Google has released a test version of its annual upgrade to its Android software without the usual fanfare heralding the latest operating system powering most smartphones.

The debut of Android 11’s “beta” version was announced Wednesday in a blog post, along with video tutorials for the makers of smartphone applications on Google’s YouTube service. [The full post can be read online.]

Android 11 will offer several new features making it easier for people to find notifications about incoming texts. It also gives users the ability to quickly open a digital conversation by pressing on a floating “bubble” identifying the person on the other end of a text. The new Android bubbles mirror a feature that Facebook has been using in its Messenger app for years.

The next version of the software also is designed to do a better job of guarding people’s privacy, something Google is frequently accused of invading as it collects information to sell ads.

Users will be asked if they wish to grant an app access to their location for one time only and then Android won’t allow access until the user authorizes it again. Android 11 also will automatically identify when an app hasn’t been used for an extended time and turn off previous permissions that users may have forgotten they granted in the past.

Keys to new Android: People, controls and privacy

From the Google blog:

People: we’re making Android more people-centric and expressive, reimagining the way we have conversations on our phones, and building an OS that can recognize and prioritize the most important people in your life:

  • Conversation notifications appear in a dedicated section at the top of the shade, with a people-forward design and conversation specific actions, such as opening the conversation as a bubble, creating a conversation shortcut on the home screen, or setting a reminder.
  • Bubbles help users to keep conversations in view and accessible while multitasking. Messaging and chat apps should use the Bubbles API on notifications to enable this in Android 11.
  • Consolidated keyboard suggestions let Autofill apps and Input Method Editors (IMEs) securely offer context-specific entities and strings directly in an IME’s suggestion strip, where they are most convenient for users.
  • Voice Access, for people who control their phone entirely by voice, now includes an on-device visual cortex that understands screen content and context, and generates labels and access points for accessibility commands.

Controls: the latest release of Android can now help you can quickly get to all of your smart devices and control them in one space:

  • Device Controls make it faster and easier than ever for users to access and control their connected devices. Now, by simply long pressing the power button, they’re able to bring up device controls instantly, and in one place. Apps can use a new API to appear in the controls.
  • Media Controls make it quick and convenient for users to switch the output device for their audio or video content, whether it be headphones, speakers or even their TV. You can enable this today from Developer Options, and it will be on by default in an upcoming Beta release.

Privacy: In Android 11, we’re giving users even more control over sensitive permissions and working to keep devices more secure through faster updates.

  • One-time permission lets users give an app access to the device microphone, camera, or location, just that one time. The app can request permissions again the next time the app is used.
  • Permissions auto-reset: if users haven’t used an app for an extended period of time, Android 11 will “auto-reset” all of the runtime permissions associated with the app and notify the user. The app can request the permissions again the next time the app is used.

The beta version is primarily downloaded by app makers while Google continues to work out the bugs in the software before the operating system is offered for free to owners of smartphones running on Android. But smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers don’t always quickly push out the next version of Android software to users, leaving many devices running on older versions of the software for years.

Google usually previews the next version of its Android software during an annual event held in May near its headquarters in Mountain View, California, with thousands of app makers and computer programmers in the audience.

But the pandemic forced Google to cancel that event this year and shift it to a virtual gathering that it planned to hold last week. But that plan also was scuttled amid the mass protests roiling cities across the U.S. in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.

The new versions of Android are are quickly offered to owners of Google’s Pixel phones, but those account for a minuscule fraction of the more than 2 billion devices running on various versions of Android.

In contrast, more than 80% of iPhone users typically download the annual upgrades to Apple’s iOS, the software powering those devices. Apple plans to preview the next version of its iOS June 22 during an event that will be held online instead of an in-person event that attracts thousands of people from all over the world to Silicon Valley.