In the beginning
Cast your mind back to late 2008, when the first Android-powered handset saw the light of day. Obama won his first Presidential election, Apple launched its App Store (the iPhone had appeared the year before), Google announced its own Chrome browser and we got our first look at the company’s new mobile OS on the T-Mobile G1.
The Android of 2016 is a world away from that 2008 version, where the Android Market was in its infancy, there were no native video playback capabilities embedded and the G1 had no multi-touch support. In short, it was a phone that sat very happily on the pile of ‘might make it big one day if the stars align’ moonshots that companies were throwing out at that time.
But Google did make a success of Android, seeing it grow to the most dominant operating system in the smartphone world – but it will need to keep innovating and improving its mobile OS to keep that lion’s share.
We’ve re-tooled this article to take a peek into the future with our new knowledge, helping us see what Android might look like in the year 2020.
With new Android monikers now appearing about once a year (Android N expected around October), its codename should start with an "R" – Rhubarb Pie, Rocky Road or Rice Pudding, perhaps? Or maybe even Rolos, giving Google another chocolate brand tie-up?
Here are the four key features we think could play the biggest part in Android’s ongoing evolution over the next seven years:
Maps in Android in 2020
Apple’s Maps app may not have set the world alight when it launched, but it’s now growing in use (to the point where the brand is claiming it’s the dominant mapping platform on iPhones) and that means Google needs to keep enriching its mapping app to stay ahead.
Recent Google Maps refreshes have brought with them a greater level of customisation based on your personal searches, and this will only increase in the future.
With Google Now tracking your every move, you might already be seeing directions to your favourite watering hole appear on-screen every Friday lunchtime or to the football field every Monday evening, all handled automatically.
Richard Jones, Principal Lecturer in Computing at Buckinghamshire New University thinks this knowledge of your habits could be key to the future of how we interact with our phones and may alter how much we depend on our phones.
He believes that what will drive innovation is what he calls "Ambient Intelligence". He told us that "In essence this will see people functioning naturally in digitally enabled/enhanced environments using presence-responsive devices that are tailored to their personalised requirements and anticipatory of their behaviour."
So, for example, in 2020, if the bar in question has an Android-friendly program installed, you might even find your tipple of choice waiting for you when you arrive, because Android will have been able to figure out where you’re going, what you’re doing, and what you want to drink.
The question of whether this will actually happen isn’t as clear – many people won’t like to have their movements predicted to such a degree, so it will likely be strictly opt-in and have to involve some kind of credit – after all, no bar is going to pour drinks on the off-chance you appear, no matter how likely that is.
As for all of the services hanging off Maps, Google is already hiring out the Street View cameras and enabling you to peek inside buildings – you can expect Android 2020 to offer better imagery of most public buildings, as well as tappable info as you move around.
Google augments its own data with user-generated content to provide an even more up-to-date view of the world, and once initiatives such as Jump (Google’s own – expensive – 360-degree VR rig) become more established you’ll be able to see most parts of the world in stunning detail and from the comfort of your own home with the rise of Cardboard… or whatever Google is up to next in VR.
More broadly, with the rise of the Internet of Things, we can expect mapping data to get even better. As more gadgets come online that can provide real-time updates on traffic, weather and more, directions are going to get even better and more accurate, saving us more time when travelling.
Perhaps one of the most interesting potential mapping innovations could come out Google’s Project Tango. This is a real-time 3D mapping technology that uses phones with two cameras on recreate your view in 3D – a bit like Microsoft’s Kinect.
This technology could be used not just to create cool-looking 3D maps (imagine a 3D Streetview you could zoom around like Grand Theft Auto), but could have practical applications too such as helping the blind and partially sighted navigate more easily – all using the power of your phone.
Multiple brands are launching Tango-enabled phones this year, so by 2020 this should have become an established part of the Android ecosystem.
It’s good to talk
Android messaging in 2020
Google has already made its intentions clear with the Hangouts. With Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, iMessage, Snapchat, Skype et al to battle against, there’s no doubt we’ll see Google push further into the universal messaging game, covering SMS, email, instant messaging and video calling with tools that are baked into Android and can be accessed from the web too.
Google has also got a stake in the popular business messaging platform Slack (through its venture capital Google Ventures arm) so has a lot of areas where it can leverage and integrate new features into a unified chat centre.
Don’t be surprised if we see a continued drive towards these different communication platforms converging in future versions of Android, where the lines between your contact book, phone app and Hangouts will become increasingly blurred to give you access to the right people you want to talk to on any platform.
