Google's Android 11: Here's what's new for 5G, AI and security, plus tougher data rules

Google outlines what improvements Android 11 is bringing to 5G, AI, new screens, privacy, and security.

Google has released the developer preview of Android 11 a little earlier than usual this year, but it's outlined some major feature updates for devices running the world's most widely used operating system. 

For now, the Android 11 developer preview is only available for Pixel devices, including the Pixel 2 and 2 XL, Pixel 3 and 3 XL, Pixel 3a and 3a XL, or Pixel 4 and 4 XL. The developer preview will evolve into a more stable beta preview around May 2020, before the final release in Q3

At a high level, Google says Android 11 will improve performance, battery life, security, and privacy. 

The new release will include improvements for foldables like the Motorola Razr, Galaxy Fold, and Galaxy Z Flip, as well as existing and upcoming 5G phones from Xiaomi, Samsung, OnePlus and others. 

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

For developers, there are also new call-screening APIs, media and camera capabilities, and machine-learning enhancements.

On the 5G front, Google sees developers using 5G to enable their 4K video streaming and using higher-resolution video and images in gaming apps, as well as using 5G to extend Wi-Fi experiences in apps. 

Google is updating its connectivity application programming interfaces (APIs) with changes to the 'Dynamic meteredness' and the 'Bandwidth estimator' APIs. 

The dynamic meteredness API allows developers to check whether the device is on an unmetered connection to determine how much data to use. Android 11 brings the API to cellular networks, allowing developers to spot users on carriers that offer "truly unmetered data" while on a 5G network. 

The bandwidth estimator has been updated for 5G to make it easier to check bandwidth for uploading and downloading content. 

App developers will also have better support for features on fullscreen smartphones, such as pinholes for the front-facing camera, and screens that spill over the edge of the device. 

Users can expect to see a dedicated conversation area in the notifications shade so they can quickly find conversations in WhatsApp and other chat apps.

Android 11 will also reintroduce bubble notifications that were originally aimed for Android 10. The bubbles are displayed on top of other apps being used. Google warns developers to use them sparingly and only for important notifications.   

Users will also be able insert images into notification replies. At the moment Chrome and Gboard support the feature, but presumably it will support more chat apps.

Android 11's privacy updates include a new one-time permission that allows users to grant temporary access to sensitive data from the mic, camera or location, which is limited to when the app is active. After that, the app is required to request permission again for further access.  

This change extends user control improvements in Android 10 that allowed users to restrict an app's access to location to when it is in use.

Responding to user calls for even more privacy controls, Google has announced plans to tighten up the Google Play policy for developers to gain approval for access to location data in the background. That could spell headaches for developers. 

Google says app submissions will be evaluated for whether a feature adds clear value to the use, whether the users would expect background location access, and whether the same functionality can be delivered without access to background location data. 

Google plans to ramp up the policy change and enforcement from April 2020, when it will release the new policy. By November 2, "all existing apps that request background location will need to be approved or will be removed from Google Play", Google said. 

SEE: Google removes 600 Android apps in Play Store adware crackdown

Android 11 progresses Google's work on hardening the OS against malware as well as expanding biometrics support for more devices. 

Finally, Google is furthering its work on the multi-year Project Treble, which is aimed at reducing OS fragmentation in the Android ecosystem. This comes by way of Project Mainline, which allows core updates through Google Play. 

Android 11 includes 12 new modules that can be updated via Google Play System Updates, bringing the total to 22.

There's a permissions module that standardizes user and developer access to key privacy controls on Android devices, a media provider module that improves scoped storage privacy, and a Neural Networks API module that optimizes performance for AI tasks on mobile devices.