Google dropped an unexpected treat on Android users today: a developer preview of Android N, the code name for the next version of Google's mobile OS.

Google says it will release Android N previews every four to six weeks through the spring and summer, with the final release of Android N for handset makers planned in the third quarter of 2016.

A goal for the early release seems to be getting the update to Android customers sooner. "The earlier preview allows us to hand off the final N release to device makers this summer," Google says, "so they can get their hands on the latest version of Android earlier than ever."

One big change will be how Android N handles notifications. You'll be able to respond within an notification instead of having to open an app to respond. For example, when you receive a text message notification, you can reply in the notification.

Android N chat

A second addition will be support for displaying more than one app at once. On a handheld device, Google says, you will be able to display apps side by side or one on top of the other. You'll be able to resize either side of the screen, as well as drag and drop between the two panes, if the apps support it. For television displays, you'll be able to choose a picture-in-picture mode for interacting with an app while you're watching video.

Android N split

Android N will also let apps bundle notifications together, such as a collection of related text messages.

Other goals for Android N, Google says, include improved battery and memory management, more management over permissions, and expanded control for quick settings, such as for data usage and Bluetooth.

For more information, check out Google's Android N developer preview page.

Google often unveils new versions of Android at its annual developer conference, which is held in summer. The first developer preview of Marshmallow, for example, came at last year's Google I/O conference at the end of May.

Update: If you want to check out a prerelease build of Android N, head over to Google's Android Beta Program page. Google cautions the software "is not suitable for use on your primary device" and advises you have a backup of the contents of your device before jumping to Android N.

Supported devices include the Nexus 6, Nexus 9, Nexus 5X, Nexus 6P, Nexus Player, and Pixel C.

Once you opt in to the program, you will receive Android N through an over-the-air (OTA) update. You can also opt out of the prerelease program, but Google cautions you will lose any data you've not backed up when you move back to the public version of Android.

Clifford Colby follows the Mac and Android markets for Download.com. He's been an editor at Peachpit Press and a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWeek, MacUser, and Corporate Computing.