This year, for the first time in a long time, it’s easy to glance at Google’s latest Android effort and focus mostly on the surface.
Android 12’s most striking element is without a doubt the overhauled look and feel it brings to the operating system (even if realistically, Pixel owners are the only ones who’ll reap the full benefits of that change). We haven’t seen such a dramatic reimagining of the Android interface in many a moon — since 2014’s Android 5.0 (a.k.a. Lollipop) release — and this progression stretches past the core software itself, even, with effects set to reach the experience of using apps within Android and eventually also Google apps on the web. The same principles will apply to Chromebooks, Smart Displays, and Wear-based wearables before long as well, making this a true Google ecosystem evolution.
And yet, as is always the case with major Android updates, there’s more to this latest software than meets the eye. Some of Android 12’s most important advancements are under the hood and in the all-too-easy-to-overlook provinces of performance, security, and in particular privacy.
Privacy, of course, is a hot-button issue these days — with much of the attention aimed at Google in that area erring more on the side of sensationalism than anything involving practical, real-world concerns. But there’s no denying that in the right context, privacy most certainly matters. Having visibility and control over how your information is used is an increasingly important part of the modern mobile-tech experience.
Right now, much of the privacy-related coverage surrounding Android 12 revolves around the software’s high-profile Privacy Dashboard and how that feature compares to Apple’s recent privacy-centric changes. That’s all fine and dandy, but zeroing in on one marketing-friendly point risks missing the bigger picture and overlooking some of Android 12’s even more meaningful, if less easily promoted, privacy improvements.
And the software’s got quite a few of those, including more nuanced and narrowed-down systems for providing location access to apps and an automated hibernation system that disables apps entirely and prevents ’em from launching background processes if you haven’t interacted with ’em in a few months.
Perhaps most noteworthy, though, is the addition of a new Android-12-specific element called Private Compute Core. It’s one of those things that’s getting lost in the shuffle of Android 12’s more tangible features, understandably, but it’s well worth the space in your noggin to ponder. In short, Private Compute Core is a new system-level partition built into Android that’ll let certain types of computing happen in a completely isolated environment — without ever leaving your device or being at risk of any exposure to this creepy, crawly ol’ internet of ours.
It’s kind of like a sandbox, to use a term familiar to folks who know the inner workings of Google’s other major platform, Chrome OS (and also to any toddlers who happen to be reading this whilst leaping merrily around a playground). Just like Chrome OS keeps app-specific info separate from the main operating system area of a Chromebook (and just like the playground’s literal sandbox keeps, y’know, sand from spilling out onto the rest of the environment), Android will now isolate tasks like A.I. processing and provide an extra layer of assurance that said processing is happening solely on your own smartphone — in a way that couldn’t possibly be seen by anyone, including Google itself.
To start, Google’s using that system to handle processing for functions such as Android’s surprisingly versatile Live Caption system, its Smart Reply function (the thing that looks at the context of your text messages or emails and suggests one-tap responses for you), and its Now Playing feature (the Pixel-specific option that listens for songs playing around you and identifies them, now with the added knowledge that no one else could ever discover that you listen to Chumbawamba on an infinite loop while driving). Google says even more types of processing will be added into the mix later this year.
For Google, the notion of privacy always demands an interesting balancing act. So much of what Google wants to do with technology inherently requires a certain level of access to information, whether we’re talkin’ about genuinely helpful bits of artificial intelligence like what we see in that trio of aforementioned features — all of which unavoidably need to monitor activity on your device to some extent in order to operate — or even the access to broad bits of profile-style data Google needs to power its advertising business and continue offering us exceptional services at little to no cost. It all involves some manner of tradeoff between information and function, and adding in this extra form of technical assurance that the related information won’t and can’t be misused as a part of that seems like a smart way to keep those two competing forces aligned.
More than anything, though, the presence of Private Compute Core alongside all the other added privacy, security, and performance-related improvements in Android 12 reinforces an oft-ignored reality in these Google-scented virtual quarters: the fact that Android upgrades absolutely, positively matter, even if you’re using a device where the surface-level advancements don’t always apply.
These sorts of changes are bound to get lost in the more colorful discussion of Android 12’s new interface and all the bells and whistles around it, but you’d better believe they’re consequential — for business users and anyone dealing with sensitive info, sure, but also just for anyone who cares about having the most optimal, up-to-date setup for interacting with apps and making sure whatever you’re doing on your device is as protected as possible.
This is one heck of an update, all in all — and while the elements on the surface may be earning the most attention, the improvements under the hood are every bit as important.
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