Google is making another attempt to add new features to phones that haven’t received OS updates in years. It’s releasing something called the “Extension Software Developer Kit,” which lets developers use features like Android 13’s new photo picker in apps that run on some versions of Android 11 and 12. In a blog post announcing the change, the company says the feature allows it to “extend support for certain platform functionality to existing Android versions.”
While more access to the photo picker that was previously exclusive to Android 13 is certainly nice, Google seems to have much bigger plans for the Extension SDK. “This update also paves the way for expanding Privacy Sandbox testing on Android,” said Scott Westover, a Google spokesperson. Privacy Sandbox is Google’s ongoing replacement for its current ad tracking system, and the company plans to roll out the beta for the system on Android 13.
So far, Google is not talking about backporting Privacy Sandbox to older versions of the operating system. Instead, it appears that the Extension SDK will help the company update Privacy Sandbox on newer versions of Android without releasing major OS updates. The blog uses the test as an example of how introducing new features outside of major updates “enables faster innovation.”
The way this works is complicated and the blog post announcing the news is mainly aimed at the developers who will actually be using the system. The TL; DR is that Google has been laying the groundwork for years to update core components of Android through the Play Store. Now it takes advantage of that system to make changes to the APIs developers use and gives them new ways to check what the system is capable of. In the photo picker example, a developer can have their code checked to see if the user’s Android 11 phone has a sufficiently updated API – and use the new photo picker if it does.
This is just Google’s latest attempt to ensure that users can still get new features even if the company that made their phone doesn’t release software updates. (Something I really appreciate as someone who just bought a phone is likely to be stuck on Android 11.) With Android 10, the company introduced “Project Mainline,” which is meant to allow some parts of the operating system to be updated through the Play Store. Mainline itself succeeded Project Treble from Android 8 XDA Developers say was intended to make it easier for phone manufacturers to release updates.
We have seen this work pay off. Some Android systems for controlling things like media playback, Wi-Fi, permissions, and even the Android Runtime itself have been modularized, giving Google more control over how they update. And the company has started rolling out new features, such as digital ID cards (which can theoretically be used on devices running Android 8) through Google Play Services, which get updates through the Play Store, rather than point releases to Android itself.
As for this latest effort, there will almost certainly be limits. First, it’s not like Google made everything modular in Android 10. Every OS update has added new modules – Android 12 modular ART and scheduling, while Android 13 turned things like Bluetooth, AppSearch and UWB into components. If you’re on Android 11, it wouldn’t be as easy for Google to add features for those systems to your phone, as they’re still built into the operating system rather than bits that can be updated through the Play Store.