Android is a mature, extremely functional OS. It’s great. The perennial question for new versions is: What’s next? The task is convincing people they want or need some new design or set of features—and then delivering on those expectations. Recently, for example, Google pushed the narrative that we are spending too much time on our phones. And the next version of Android included excellent Digital Wellbeing features, which might actually help fight screen addiction.
With the release of the public beta of Android Q, Google jumps on the privacy bandwagon in a big way, tapping into a burgeoning desire to reclaim our privacy. The problem is, this time Google has raised the bar higher than its own business model can allow it to climb. For the first time in while, Google may not deliver on the expectations it has set for Android.
I’ve spent time living with the Android Q beta, and it remains the familiar, polished OS I lauded in Android Pie. It’s worth stressing, too, that this is only a beta, and my final review will consider the whole OS, and not just the hyped feature of the day. But, looking through the filter that Google itself has applied, I’m a bit less enthusiastic than I might otherwise be.
The New Privacy Conversation
The last few years have been a wakeup call to the general public about privacy and security, and in turn increased discomfort with tech giants like Google. The role that social media and targeted advertising played in the Russian misinformation campaign during the 2016 US election illustrated in a visceral way the power tech companies have amassed. Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA was listening, but 2016 revealed a far more complicated and far more urgent crisis. Now, Congress is debating if and how to regulate Silicon Valley, and consumers are increasingly skeptical of big tech companies like Google and Facebook.
Given all that, it shouldn’t be surprising that Mark Zuckerberg is suddenly embracing privacy initiatives, that Apple is touting its privacy features as major selling points over competitors like Google, and that Google put privacy and security front and center in its latest release of Android.
That’s an uphill challenge, since in the world of security wonks, the words “security” and “privacy” are rarely used positively along with “Google.” The company is often cast as the ultimate antagonist—or perhaps second only to the US government. In this role, the company spies on everyone’s every move and action online in order to better target advertisements. That’s not necessarily untrue, but Google has always argued that the targeted ads and tailored experiences it enables are useful to people, since they (allegedly) appeal to our interests, and that the company is a good steward of your data. People who feel stalked by ads that follow them across the internet may feel otherwise.
Apple, meanwhile, has slowly started using privacy as a selling point, specifically to contrast itself to Google. Apple argues that its business model isn’t about harvesting data, which it claims allows the company to make more privacy-friendly choices. While machine learning tools have crept into iOS, Apple has been quick to point out that much of the processing is done on your device, limiting what is sent back to the cloud. At WWDC 2019, Apple presenters emphasized how Apple Maps and iOS 13 were more careful about what can access your location data and when.
That’s not to hold Apple up as a perfect paragon of privacy. The company may not place emphasis on harvesting your data, but many companies in its highly profitable app store still do. And the efforts Apple has made to protect your privacy often can’t extend much beyond the confines of its devices. Apple has also been making the…