get play in such articles. For devices that use SD cards, Marshmallow’s “adoptable storage” feature is going to permit the cards to be formatted as EXT4, which will allow the device to treat the card as an extension of its internal memory.
You know how I mentioned that Amazon Fire tablet can’t index e-books stored on its SD card? If the Fire ran Marshmallow, that could be a thing of the past—it could treat the SD card like it simply gained however many more gigabytes of internal storage. Perhaps the next iteration of Fire OS will be Marshmallow-based and support that feature.
The price for that is, you wouldn’t be able to remove and swap out the SD card, because the device would save bits of apps and the operating system onto the card. You would effectively have to give the card slot over to being a permanent memory upgrade. But given that this would be a lot better use of the card than is possible now, I doubt many people would quibble at that.
Of course, as Ars points out, there currently aren’t any Marshmallow devices with SD card slots that could use this feature. They were able to test it using a USB stick to emulate such a slot, but that wouldn’t be an effective way to use the tablet in real life. Still, the SD card slot is a feature common on cheaper OEM tablets. It shouldn’t take too long before the first inexpensive Marshmallow devices start to appear.
Adoptable storage will be great for bare-bones cheap devices, such as the OEMs’ or Google’s own Android One, that save money by skimping on internal memory. It will also be great for the $50 Fire if Amazon adopts it for a future Fire OS.
The App Drawer and Search
Marshmallow is also changing the layout of the app drawer. Instead of a horizontal pagination function, where you have to swipe left over and over to get to later screens, Google is returning to the vertical scrolling format used in the first couple of versions of Android prior to Honeycomb. This will be a lot faster to navigate around, given that you can use a swipe-fling to zip down to the bottom, but Google is also adding a search feature where you can tap out the first few letters of an app to narrow it down. I anticipate using that a lot. It will also try to “predict” which app you want, and list its predictions in the first couple of rows of the screen.
And speaking of search, the Google search box on the home screen is getting an upgrade, too. The Google logo is changing from understated grey to the logo’s standard rainbow color, and it will gain some new animations for when Google is busy working or listening to you speak.
App backup is getting a boost, too. In Android as it is now, Google will remember, more or less, what apps you had installed on your device and attempt to reinstall them if you factory reset and reconnected to Google. Under Marshmallow, it will also store the app’s data and current state—Google is providing up to 25 megabytes per app for this, free. So when you reinstall apps that take advantage of this new feature, it should remember exactly how you had them set up and logged in when they reinstall.
Marshmallow devices are getting a new “Doze” mode, too, which will auto-sleep them to save battery life when they’re left alone and not moving. It will turn off their Internet connection, too, though apps will have the ability to override Doze for “important” messages, such as SMS messages from friends.
Older Androids Also Gain Some Marshmallow Flavor
Here’s an interesting note on the difference between Android and Apple. You know how I mentioned earlier that some apps built for Marshmallow would have additional features? Unlike with iOS, being built for Marshmallow doesn’t mean it’s incompatible with older versions of Android.
As a side note, it’s important to know the difference in Android between “targeting” an SDK and what that has to do with the minimum supported Android version an app will run on. The short answer is nothing. If an app targets the Marshmallow SDK, it doesn’t mean it will only run on Marshmallow, it means that the app is aware of the new features and can use them. Apps have a “target SDK version” and a “min SDK version”—basically the newest and oldest Android versions that an app supports. Any competent app will gracefully degrade on older Android versions.
And speaking of older OS support, one really interesting changes is that not just Marshmallow users will get the benefit of some of these new features. This is where Google’s split of the OS into a basic OS and a Google Play Services paradigm has its biggest benefit. Things like the homescreen’s enhanced search functionality or the new app drawer arrangement will be backported to older versions of Android—a nice present for people whose carriers are unlikely to upgrade the basic OS for a while.
Notably absent from the Ars review is any mention of the new multi-screen feature that was around for a while in developer previews but then got disabled. Apparently Google thinks it isn’t fully-baked yet, and it may have to wait for an update or even another version of Android before it comes out.
Still, even without it, a number of these new features will make e-reader apps a lot more useful. It will be interesting to see how it works when I actually get ahold of it myself.