Android P’s Biggest Updates Are Also Its Most Subtle

The next version of Android actually learns from how you use your phone.

Dave Burke, Android vice president of engineering, speaks onstage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, on Tuesday.
Dave Burke, Android vice president of engineering, speaks onstage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, on Tuesday.
Stephen Lam/Reuters

Today’s smartphones are great. They take great photos. They’re great at augmented reality. They’re incredibly fast. But as smartphone- and operating system–makers have fought to make their phones bigger and better, they’ve overlooked some of the small annoyances that plague the everyday experience—things like needing to manually adjust your phone’s brightness or unused apps sipping on your precious battery life in the background. Apple has finally (reportedly) taken a step back to address iOS’ niggling issues, and this year it appears that Google has largely done the same. At its annual Google I/O developer conference on Tuesday, the company offered a first look at what to expect of the next version of its mobile OS, Android P. Android P includes a number of things that should improve your mobile experience, including a suite of tools for helping you better manage the time you spend on your phone. Its most interesting, and perhaps most important, updates are more subtle and designed to make your smartphone usage more efficient and more personalized.

Two new features are at the core of this: adaptive battery and adaptive brightness. The former is based on Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence technology. DeepMind, which Google acquired in 2014, has been used to control complex HVAC systems at its data centers and make them more efficient. It has more famously been used to beat humanity’s best board game champions at Go. Now, DeepMind is being used to look at your app usage habits to improve your device’s battery life. “Adaptive battery uses on-device machine learning to figure out which apps you’ll use in the next few hours and which you won’t use until later, if at all today,” Google’s Dave Burke explained during the keynote. With that knowledge, it’s then able to prioritize battery life for the apps you use the most and prevent ones you never use from slowly sucking up battery life. While this may not sound all that impressive, it is. Apps that monitor your location, such as Uber, often sip away at your battery life unnecessarily. Other apps can also be battery hogs: In early 2017, for example, Facebook and Facebook Messenger came under fire for draining users’ batteries. If you have those apps installed, but rarely open them, this tool would ensure they’re not wasting precious battery life you may need later on.

Adaptive brightness is an issue I’ve written about before, and Android P should finally solve it. It’s a more advanced, machine learning–driven approach to auto brightness. Rather than just sensing the ambient lighting in your environment and adjusting screen brightness accordingly, it also learns from your daily habits. Do you always turn your phone’s brightness down first thing in the morning? When you get in the car, do you switch it up? Over time, adaptive brightness should mix its sensing smarts with your personal preferences to ensure your phone is at the brightness level you need—and perhaps help you save some battery life there as well.

Android P also includes a logical predictive feature called app actions. Available throughout the OS, App Actions aims to predict not just what app you want to use next, but what task you actually want to perform. An example Google gives of this is a user who plugs in her headphones—with app actions, the phone will “surface an action” to then open Spotify and resume playing your favorite playlist. With a single tap on that action, you’re able to do exactly what you wanted to do, saving a few seconds of screen tapping in the process. App Actions doesn’t just work with apps, though. It also works with the Play Store, Google Assistant, Search, and Smart Text Selection.

Until now, phones have primarily limited A.I. and machine learning to specific apps—Google Photos notably uses A.I. to organize and edit your images—and to their digital assistants. Now, Google is implementing this technology across the OS so your phone can more quickly and more intelligently serve you. We are creatures of habit: The average smartphone owner only uses nine apps each day, and many of us have relatively stable schedules. With that information, and that level of repetition over weeks or months, your Android P–running phone can begin to massage some of the tiny nuisances that typically detract from your phone experience. It’s unclear if these features will fully live up to the promise of saving us time and frustration, but the fact that Google is working on these capabilities is a step in the right direction.