Android isn't just for phones. We already know this because we see Android on Chromebooks, televisions, watches, and even microwave ovens. And we're about to see it in places we may never have thought to look, like your cable modem or a parking meter. And to make it happen, Google has what it calls Android Things.
Android Things is the same Android that runs on your phone. That's how all the devices that run Android work: it's the same Android on a TV or a watch or a Chromebook, too. When it's built, a developer can make Android's user interface work on almost anything or not have one at all. That's because Android isn't an operating system the way Windows or iOS is, it's part of an operating system that plugs in easily with whatever is needed to make hardware work. Android is an application framework above all, and that means it can focus on doing things a certain way; the same way no matter what hardware platform it's being used on.
And that makes it perfect for something like Android Things.
What is Android Things?
It's Android but designed to work on what we typically call Internet of Things devices — those connected gadgets that can run without you controlling them and connect to anything else that has an internet connection. You might have some in your home already because things like the Nest Thermostat or an August Smart Lock are IoT devices. With Android Things, Google wants to provide a universal operating system layer so every one of these devices can work the same way and communicate using the same methods.
This certainly benefits Google; if every thing runs Android they have a huge base for data collection and ad placement. But it also has some benefits for the rest of us, too. For developers, having a ready-built platform that runs on standard hardware and can be programmed the same way cuts about 90% of the production time for software development. That means lower production costs and easier schedules. For consumers, it means that all the things we buy can talk to each other and work with each other, with the added benefit of built-in privacy and security features. And security in standard IoT devices that never receive any software updates even when a nasty bug arises is a big deal.
In a way, Android Things is the Esperanto of connected devices. At least, it wants to be.
Why should I care
Well, you really don't have to care about the underlying tech to enjoy the benefits. But you should care that someone, somewhere, is trying to clean up the mess that the current Internet of Things is because it's bad. Really bad.
That's because everything was developed independently of each other by different people working at different companies. Every company has to look out for itself, but because this is all still in its infancy, the focus has been on just getting it to work. Making a Toyota car that's able to "talk" to your phone and a service center is hard. Making it talk to everything and doing it efficiently and safely is even harder. Now imagine making a third-party accessory like an alarm system or a remote starter that can talk to your Toyota and your phone and you'll understand why it might not be able to talk to the service center. Android Things can run on the Toyota, the remote starter, the alarm system, your phone and the hardware in the service center.
A bigger issue is security. We touched on it earlier, but right now the Internet of things is really the Internet of Abandoned Things. Once a gadget works, for most companies its development is done. When serious things that would let a hacker snatch your personal data or even your identity by exploiting the way those gadgets talk to the internet, there is nothing done to stop it from happening. Your choices are to just stop using it or to run the risk of someone tapping into your personal life.
Google can help this in a big way. like Pixel phones or Chromebooks, Android things devices won't have custom operating systems the way most Android phones do and will be updated directly from Google. That means two things — monthly security updates if needed and three years of software support. You will probably never be able to visit the Google Play Store and install apps on your front door lock, but it will update itself to make sure nobody can break in with a trick or NFC label somehow.
When can I buy something that uses it?
Android Things is relatively new. Google hasn't kept it a secret and we've heard about it for a while, but it only became official in May of 2018 when version 1 launched.
Expect to see devices running Android Things around the beginning of 2019 (maybe even in time for the 2018-2019 holiday season) but the fancy things that really tap into what it can do are probably a ways off. We'll see newer versions of the platform that can do more things and as developers need more things they will be able to work with Google and make that happen. Android on your phone worked this way, with HTC helping to get it going and then companies like Samsung and LG working with Google to make it great. Google also has their own hardware division and, hopefully, we'll see products like Nest thermostats and cameras running Android Things soon.
I'm a hobbyist. How do I get started developing?
Google has you covered with the launch of Android Things 1.0. (Sorry, no sweet candy names here!)
Along with the first official release of the code, it announced development partnerships with NXP, Qualcomm, and MediaTek. You will soon be able to order a development kit that has a SoM (System on Module) built into a board with inputs and outputs that Android Things will install on without any trouble.
On the software side, you can use the same Android Studio that app developers for phones use and the Android Support Library will help you work with hardware that's not typically used with Android today. Check out the Android Things page at the Android Developer site to get started.
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