New Android features will be forced onto apps next year as Google fights fragmentation

Tim Maytom

Google has announced plans to start setting a minimum API level for new and updated apps distributed through the Google Play Store, which will force developers to adopt new Android features and restrictions.

Compared to Apple, Google has historically taken a hands-off approach to its Play Store and the apps within, only stepping in when apps were identified as malware or broke specific rules. However, in an effort to fight fragmentation of features and ensure the content available in the app store reflects well on Android, the company has revealed changes that will force developers to keep up to date with the operating system.

Imposing a minimum API level for apps will mean that Google stops accepting old app code from developers, which it hopes in turn will encourage app makers to adopt newer features as part of their update process.

When a new version of Android is released, it creates a new API level, changing how the app framework functions, adding new features, new security measures and new restrictions. However, developers have previously been able to opt out of these changes by simply using an older API level.

Developers who aren't worried about their app having the latest Android features like fingerprint API or Vulkan Graphics are able to work to an older API level, and in the process avoid restrictions designed to enhance the user experience, like à la carte permissions or improved power management.

The change won't affect support for devices that run older versions of Android, but it will accelerate developers adopting Android changes, a process that has previously taken years to happen naturally in some cases.

Google has published a timeline for the new mandatory API level adoption, with the first restrictions hitting in mid-2018. In general, the API levels that become mandatory for new and updated apps will be around a year old, so in August 2018, the mandatory targeting API level for new apps will be level 26, which corresponds to Android 8.0, released in August 2017. A month later, the same mandatory level will apply for all app updates too.

"We deeply appreciate our developer ecosystem, and so hope this long advance notice is helpful in planning your app releases," said Edward Cunningham, project manager at Android, in the blog post announcing the changes. "We will continue to provide reminders and share developer resources as key dates approach to help you prepare."

The change from carrot to stick should help improve security and provide app users with more control over their personal information, not to mention encouraging developers to explore newer features available on the latest API levels. However, Google will have ot be careful about alientating the developers who fill up the Play Store with their content and products.