The next stage of Android's evolution is starting to come into focus. Google's Andromeda, like the galaxy, is vast, complex and — for the moment — unknowable.
Slowly and quietly, Android has been growing into a desktop OS. (That's in addition to being a phone OS, a tablet OS, a TV OS and a watch OS.) This year's 7.0 Nougat release debuted with a feature we've still yet to see on any production device: freeform window mode. Freeform, one of three multi-window modes, basically lets your Android tablet handle apps the same way your Mac or PC does — in a moveable, resizeable window.
It looks mostly the same as Android apps running on a Chromebook. (And with good reason: There's every chance Chrome OS's Google Play support was central to the decision to include freeform in Nougat in the first place, allowing devs to make apps that play nicely in a window.)
Rumors of Android's merging with Chrome OS have been swirling for years — until recently without much substance behind them.
This seemingly niche feature was an early hint at something that's been rumored since the first days of Android on tablets: the fabled merging of both operating systems into one — or at least the advancement of one over the other.
One of the first authoritative reports claiming that this may actually be happening emerged last October from the Wall Street Journal. Google would fold Chrome OS into Android, and the new OS would go on to conquer larger devices like tablets, convertibles, laptops and perhaps even full desktops computers. An early version would be shown in 2016 and ship the following year. At the time, Google didn't explicitly deny the report, but strongly restated its commitment to Chromebooks.
In the meantime, we've seen Android apps (through Google Play) arrive on Chromebooks — the result of a ton of engineering work, bringing the two closer together than ever before.
And now, in recent days, there've been tantalizing hints that something is indeed afoot. Android Police first reported the codename "Andromeda" on Saturday as a name for the new, allegedly "merged" OS. A tweet from Android, Chrome and Google Play SVP Hiroshi Lockheimer prompted the report, with the suggestion that events at the Pixel shindig on October 4 would be as significant as the original announcement of Android eight years ago. Since then a new report has clarified that it's completely separate from the current effort to bring Google Play to Chromebooks.
We announced the 1st version of Android 8 years ago today. I have a feeling 8 years from now we'll be talking about Oct 4, 2016.— Hiroshi Lockheimer (@lockheimer) September 24, 2016
The "Andromeda" codename has since been tracked back to code and comments in AOSP (the Android Open Source Project). In one instance, Nougat code on the Nexus 9 defines minimum performance requirements for Andromeda. In another, code was written to detect either Android or Andromeda based on whether the freeform window mode feature was available. In another, a Googler talks about "flushing" (likely meaning flashing) the Nexus 9 with an Andromeda image to test performance thresholds.
We've also dug up references to Andromeda in the Chromium bug tracker dating back to February, in the form of a "go" URL — a link on Google's internal network.
All of this points to Andromeda indeed being a real thing, and from the wording of the remarks in AOSP, in some ways separate from the Android we know right now. One AOSP commit talks about "performance thresholds for Andromeda and Android devices." Another code comment says: "We distinguish results for Andromeda and Android devices. Andromeda devices require a higher performance score."
Note: As an aside, the comments say the Nexus 9 just about meets the performance requirements for Andromeda. But don't get too excited about a big update for the tablet just because Google's developing Andromeda on it: There are no guaranteed Nexus 9 platform updates beyond October 2016.
At a technical level, it sure looks like Andromeda is Android.
At a technical level, it looks like Andromeda is Android. Just like Android Wear is Android and Android TV is Android. We know Andromeda on the Nexus 9 uses freeform window mode — no surprise — and likely adds a bunch of other stuff we haven't seen yet to make it a much better tablet/convertible OS than Android 7.0 is right now. As such, it has higher performance requirements than plain old Android.
And that's the central puzzle of all this: What's the real distinction between Android and Andromeda? If Chrome OS features are being "merged" into Android to form Andromeda, which features are they, besides freeform mode which is technically available to anyone building a tablet on Nougat? (Not that anyone's really doing that.) Nobody outside Google's circle of trust knows for sure, but there are some strong possibilities.
Andromeda would likely add a traditional, functional desktop as we've seen in Chrome OS, along with wild ideas like a file manager and right-click support, and changes to the way apps are managed in memory. Major changes to the Android platform would also be needed to allow full desktop-class applications — think Adobe Premiere, Lightroom or even Android Studio itself — to flourish.