The messages will live in the cloud, meaning they can be pushed from an Android phone to Android Wear watch to an Android TV and to a car running Android Auto – it’s the same play Apple is making and Google will surely make sure it’s got all the elements needed to help you stay connected with your pals even without a phone.
And that connection is something the brand is working hard on too – Google’s Project Fi may be limited to Nexus owners in the US for now, but it seems to indicate where Google is heading: the service jumps between Wi-Fi hotspots and cell networks as required, and (like the now defunct Google Voice attempted) uses the cloud as the starting point for calls, texts and other types of communication.
That means a unified messaging system – phone calls, texts, IMs – that is associated with your Google account not your SIM card, and which can be accessed from your browser / TV / car / watch in the same way it’s accessed from your smartphone.
That points to a Google plan to sap more power from the networks and claim more control over your messages itself.
Android payments and security in 2020
Last year mobile payments have really started to come into focus (thanks Apple Pay) but there’s a lot more to come in terms of phones replacing cash and verifying our identities (everything from getting through the door at work to logging into Facebook).
The Android phone of 2020 could automatically log you into Gmail when you sit down at your laptop, for example, or pay for your train ride when you step onto a carriage.
Android devices can already unlock Chrome OS instead of a password, so to an extent this technology is already here – but by 2020 it should be almost seamless.
With increasing numbers of devices coming with built in NFC too, we can expect Android Pay to be much more widely accepted, as more merchants get on board – and as more companies build it into their apps. In fact, by 2020 all payment terminals should be contactless payment-enabled, thus making Android Pay a constant part of our lives.
It’ll be in our watches as well as our phones – providing Android Wear becomes a more regular device on people’s wrists – so don’t be surprised if Android Pay is one of the dominant ways to get your goods in a few years’ time.
People will want that system to be as secure as possible, and the likelihood is that Android in 2020 is going to be a much more secure place with a multitude of ways to stay safe. Basic face recognition is already available, but in the years to come it has the potential to get much more accurate (and needs to if this is the best it can do).
Fingerprint recognition was finally officially baked into Android Marshmallow, and technology such as iris scanning is now coming into play too, meaning by 2020 it should be almost impossible to replicate someone’s login credentials if you’re able to nab their phone (and they’ve not been a fool and left it security free).
But don’t go thinking that it will just be faster fingerprint recognition and iris scanning – the Android OS of 2020 is going to make sure it’s definitely you. Behavioural biometrics track things that are specific to you only, be it walking gait or handwriting recognition – and Android R could be able to tell it’s you just by the way you mash your fingers into the onscreen keyboard. Apparently, that’s something that’s almost impossible to fake.
It works out how a person interacts with a website, the pressure they put on a screen or how they even hold their phone – and can be used in smartwatches too to make sure a person’s identity belongs to who they say they are.
Whatever technology emerges at the front of the pack, the good news is you won’t have to worry about your passwords being hacked in 2020 as biometrics should be able to lock down your devices – but make unlocking them seamless too.
Phones of the future
Android hardware in 2020
Hardware innovations are going to play a big part in Android’s roadmap. Besides the obvious smaller, thinner, faster improvements for our phones, bendable screens should be in place in the near future.
Last year we saw the Galaxy S6 Edge become arguably the first mainstream Android phone with a curved display (following 2014’s niche Galaxy Note Edge). As this technology becomes more commoditised, we can we expect more devices to have curved displays.
By 2020 though, could we perhaps even see the first genuinely flexible displays make their way into our smartphones? It’s predicted, by research firm IHS, that in that year over half of all flexible displays will be foldable in 2020 – if that’s the case, then Android will surely have a function within it to take advantage of that functionality – rollable and curved displays will be popular by this point too, and we’ll apparently even be seeing the early looks at stretchable screens.
One other new technology that might make its way into phones is what has been dubbed "lifi". This is wireless signals sent using visible light: by having an bulb flicker slightly dim and brighten many thousand times a second, data can be transmitted 100 times faster than wifi according to the scientists that pioneered it (and don’t worry, the lights appear normal to us – our brains can’t comprehend the flickering).
Apple is rumoured to be already interested, so don’t be surprised if it fast becomes standard on Android if the technology becomes standard in many homes.
It is also likely that we’ll see Android move into even more diverse form factors as the platform is used as an embedded operating system on some "Internet of Things" devices, which are set to become more common.
The dearly departed Google Glass was also driven by Android under the hood – and since its demise there have been persistent rumours that Google is working on a new version, this time aimed at industry and enterprise.
We can also expect to see Android TV and Android Auto finally take their place by 2020.
