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What the 64-bit Android app deadline means for the future of mobile

From artificial intelligence to immersive mobile gaming, Google calling time on 32-bit apps is a major enabling move

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Advanced artificial intelligence (AI) workloads, immersive mobile gaming experiences, enhanced security, ultra-high-definition displays. The future of smartphone technology looks incredibly bright.

But while these headline-grabbing technologies may seem destined to change the way we use mobile devices over the coming years, their potential will always be reliant on a cast of supporting actors from both hardware and software camps, the advancement of which will help ensure the likes of AI and immersive mobile gaming reach their full potential.

One major enabler to the future is coming later this summer – the transition of Android applications to support 64-bit architectures. From Google’s August 1st deadline, all new apps and updates to current apps on the Google Play store will need to support 64-bit versions.

Major benefits to 64-bit

Despite the hard deadline, Arm’s message to the developer community is that there is no need to panic. The benefits vastly outweigh the costs. 64-bit processing can handle more data at once, helping new and current technologies to flourish on mobile. 64-bit CPUs can fetch, move and process larger chunks of data within a smaller interval of time than a 32-bit processor, resulting in better performance.

This means 64-bit devices are generally faster and more responsive (though to a degree, that’s also reliant on well-written code). For developers, eventually developing their apps on purely 64-bit Android devices will bring significant benefits, including reduced complexity, lower development and testing costs, an improved time-to-market, and a stronger, healthier and more robust ecosystem.

With Apple’s iOS having transitioned to a fully 64-bit architecture with version 11 in 2017, it’s in the best interests of the Android ecosystem to get on board. 64-bit capabilities have been available in mobile devices for a number of years, and for over a decade in desktop operating systems. Nearly 90 percent of today’s Android devices deploy a 64-bit capable version of the OS (version 5.0 and above). Disruption to app developers and the wider Android ecosystem should remain limited. To soften the blow somewhat, Google’s mandate only applies to new and updated apps; existing apps on Google Play that are not 64-bit capable will not need to be changed nor will they vanish overnight.

Gamers (and game developers) rejoice

Graphically demanding games such as Epic Games’ Fortnite are already 64-bit only (image courtesy Epic Games)

Game developers are particularly enthusiastic about the 64-bit move on Android. It will provide their apps with greater capabilities, including faster loading times, smoother and more complex graphics and improved security capabilities. Additionally, compute-intensive workloads such as immersive mobile gaming are pushing the limits of the 32-bit architecture, which means it’s difficult to make improvements to existing apps based on 32-bit. The 64-bit Android move will help to future-proof today’s gaming apps for further innovation and advancements.

What’s the chance of major disruption?

From an app developer perspective the 64-bit move is unlikely to create big disruptions. 64-bit capabilities have been available for several years, so migrating code and including any required 64-bit libraries should be relatively straightforward. In fact, many open-source libraries have been type-safe and tested for 64 bit systems for a while. For example, most code written using Arm NEON intrinsics will compile for 64-bit without change. Also, if an Android app is written entirely in Java™, the current Android Runtime will support the application without modification.

Remember, if an application uses native libraries, then it must be 64-bit compatible. Moreover, if re-compiling is required, even for those that are well-coded, some re-writing of the code may be required. With the August 2019 deadline approaching rapidly, our message is that developers should check now to avoid problems later. 

The 64-bit move for game developers should also be relatively straightforward. The three most used game engines all currently support 64-bit – Unreal, Cocos2d-x and Unity – and many leading mobile games that develop on these game engines, such as Fortnite on Unreal, are already 64-bit capable.

A greater challenge in China

In China, there might be additional challenges for the 64-bit move. Google does not directly influence the Android app ecosystem in Asia or offer the Play store in China, so its 64-bit mandate does not wield as much influence. However, most top app stores and Android ecosystem influencers in these markets are supportive of the transition to 64-bit capable applications. In fact, the current indications are that the China ecosystem will follow the 64-bit mandate from Google and be consistent with the global ecosystem of supporting more 64-bit Android apps.

A recent Android Developer blog on 21 February 2019 noted that major app stores in China from Huawei, OPPO, Vivo, Xiaomi, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent will be requiring that any apps target API level 26 (Android 8.0) or higher in 2019. While this is not a direct push to 64-bit in China, it does at least encourage developers to update their apps and provide an opportunity to update to 64-bit Android.

Arm’s role in the transition

Arm is working closely with our partners to understand any ecosystem, technical, or commercial blocking issues inhibiting the migration of Android apps to 64-bit. Following positive feedback about the transition, we are not anticipating any significant problems once the 64-bit milestone is reached on August 1st. We are also developing more 64-bit Android optimizations for commonly used libraries, runtimes, browsers, and engines. Moreover, the recent releases of Arm architecture contain new features and benefits that are only available as 64-bit.

64-bit is a ‘win-win’

The 64-bit Android move is a ‘win-win’ all round. It will provide a number of performance, efficiency and security benefits to the entire Android ecosystem without causing significant disruption, and also get developers ready for future innovation on mobile. As a result, we are very supportive of the transition and remain comfortable with the August 1st Google Play mandate. Arm, as well as Google, will be available to support the ecosystem every step of the way, so developers should get in contact if they have any questions or concerns before they get on board with 64-bit.

Are your Android apps future proofed? Discover more about 64-bit Android development in our latest white paper, 64-bit Computing for Mobile.

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