Occasionally, an OS update will bring around features that really change things. Android 3.0 brought the Android experience to tablets. 4.0 completely revamped the UI and added guidelines that made Android look cohesive for the first time. 4.4 added Svelte, which promised to seat Android comfortably on an even broader range of devices. We have reason to believe another one of those changes is right around the corner, and it's known internally as Hera.
We feel confident in this rumor, but we'll take the same approach we always do - a brief breakdown of our confidence level, the rumor itself, the evidence, and any other thoughts. Since this rumor is a little more complex than past rumors, we'll combine "The Rumor," with the Evidence section, as some concepts should be seen and discussed at the same time. Remember that often, with pre-release software, we cannot show source materials, but we do our best to faithfully mock up the functionality and interface.
We do not have possession of any APKs or unreleased devices, so please don't ask for them.
This rumor gets an 8/10 - points are deducted primarily because our understanding of the project is not complete. As with most rumors there is information missing. We feel confident based on what we've seen that Hera is being actively developed, and we feel confident in its basic structure and purpose, but there is always room for error, and things may still change before this becomes official, in whatever form it may take.
The Rumor and Evidence
Hera, from what we know, essentially represents Google's effort to unify the experience users have in Android, Chrome, and Search all on your Android-powered device. It does this (from what we can tell) by using a special Chromium build meant to run on Android and execute tasks through the web both for Google and third-party apps.
Android's current multitasking view shows snapshots of the apps you have open, each one a "task." With Hera, however, the multitasking view shows snapshots of actions being taken in Chromium instances, making it sort of an HTML5-powered intermediate UI, where users can execute quick actions online without using the full app.
example task instances
Readers may remember supposed shots of a new Gmail UI with new features that leaked a few days ago. From what we've seen, the interface for these tasks looks similar. We've mocked up the Hera-oriented Gmail interface based on information available to us. Here it is next to Gmail from this week's earlier leak:
Left/Middle: Gmail using Hera Right: Gmail app leak
What this suggests is that Google is indeed taking Android's interface design in another new direction, and the Chromium instances that underpin Hera will match this style, with the two being nearly identical besides some apparent functional differences.
At any rate, it seems that Hera will replace the current multitasking view, combining entries from all the types of tasks named above. The new multitasking view will be comprised of Hera instances and likely app instances and Search queries too.
Again, from the available information, it appears that - with Hera as an underpinning - your device will be able to execute tasks that would normally belong to an app without actually opening that app. This would mean that apps with functionality carried out over the web could plug into Hera for easier, more ephemeral experiences on Android.
An easy way to think about what this functionality looks like is to imagine Gmail on the web. If you've just signed up for a new website and were sent a confirmation request, Gmail can understand that and places a button next to the message in your inbox that allows you to confirm your address without ever opening the email.
Now, replace the email with an app, like Hangouts. Theoretically with the functionality we're discussing, Google would be able to alert a user to a new message, display it, and let the user enter a reply and send it without ever opening the app.
Web instances appear to generate themselves, so if the user searched Google for something earlier (on desktop or mobile), it seems that that activity would generate a card like the ones you see above in the multitasking view.
The implication of all this is that Hera is the missing ingredient necessary to bring Android and HTML5 closer together. If apps are able to plug in HTML5 functionality to Android, using your device will be a substantially new experience. Besides that, this would radically change the app ecosystem for Android. Platforms like Tizen already make heavy use of HTML5 for app functionality, and it's easy to imagine that with this new paradigm Android could make use of HTML5 apps in a way that appears much more graceful than a simple web view.
Assuming everything we have discussed here comes to fruition, Hera makes clear Chrome's new influence on Android. Sundar Pichai, who heads up Chrome, Apps, and Android at Google (taking over the latter after Rubin's departure to other projects), has hinted before that Google wants to bring together a cohesive experience across all screens. From what we know, Hera seems like the ideal first step in this process.
The general user-facing advantage to this of course is a smoother, more unified experience with your devices, and potentially web apps that function with the finesse of native apps.
As stated earlier though, our information on Hera is not complete. The conclusions we can draw from the information available are that the paradigm will help Google execute tasks for you and create new types of multitasking instances. It appears that Google wants to simplify the mobile experience by mediating as much as possible for the user, without requiring the user to download and manage more apps.
Update: Since the reactions to this post have included lots of confusion, we thought it would be helpful to update with more clarification that will hopefully be helpful. It seems from information available to us that Hera could do for your Android devices essentially the same thing Chrome desktop sync does now, but for everything Google. If you begin a task on another device (be it mobile or desktop), it seems Hera will add that into the new multitasking view as a card like the ones shown above. But it will also be able to incorporate tasks usually handled by apps. So, if you had Google Maps open on your tablet showing directions to a place, and you forgot the address, there would already be a Hera instance in your multitasking view with the same activity.
It's all about simplifying the experience and answering your question before you asked it. This is a point that could have been made clearer in our initial coverage, but hopefully this update will help those who are confused by Hera's implications.