Android TV should eventually fit nicely into the TV landscape, solving the problem of having a large number of different Smart TV operating systems – which means that if developers (like, say, Netflix) want to build an app for a Smart TV, they have to build separate apps for Samsung, LG, Panasonic and so on.
If Google can achieve the same success with Android TV as it has with Android on phones, then we’ll see an explosion in the number of smart TV apps. And about time too. At the time of writing, Sony, Sharp and Philips are already on board, and as long as it doesn’t suffer from the same fragmentation of specs as on Android phones (and need to customise the apps for different form factors) then it will be a popular choice.
Cars have a similar problem, but by 2020 we can expect to see more new cars building in support for Android Auto into dashboards.
Like rival Apple CarPlay, this works on the principle of "dumb screen, smart device plugged in", because people upgrade their phones more often than they do cars. Though the technology has been around for a couple of years, it has been slow to take off due to the long lead-times on building cars.
But hopefully by 2020 we’ll see more cars including support for the technology that we’ll be able to keep using for some years to come – Ford, Honda, Volvo and Volkswagen are all signed up to support the Android platform in the car, which will mean more apps and more effort put into the platform.
It’s predicted we’ll have 40 million cars on the road using Android Auto by 2020, according to Business Insider, and it’ll be outstripping Apple’s CarPlay in the same way as the smartphone platform is now – albeit by a smaller margin.
We can also expect to see more aftermarket Android Auto devices too. Added together, by 2020 we finally should reach a critical mass of smarter vehicles on the road, so that Android Auto can get into the virtuous cycle that more users will encourage developers to build more Auto apps, and more apps will mean more users.
Finally, we might even see Android move into… umm, computers, although we’re at an inflexion point as to whether this will actually happen.
As Google demonstrated with it’s Pixel C, it has taken aim at hybrid laptop/tablet devices – so we could ultimately see Android devices come out in a laptop form-factor, and on the software side see more support for keyboard shortcuts, multitasking (split screen is a much-requested feature), and a much closer relationship with Google’s Chrome operating system.
The issue is that, right now, Android doesn’t really support the laptop form factor in the same way as the Chrome OS does, so unless Google gets to work at making Android a viable alternative to the iPad Pro and Surface Pro 4, 2020 certainly won’t see any laptop hybrids using its smartphone platform.
And then we get into the more fantastic stuff – imagine a time where you won’t need to take photos any more, since Google will simply pick out the best pictures from an unedited stream of the day’s events.
Nor will you need to decide what to eat for dinner – Android 2020 will know what you’ve been doing today (and what you’re probably doing tonight) thanks to your Android Wear smartwatch, and will pick out the most suitable foods for you for based on your efforts and exertion… but then we’re getting into a really creepy area of surveillance and suggestion.
Android: the 2020 edition
The only certainty about Android’s future is that it has a fight on its hands to stay competitive. Apple’s iOS 9 has given Google plenty to think about – partly by borrowing features from Android, like the new "proactive" elements of Siri, but it’ll always be a threat to Android’s dominance.
The other big challenge to Android’s dominance might be… well, Android itself. Though the "official" Google version is run on around two thirds of Android devices, manufacturers are increasingly turning to forks of the open source OS.
For example, Chinese juggernaut Xiaomi has opted to use its own "MIUI" spin-off, which adds its own features and doesn’t use Google’s services, and it’s becoming a large threat to the established brands.
OnePlus, which has received plaudits for making handsets that are both cheap and powerful uses its own Oxygen OS, and CyanogenOS is showing up on phones from other manufacturers.
At the start of this year, there were even rumours that Amazon is attempting to cosy up to mobile manufacturers in a bid to get back into mobile after its disastrous FirePhone in 2014.
The suggestion is that rather than make its own phones, it wants existing manufacturers (like, say, Samsung or HTC) to use its software and services, such as the Amazon App Store rather than Google Play – meaning that Google won’t get a penny.
There is also the risk of fragmentation on Google’s own version of Android. At the moment, updates to the OS are pumped out via carriers and manufacturers rather than Google at source.
This means that not only does it create security problems (what if there needs to be an emergency patch if someone discovers a massive bug?), but also that as a result, many different versions of Android are in use simultaneously – Lollipop, unveiled in 2014, is still only on a third of all smartphones.
If users aren’t upgrading consistently (as on iOS), it means that developers have to worry about supporting more versions, and that newer features may not be used so that older users can keep up.
However, with more platforms, loads more apps to be made for those systems and different form factors serving all kinds of needs, Android in 2020 is going to be more intuitive – and more involved in our lives – than we could have even imagined 8 years ago.