Google is working on a wireless local file sharing feature for Android along the same lines as Apple’s Airdrop. While it isn’t out yet, XDA’s Mishaal Rahman got an early version of it up and running on a few devices, as it’s currently dormant in versions of Google Play Services that are out in the wild.
It works about how you would expect a Google version of Airdrop to work. The first user taps Android’s Share menu and picks the new “Nearby Sharing” option. Other users in earshot of the feature get a notification pop-up saying that a file is waiting to be received, and then both the sender and receiver confirm they want to start the transfer. The setup happens over Bluetooth, and then the heavy lifting of the data transfer happens over Wi-Fi.
There’s some confusion as to what this feature will actually be called. XDA’s version of Google Play Services calls the feature “Nearby Sharing,” but other builds call it “Fast Share.” Whatever it’s called, being tied to Play Services means it should work on nearly all versions of Android, since Play Services is not dependent on the OS version and is distributed by Google through the Play Store.
Previously, Android had a local sharing feature called “Android Beam,” but it was removed in Android 10. While the new Nearby Sharing feature uses Bluetooth to start a transfer over Wi-Fi, Android Beam used NFC to start a transfer over Bluetooth, which was inconvenient for a number of reasons. First, NFC required you to touch two phones back to back, and then you had to tap both displays, quickly, with a window of only a few seconds. The required phone positioning and time-sensitive window for tapping the display made this pretty awkward to pull off, especially for a single person trying to transfer something from one device to another. The other problem was that it used Bluetooth, which is very slow. It was fine for URLs, but pictures or any other user-generated content took forever.
This new Nearby Sharing feature sounds a lot more convenient. Rather than have to physically touch the two devices, they can be up to a foot away from each other. So unlike Android Beam, it’s easy to transfer a file between two devices sitting on a table. Since Nearby Sharing uses Wi-Fi direct, it’s a lot faster than Bluetooth. Rahman moved a 3.5GB .img file across the service and says it took just over two minutes. Nearby Sharing’s UI of pop-up windows and notifications seems a lot more relaxed and reliable than Android Beam, which needed approval the devices were physically touching. It was often difficult to keep two devices touching in the air and to tap on both screens without losing the NFC connection or (dropping a phone.
Apple’s Airdrop has been around for eight years now, and Google has long resisted adding a similar feature in Android, presumably because it would undercut the company’s cloud services. Need to share a photo? Put it on Google Photos or (previously) Google+. Need to share a video? YouTube. Need to share anything else? Send it over to Google Drive. Google’s push into the developing world has made this Internet-first philosophy untenable, though, since not all countries have the fast, reliable, ubiquitous infrastructure that cloud services demand. Google’s first major product to feature local sharing was Android Go, a low-end version of Android for the cheapest smartphones. The included “Files Go” file manager (which is now freely available in the Play Store) featured local Wi-Fi sharing as a major feature and works nearly identically to this Nearby Sharing feature. Now, through Play Services, local sharing is going to be provided as a base feature for every app.
There has been strong demand for a feature like this from Android manufacturers. In China, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo have collaborated to make their own local wireless sharing feature, and they’ll need it, since Google Play Services and the rest of the Google Play ecosystem does not get distributed in China. Samsung is also working on a similar feature called “Quick Share” which is expected to debut in the Galaxy S20. As usual, though, Google’s strength is that it controls the entire Android ecosystem, and a wide, cross-brand rollout through Google Play Services would be a lot more useful than something like a Galaxy S20-to-Galaxy S20 sharing feature. It would also be great if Nearby Sharing gets built into desktop and laptop computers through Chrome and Chrome OS.
Google’s Nearby Sharing has been in development for a while now, first popping up in June 2019. Google has two big release windows coming soon: the release of the Android R 11 Betas that should start in March, or in May at Google I/O. Maybe we’ll see a release then?