With more than 7000 live audience, the 10th Google I/O (held from 18-20 May) well and truly lived up to its billing as one of the biggest mobile tech events in the year. Incidentally, two ‘firsts’ marked this year’s event. For starters, the venue was shifted from the bustling Moscone Center to the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View for the first time – a nod to the changing times and the big things that Google has planned, as CEO Sundar Pichai noted. This year’s Google I/O was also a three-day affair – the first since 2012. In today’s discussion, we will take a look at some of the most important announcements made at Google I/O 2016:
- Android Wear gets an overhaul – As widely anticipated, Android Wear 2.0 made an appearance at last month’s Google I/O. This was the first major upgrade in the line of Android wearables – since they were first launched in 2014. Just as Apple Watch 2.0 is rumored to be, the second-generation Android smartwatches would be less reliant on paired smartphones and have more in the way of autonomous functionality. While questions remain over how convenient the pint-sized QWERTY keyboard on the smartwatches would be, the other new features (like app-syncing) are interesting. Google has seemingly taken another cue from its arch-rivals – the way in which app data can be displayed on the new watch faces is quite similar to how ‘Complications’ work on Apple Watch.
- Smarter Google Assistant – Google Now is a more than efficient text-based Android virtual assistant – and at this year’s Google conference, it got a new ally. The new Google Assistant is a lot like an IM application, and provides excellent contextual search options. The built-in artificial intelligence (AI) of the Assistant allows prompt conversational search – while its ability to accurately parse context and come up with responses is worth a special mention too. Interacting with the new-age Google Assistant is almost like replying to message threads online, according to many Android app developers worldwide.
- Messaging on Allo – Hangouts have not quite turned out to be the raging success that those at the Google headquarters might have hoped. In a bid to recover lost ground in the messaging domain (primarily to Facebook), Google has announced an all-new, multi-featured messaging application – Allo. Right from sending/receiving messages through a special ‘incognito’ mode (with conversations getting deleted whenever the app is closed) to smart replies and canned responses (based on the users’ photos and recent conversations) – Google Allo has a host of exciting special features. The font size can be changed (with a slider) at times when a person wishes to ‘shout out something’ in a message, or to tell something in a ‘whisper’. The wide range of bot support (restaurant bookings, for instance) add to the utility factor of Allo. It also has a dedicated Google Assistant search bot.
- Android N beta release – Generally, Google showcases the developer preview of new Android versions at each year’s I/O. This year, however, was an exception. With the developer preview of Android 7.0 N (yep, the final name is yet undecided) being already out in the wild for more than 50 days, the event witnessed a full-fledged beta release of the mobile platform. Game developers, in particular, have reasons to feel happy – with the cutting-edge Vulcan 3D all set to raise the quality of graphics higher than ever before. Security features have also been bumped up – and just like in Chromebooks, app updates can now occur seamlessly in the background. The latest Android iteration has top-notch multi-tasking (split window) and notification features as well. Android N has a plethora of new features – and although it will face the usual fragmentation problems during rollout, the platform has enough firepower in it to generate high adoption rates.
- A smart home – With the new Google Assistant powering it, Google Home seems to be a promising release from Sundar Pichai and his team. It is a direct endeavour of Google to help users build ‘smart homes’ – with voice-support built in for setting alarms, nesting compatible devices, syncing networks, and several more tasks. The cylindrical Google Home device has a powerful speaker near its base – and it can be connected with more than one device (in different rooms). It will be very interesting to see whether Google Home manages to emerge as a serious challenger to Amazon Echo (the two work rather similarly).
- New Virtual Reality platform on Android – This one has got both general Android-fans as well as mobile app development experts all excited. Google has finally stepped into the world of VR in a big way – with a new platform, called Daydream. It will be usable within the Android N ecosystem, and will have its very own home screen – with apps and utilities. The news has already made a splash, with several big players (Electronic Arts, Netflix and NYT, to name a few) having already started making software for Daydream. Headsets, phone specs and applications are the three chief aspects of the Daydream VR platform. The only possible hitch might be that Daydream will only be workable on the upcoming Android phones that have special sensors. It won’t be challenging the likes of Oculus Rift anytime soon.
Note: A VR headset, which draws power from paired smartphones, was also showcased at Google I/O 2016.
7. Video-chatting on Duo – Apple has iMessages and FaceTime – and Google is all set to throw down a challenge with Allo (mentioned above) and Duo. The latter is a smart video chatting application that allows users to check out the videos of others (via a feature called ‘Knock Knock’), even before answering the video calls. It will be a smartphone-only app for now (unlike FaceTime) – and once opened, it will let people check out a full selfie video of themselves. Android app developers have also been impressed by the way Google Duo manages audios/videos when the available bandwidth is fluctuating and when a user is switching from mobile data to wifi (or vice versa).
8. Android Instant Apps for quick previews – Among the demonstrations at this year’s edition of Google I/O, the one involving Android Instant Apps grabbed probably the most eyeballs. Android app development professionals have confirmed that the new feature will let users access select modules of certain applications, without having to download the latter. According to the official announcement by Google, it will take less than 24 hours for app developers to modularize their applications, so that they are compatible with Android Instant Apps.
9. Update on Project Ara – This was a long time coming. Device analysts and Android app makers alike have been looking forward to Google’s modular smartphone – codenamed Project Ara – ever since its announcement in 2013. Last year’s proposed testing at Puerto Rico also got scrapped. The latest presentation showed off some cool and user-friendly components of the already-much-delayed Project Ara – and it should hit the markets sometime later this year. There is a bone of concern though – with LG already having entered the modular phone domain, is Google’s Project Ara too late to arrive?
10. New Android TV – Apple TV is expected to get an update at WWDC ‘16, and Google has heated up the competition by launching a brand new Android TV – the Xiaomi Mi Box. Support for 4K videos is one of the best (albeit expected) features of the Mi Box, which also has other interesting controls and playback options. At the I/O event this year, it was also announced that RCA and Sony Bravia will be making Android-powered TVs soon.
11. Firebase 2.0 for developers – Given that Google I/O is a developers conference, the number of developer-centric announcements at the event was remarkably low. Of the little there was, the announcement of Firebase 2.0 attracted maximum attention. The new iteration of the realtime database comes with a wide array of tools and infrastructure for building as well as testing Android apps. Firebase 2.0 is secure, developer-friendly, and should make the task of app development that much easier.
Note: Android Studio 2.2 was also released at Google I/O 2016.
12. Waze in Android Auto – Android Auto has been revamped by Google, with the Waze traffic-tracker application now being available within it. This, in turn, allows drivers to get prompt alerts and notifications on possible speeding traps and accidents. More importantly, Google has taken good strides towards making Android Auto a standalone mobile app – which would be usable even in cars that do not support the technology (let’s face it, not everyone is able to afford Android-supported cars). Drivers can now establish connection to vehicles via wi-fi, bypassing the USB connections that were required previously in Android Auto.
Yet another announcement at this year’s I/O that got the Android app developer community buzzing was the launch of Google Play Awards (for the best applications in Play Store). With the sales of Chromebooks overtaking that of Mac computers for the first time, the news of Chrome OS getting all the new Android applications is also significant. Project Jacquard (which deals with smart clothing) and Project Soli (on the inclusion of radar in Android smartwatch) were also mentioned at the event. The former is eyeing a mid-2017 launch.
Apart from the 7000-odd delegates at the Shoreline Amphitheater, there were millions of people catching up the live streaming of Google I/O 2016 – from more than 100 countries. The event had its fair share of important announcements, and both Android users as well as app makers have plenty of new things to look forward to later this year.