I'll bet the "thing" on your phone you look at the most is the notification shade. No matter if you have one of the best budget Android phones or something more pricey, you want to know what's going on, when it's happening, and most importantly, who is chatting with you or at you. After all, it's the real reason the smartphone was invented — email, messaging, and apps can come to the same little gadget that makes phone calls.
Notifications have also always been Android's strong suit. With a little bit of what companies like BlackBerry used to deliver combined with the best of what Apple offers and a touch of Google's extra smart software magic thrown in for good measure, Android's notification system is pretty great. And it's about to get better with Android 12 and the Conversation Shortcut.
We've seen the mockups and even where people have hacked away at the Android 12 developer preview a bit to expose the new Conversations widget and the oddly spaced notification shade, but Conversations in Android 12 are bigger and more powerful than they are currently. Having a new widget to decorate your home screen is just the beginning.
Conversations are designed to live across the entire Android OS; a developer can build them into shortcuts, add them directly into the sharing menu, and use the powerful tools already in Android to create rich notifications for new messages or updates. When someone in your favorite Telegram group sends a funny picture, you'll know right away.
We've already seen the conversation shortcut with Android's chat bubbles. What first appeared to be little more than a rip-off of Facebook Messenger's UI for ongoing chat sessions has come full circle and is now just one part of the picture. That's because the same conversation shortcut a developer uses to build chat bubbles into an app has expanded.
For the full dirty details (and if you're an Android developer, this is definitely one to watch), you can see how everything works in Android 11 when it comes to conversations in this video. With Android 12, we see Google hasn't abandoned any ideas and instead expanded things to make conversations even better. No, not just the widget, but with the new people class.
The people class is used to create a record of one of your contacts and use it as part of Android's notifications. Inside that record is a way for an app (with your permissions) to keep track of personal details like how many days until someone's birthday, calendar events, if someone is online and which platform they are using, and other seemingly minor things. Think of it as a miniature contacts database used to hold tiny details that may frequently change. It takes a lot of work off a developer's shoulders when it comes to this sort of functionality, and that in and of itself is a really nice addition.
But once combined with Android's Conversation Shortcuts — a thing designed to be long-lived across the whole operating system and used for real-time conversations with your people — and you get what could become the ultimate universal inbox. That's the first thing I think of whenever I see the Android 12 Conversations widget; something that looks like a turbo-charged version of what BlackBerry tried to accomplish so many years ago.
The difference is what can make notifications and conversations in Android 12 so much better. Google isn't flexing its muscles and forcing any developer to use any of this. Instead, it's working on making it so good that developers will want to use it. We've seen that with things like smart replies, a feature so good we probably want to see it everywhere.
A developer can use what Google has already built, and as long as Google doesn't break anything, notifications for that app just work as intended in all the ways. Have a group of colleagues in Slack and want to share a photo or link? You can do that through the share menu as long as Slack has used the tools. Maybe you want your favorite messenger app to remind you that a person you chat with a lot has a birthday coming up. You even see rich media previews for specific notifications marked as conversations without opening an app. And of course, you get a cool catch-all conversations widget to keep track of everything right from your home screen.
Like most of what Google adds to Android, this doesn't seem like a very big deal right now. And really, it's not — these are just some code changes and new developer tools that help make the things I described happen. It's up to developers to work some magic with them. But these tools are so powerful and so darn good, I'm betting those developers will start working on adopting them so apps can be ready once Android 12 makes its way to all of the best Android phones.
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