Android's new update is perfect for people obsessed with their smartphones

by Peter Griffin / 13 June, 2018

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Google wants to give us back some of the time stolen by our smartphones with its new update for Android.

Forget television: the smartphone is the new vampire sucking away our time. And the tech giants are beginning to understand that more time on the small screen isn’t necessarily a good thing for us – or them.

The next update of Android, the operating system on more than 80% of the world’s smartphones, will have tools to help limit smartphone usage and cut down on distracting notifications that keep us unlocking our phones a hundred or more times a day.

These features have long existed in third-party apps for Android, but Google’s decision to build them into Android P, which is expected by August, is the first major acknowledgement of the importance of digital well-being.

Using the Anti Social smartphone app, I discovered that I spent nearly 42 hours attending to my smartphone in February, and I’m by no means a heavy user. All of those quick glances at your newsfeed or Instagram photo stream add up.

Android P has a dashboard that displays what apps you use and for how long, the time of day you use your phone, how many times you unlock it and the number of notifications you receive each day.

You may find that information slightly disturbing, but Android goes further by giving you the ability to set daily time limits on apps. That’s particularly aimed at mobile games such as the addictive Subway Surfers, but will work for any app on your phone.

Set a time limit on an app, of say, 30 minutes, and it will become unusable when the limit is reached, the app icon greyed out on your screen. Sure, you can go into the phone’s settings and remove the limit, but that’s a bit like the dieter who knows there’s a stash of chocolate at the back of the pantry – you need to exercise a measure of self-control.

Notifications are simultaneously the bane of the smartphone user’s experience and the phone’s most useful feature. Android P will learn your notification behaviour – if it sees you regularly swiping away particular alerts, it will suggest that you mute them.

A major overhaul of do-not-disturb, the main distraction-limiting tool on smartphones to date, adds some clever touches to keep you focused. For smartphones that have constantly active displays, you can remove all notifications from the lock screen.

A great new feature using gesture recognition will automatically put your phone into do-not-disturb mode when you flip it over on its screen, a boon for those easily distracted during meetings.

You’ll also be able to grey out work-related apps in the evenings and weekends so you can’t use them.

All of these tweaks could help us make better use of our time on the phone, but at the cost of usage of phone- and app-makers’ products.

Google’s boss of Android and Google Play products, Sameer Samat, says that is possible but points out that the Google Assistant and the Google search engine are designed to be time-savers, so Android P continues the theme.

“I think a lot of the DNA of Google has been about getting answers for people really quickly and getting you time back in your day,” he says.

“If you have better interactions with our services, you feel better about the time you spend on them, whether you are spending a second or an hour.”

Android P has many other new features, including one that uses artificial intelligence to save battery life, but the digital wellness features dominate this update.

An existing Google app for Android, Family Link, already lets you keep an eye on app usage for your kids and set limits. Now it is time to lead by example and set limits of your own.

This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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