The potential launch hardware for Andromeda is just as interesting. Android Police and 9to5Google suggest a laptop informally known as "Pixel 3" (codenamed Bison) will land Q3 2017 with internals targeting MacBook Pro buyers. Specs are said to still be in flux, but AP reports that we're looking at 32GB and 128GB storage configurations, an Intel M3 or Core M5 chip, 8 or 16GB of RAM, two USB-C ports and a headphone jack. Stylus support is also reported, along with a glass touchpad and haptic feedback. Other notables: 10-hour battery life and a $799 start price.
9to5 also reports a much earlier launch of Andromeda on, bizarrely, a Nexus-branded Huawei tablet. That suggests Andromeda could live alongside Android, at least in the short term.
To conquer the desktop, Google has to fix Android's built-in update problem once and for all. And that could be huge for phones.
There's one potentially exciting longterm change, though: To conquer the desktop (and, let's be honest, realistically take on the iPad) Andromeda would need to decisively fix Android's built-in update problem once and for all. Nobody's going to buy a laptop that sits on an old OS version for up to a year at a time. Or one that's only guaranteed updates for two years after launch. If Android (through Andromeda) is to play with the big boys in the desktop world, there is simply no way the current Android update model can continue.
Assuming Andromeda isn't just for Google hardware, the most likely solution is to recreate the way Chromebooks are updated — working closely with the manufacturer, but basically with updates going out directly from Google. Perhaps not entirely synchronized across every device, but way more quickly and reliably than the current mess of Android version distributions. (Google has taken early steps towards this with seamless updates in Nougat.)
And that could have game-changing implications for Android on phones. (Because if this is going to be a true merger, a true single-OS-for-everything, Andromeda — whether it's called Android or not — should to be on phones too.) Andromeda on phones, if it's basically the same OS, would surely be updated in the same way — quickly, and directly by Google. (Delays due to carrier approval, unfortunately, would likely continue.)
To make this happen, and not lose every single Android phone maker in the process, Google also needs to come up with a way for companies like Samsung, LG and Huawei to customize phones without messing with the update process. That's a huge technical and business challenge, but if anyone can do it, Google can. It's certainly had plenty of time — if the original WSJ article is to be believed, by the time Andromeda is ready, it will have been four years in the making.
Having a desktop-capable OS living in a phone also presents the possibility of a Microsoft Continuum-like feature in future Android/Andromeda phones — an exciting prospect for a number of obvious reasons. (Microsoft had that feature working pretty well on hardware far less powerful than phones will be when Andromeda is ready.)
Or maybe not. Maybe phones are outside the scope of Andromeda. Or maybe Andromeda is only for Google hardware. Either would be a huge missed opportunity, however.
Whatever form Andromeda takes, Chromebooks aren't going away anytime soon.
Andromeda could represent the future of Android as an OS for everything. For Google-powered laptops, it represents a possible path from Chrome OS — a capable web browser that can also run phone apps — to a first-class desktop OS to rival macOS and Windows. For Google-powered phones, it's an opportunity to largely banish Android's update woes and make the devices that are many people's primary computers more powerful than ever.
The branding side of things is interesting too. Our money is on any "merged" OS continuing to carry the Android name, but it's not impossible that there might be some branding distinction between older Android devices and post-Andromeda ones. (Who knows, "Andromeda" itself might turn out to be more than a codename.)
Either way, Chrome OS can't disappear overnight. And neither can Android as we currently know it. There are millions of Chromebooks that still need supporting — and many engineers employed to do just that — and new Chrome-powered laptops coming later this year designed around running Android apps from Google Play. There would inevitably be a lengthy crossover period between Chrome OS and Andromeda. And even if our ideal vision of post-Andromeda Android on phones comes to pass, Nougat and older versions will continue to be used.
But who knows. If Hiroshi Lockheimer's tweet — that October 4 will be as historic as the day Google first announced Android — is more than hype and showmanship, maybe we'll see a whole lot more than two new Pixel phones.
In either case, it looks like 2017 is going to be a really interesting year.