Thoughts on Android M

Last year I ditched my iPhone right after Google I/O and went all in on Android. I have no such feeling this year. Part of me knows that the grass may seem greener, but that’s just an illusion (for me, at least) and another part is just not that impressed with what Android M is bringing to the table.

First off, while Apple usually gets criticized for “borrowing” Android features year after year, I thought this year’s version of Android is taking a lot from iOS. They’re taking good things, though, and I would be happy about these if I was an Android user.

The big thing they’ve updated is how app permissions work. On previous versions of Android, when you went to download an app from the Play Store you would get a pop-up that showed you all the permissions that app required. Sometimes that list would be a dozen or more items long. It was an all-or-nothing proposition, and you couldn’t install the app without agreeing to everything. The fear, of course was getting a game that asked for access to your messages, contact list, camera, and all sorts of other things it absolutely did not need. When Android M hits later this year, you will be able to install an app first and then allow access to permissions one at a time. Again, this has been how iOS has operated for years, but it’s a good thing for Google to adopt.

Fingerprint reading built into Android is also something we’ve had in iOS since 2013, but the Android version will be more open, which is either good or bad news depending on how you feel about privacy. Apple makes a big deal about how your fingerprint is stored on a secure element in the phone that is not shared to the web or any other service. Since Android is a more universal platform, there is no way for them to have this level of security. I’m sure the smart folks at Google have thought of this as well and have a decent system in place to ensure security. I hope, at least…

Doze looks like a very cool new feature if it lives up to its promise. Apple talks about timer coalescing as a way to save power, and it works great in my experience. I have put my fully-charged iPhone on my bedside table at night and woken up 6 hours later with 98% battery left. I also go a couple days in between using my iPad and it only drops a couple percentage points a day while the screen is off. My Android devices have never been this efficient when not in use. The video shows very little difference in their first night’s test, but hopefully this gets better in the final release.

The one really big new feature of Android M, and one that is completely unique to Android, is Now on Tap. This really feels like Google at its best. Now on Tap takes the information on screen and tries to figure out what you want to know about that information. For example, if someone texts you asking if you want to go to a movie tomorrow, Now on Tap will show you movie times at your favorite theater, supply a link to buy tickets, the movie’s rating, and IMDb score, among other information.

Now on Tap extends beyond simple text though, allowing you to ask it questions about currently playing music or video. It’s a potentially huge feature that would be a bold differentiator from other mobile operating systems. And considering the search chops needed to pull this off, it’s not something Apple could copy…like not even close.

There is more I didn’t touch on here, but ultimately, Android M looks like a refinement of what we already have on Android. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if rumors are to be believed, Apple is in a similar spot for their iOS 9. I’m all on board with 2015 being the year of mobile operating systems getting more reliable and more secure.