Android in 2013: Capabilities

Reading the Green Tarot Cards to See Android's Future

Two weeks ago, I began the “Android in 2013” series, projecting where Android will be a few years' out. The two initial posts were focused on Android hardware, first smartphones, then everything other than smartphones.

Today, let's lay out the cards and take a look at what the operating system itself will look like in 2013.

That is more difficult to predict than the direction the hardware will go in. First, Android is heavily influenced by what iPhone does (and, to an extent, vice versa), and who knows what Apple may have up its sleeve for iPhone OS 5.0 or 6.0. Second, it is unclear if the pace of Android development will be as brisk as it has been for the past 18 months, where we went from 1.0 to 1.1 to 1.5 to 1.6 to 2.0 to 2.1. Finally, there is Chrome OS and the murkiness surrounding its role in Google as compared to Android.

All that being said, I think there are some fairly safe bets as to things Android will be able to do in 2013.

First, it will have complete HTML5 support, lacking only any facets that just do not make sense on a mobile device (not that I can think of any off the top of my head). HTML5 is crucial for Google's strategy for all their properties, so it is inconceivable that Android, in three years' time, will still be incrementally adding HTML5 functionality. I especially predict that HTML5 offline application support will be added and that Google will move as many of their apps as is possible over to that model, for closer to single-source deployment across multiple mobile platforms.

It should also offer better peripheral support than it does today, particularly with respect to Bluetooth. This will be driven less by Android on smartphones than it will be by Android on other devices, particularly TVs and set-top boxes. I would expect that Bluetooth keyboards and pointing devices will be the first out of the gate, again with an eye towards allowing user input for a set-top box. My hope is that there will be steady momentum to add support for other peripherals as well, perhaps even outside of Bluetooth (e.g., USB for a set-top box).

Somewhere along the line, Google will cook up a push framework for Android. Partially, this will make it easier for developers to notify running applications of events “in the cloud”. Partially, this will be to better manage background battery and CPU utilization, since every app today needs to “roll their own” polling system. I suspect this will also be tied into their HTML5 work, since many of Google's own HTML5 apps will need something for this sort of push, and every app holding open its own WebSocket will seem wasteful.

Not all will be rosy, though, as I fully expect more APIs to be eliminated to defend against malware. We saw this with Android 1.5, where APIs to control various system settings were moved to be “secure” and only modifiable by firmware-signed apps. It would not surprise me in the least if the API used by so-called “task killers” will be substantially revised in the next Android release. And as more and more developers find ways to impede users, Google will modify Android to block those things, occasionally at the cost of harming legitimate development.

Also, by 2013, the murkiness surrounding the roles of Chrome OS and Android should be gone. Whether that is because the projects have merged, or whether that is because the projects have clear delineations of purpose, is part of today's murkiness. For example, the rumors floating around about an upcoming Google tablet to compete with the iPad suggest it runs Android but has the actual Chrome Web browser, which seems odd.

On the flip side, I expect Android will not add many enterprise support features, such as remote wipe, unless device manufacturers twist Google's arm. The enterprise is not Google's main audience for much of anything, and finding a way to add those enterprise features without giving more ammunition for malware authors will not be easy.

Similarly, I expect Android will remain limited as a game platform. Right now, there are too many things, in the operating system and from third-party apps, that impact rich real-time games. Resolving those may not be possible without serious deprecation of existing multitasking functionality. While the situation will gradually improve, both with software revisions and faster hardware, game developers may not rush to embrace the platform the way they have with the more controlled iPhone environment.

In the next post, I will take a look at what we can expect in the world of Android applications in 2013.

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