Deep inside an innocuous looking building near Victoria Station, buried within a maze of curious indoor workspaces, a team of engineers is beavering away on the next version of Google’s Android operating system – codenamed ‘Android M’.
Like Google’s other offices, walking into Belgrave House is a bit like walking into Candy Land. Everything is brightly coloured and softly furnished – like a homely apartment but with a strong injection of hipster cool.
As I was led through the winding corridors, I passed indoor trees, a dinghy lying on a patch of Astro Turf, chandaliers, Chesterfield armchairs, a portrait of Churchill, a music room stocked with guitars, and a double decker bus (naturally).
The office houses 700 Google engineers, around 200 of which work on Android – the largest engineering group outside of the US working on the product. Android is now the world’s biggest mobile operating system, with more than 1 billion active users and more than 1.5 million new devices running the platform each day.
At the helm of the Android team is Andrei Popescu, whose first contribition to the operating system was to Android 1.6 Donut, released in September 2009. Since then his team has grown massively, and led much of the development of Android Lollipop, the newest version of the operating system.
“The Google search experience on Android is built here, as well as voice search, Chrome for Android and Google Play. Other than that we work on the rest of the system, focusing on creating a better experience, improving the operating system, and creating a better product in general.”
These elements of Android development were assigned to the team in London, because of their particular expertise in building a search experience on other phones. Some members worked on developing Google search for the original Windows Mobile operating system, which was briefly the most popular software on smartphones before Android and iOS stole its thunder.
Mr Popescu’s team was also responsible for adapting applications to Material Design – one of the defining features of Android Lollipop – as well as optimising the performance of Lollipop on 64-bit devices like the Nexus 9.
“You will see a lot of animations that happen when a user takes an action, like for instance when they press a button or touch something, things will ripple around the touch, and that’s one key aspect of Material Design – it’s this responsiveness to the user action, you see immediately that you’ve done something and you have a nice transition to the new state,” he said.
One part of the Android team, led by software engineering manager Milena Nikolic, is focused purely on Google’s app store, Google Play. In particular, her team takes care of the developer experience for Google Play, helping developers to distribute and manage their apps, engage with users and earn money.
Two key features that her team has worked on include the Alpha/Beta programme, which allows developers to distribute their apps to a small audience initially to iron out any issues before making it available to the wider public, and the Reply to Review feature, which allows developers to engage in an open dialogue with users of their apps.
“We have one of the biggest and fastest-growing app ecosystems. We distribute to 190 countries, and we have a very large number of users in some very fast-growing markets like BRIM (Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia), so I always think that’s one of the main reasons developers come to Android, to reach out and tap into this large audience,” said Ms Nikolic.
“In addition to that, we’re trying to create some differentiators here in London, so Alphas/Beta and Reply to Review are featres that developers cherish very much, because they allow them to get in touch with their users.”
With the introduction of Android Wear (for wearable technology) and Android TV, as part of the Lollipop release, Ms Nikolic and her team have also had to make some significant changes to the way that Google Play apps are managed and curated.
“I believe that we can create a perfect experience at the individual user level, so that if you do have a wearable device we can give you this content ranked much higher, saying look you can make your Android watch even better with these additional apps, and then for someone else who doesn’t have that we can present content differently,” she said.
While much of the work carried out by engineers in London is led from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, the company has a strong culture of grassroots innovation, so they are also able to work on their own projects. Mr Popescu gave the example of Auto Awesome Movies, which is a feature of the Google Photos app and was conceived and built in London.
“With videos you may shoot a certain amount of footage, and it’s not all very good, but editing video on a mobile phone where you have limited input devices and the screen is small is actually hard,” he said.
“So the idea was to let the phone do the heavy lifting of figuring out what are the good parts and what are the bad parts, adding perhaps a theme to it, adding a soundtrack that matches the beat of the video, stuff like that. That’s an idea that we came up with, and we built the product and shipped it.”
While he admits there are some features of Android Lollipop that not all users like – such as the removal of ‘silent mode’ from the main task bar – Popescu said it is better to try innovative things and see what the reaction is and adapt, rather than continue doing the same thing with every release.
“It’s always a balance. If everything’s different, users will naturally be confused, but at the same time you can’t just ship the same software over and over,” he said. “You have to hit the right balance between innovative features and usability. It’s a fine line to tread.”
As London gradually builds its reputation as a successful technology cluster, attracting talented developers from all over Europe, it is encouraging to see that Silicon Valley is sitting up and taking notice.
As well as its own staff, Google helps to support London’s tech ecosystem with initiatives like the Google Campus start-up incubator, and while some Tech City entrepreneurs have expressed hostility towards American technology giants sucking up talented developers, Mr Popescu insists that Google has been welcomed into the community.
“I met a few start-up entrepreneurs, and they were very friendly and grateful for the support. I don’t think we are threatening the ecosystem in any way, we’re trying to be as helpful as we can, and we have an interest in London becoming a successful tech city,” said Mr Popescu.
If nothing else, the growing team of Google engineers at Belgrave House is testament to the fact that London is not only home to a growing community of start-up entrepreneurs but some of the best engineers for the biggest global companies.