As you read this, Google is being probed for its business practices somewhere around the world. In the past few years, Margrethe Vestager, a Danish politician and European Commissioner for Competition, has fined Google and in the process, found how the company is too big and tends to be a data broker. The hyper connected world that we live in is almost impossible to imagine without Google. It provides mail (read: Gmail), mapping solution (read: Google Maps), photo sharing platform (read: Google Photos), and others. It is the developer of world’s biggest mobile platform (read: Android), and holds the key to the biggest video platform (read: YouTube). If Microsoft was synonymous with the desk, then Google is synonymous with your pocket. Whether you use an Android or an iPhone, there is Google involved in it somehow. Even if you don’t use any Google product then some other product could be powered by Google’s Cloud service.
Despite all the record fines being imposed on it, Google has often challenged those verdicts. The company which has a corporate motto of “Don’t be Evil” sometimes makes you wonder whether it is evil or not. Setting Google’s business practices aside for a moment, it needs to be noted that you cannot do a lot of things without giving consent to Google. An easier example is Google Maps, which gives directions from point A to point B by recording your GPS location and it does so, after explicitly taking consent. The unanswered question is whether it stops recording your location after you reached your destination and turned off location services. I’m not trying to justify Google here and in fact, I would want them to be more stringent with the way they handle user data, whether it’s on Gmail, Google Maps or Android and this week, we saw some signs of it.
On Thursday, Google announced the first developer beta of Android Q for its Pixel smartphones. The beta comes even as the company struggles to update the Android distribution numbers for nearly five months now. The beta arrives at a time when most popular smartphones are running at least two generation old version or Android and have little or no opportunity to get the taste of newest flavor of Android. Nevertheless, it shows what Google aims to do with software for the year ahead and most importantly, shows that privacy is an issue it aims to tackle directly. Android Q addresses privacy issues becomes clear by seeing that new iPhone and, where Apple argues that privacy matters.
When you install Android Q for the first time on any of the three generations of Pixel smartphones, you will not notice much difference. In fact, the UX is so similar that Google didn’t even bother to put an Easter egg. There are signs of Q only at the start screen and in About Phone section. But when you look at Settings menu, there are two profound changes – location and privacy now have dedicated sections. When you tap on them, they are filled with options that are there in current builds of Android Pie. But a leaked build of Android Q hints at a “Privacy Dashboard” that will let you tackle permission distribution in the form of charts and graphs. Since this is just the first beta and there are reportedly plans for five to six betas before the final release, we could see this feature in future builds.
Also, when you open camera app for the first time after installing Android Q beta, you will see a revamped permission setting. Android 9 Pie presented a singular option for location access with options for allow and deny. With Android Q, it changes for good with three different options: Allow, allow only while the app is in use and Deny. The granular option shows how Google will let other apps apart from its own to get user location on Android going forward. In theory, Facebook or Foursquare won’t be able to collect your location when you are not using them. It needs to be seen whether that translates into real world use case considering how some apps have been found to use different methods to break the rules.
Google has already spoken a great deal about data privacy with Android Q release. One of the leaked AOSP builds showed Google planning to add a real-time notification that would show which apps are using sensitive information such as location. It is not here yet but when it becomes available with future build, Google will only further bridge the gap in privacy practice with iOS, Apple‘s mobile operating system. Google is also expected to impose tighter background restrictions, meaning apps will not be able to launch activities in the background. A lot of these measures will not only improve the health of user privacy on Android, but it will also improve battery life.
Watch: Android Q How to Install
A lot of changes that we are seeing in the very first build of Android Q and the big changes that could arrive in the future build might have to do with the sentiment around the company. Big tech companies, be it Google or Facebook or Amazon, are in the crosshairs of politicians around the world, for their inability to curb misinformation and apparent powers in their respective industry. Some officials even wonder if these companies are monopolies in their individual business domains and lack of competition indicates they are. With Europe passing GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), individuals now have more control over how their data is collected and processed by these tech companies.
Data is at the center of everything these tech companies do and access to more data will only make them more powerful as they build Artificial Intelligence into all their services and AI is basically a machine that needs to learn and process data to get better. Privacy is the fundamental right of every person in this world and tech companies should find a way to explicitly get approval before collecting them. The very first build of Android Q shows Google is listening and that is a good start. Actions speak louder than words and, in this case, Google seems to be adopting actions while Menlo Park-headquartered Facebook seems like all words.
Apart from privacy, Google has taken tiny steps to match some seamless features available on iOS. For instance, there is now an option to enable native screen recording from within feature flags in developer options. The Now Playing audio now appears on the always on display while notification shade shows how long the device will last instead of just the battery percentage. One annoying change is when you take screenshot on Android Q, Google takes form of native display, meaning it retains the notch and the screenshots on Pixel 3 XL are downright ugly. I think Google will revert to older screenshot and is probably playing with users. Every change within Android Q seems small but they are significant. They will make the user experience rich, but I fear that all this goodness will be restricted to Google’s own Pixel smartphones.