Google this evening unveiled tonnes of new things. The presentation took so long that I think it must have started before the beginning of recorded time. So to save you the time – here’s the eight most important things from Google’s IO keynote.
“Android L” and mobile improvements
The next version of Android – called “L” (not “Lollipop”, sadly) and whilst under the hood it is going to be important (more on that in a moment), feature-wise there aren’t many huge upgrades for mobile, but there are some nice tweaks.
For example, phone unlocking is improving. If you’re wearing a bluetooth watch, your phone will know you’re holding it – so won’t prompt you for a keycode or pattern recognition when unlocking. There was even mention of unlocking using voice prints, but it didn’t get further explained.
The recent apps button on Android is about to become much more useful. Developers can now build apps that have multiple instances on this list: so Chrome, for example, has each individual tab accessible through this menu. And other apps will be able to do similar.
What was really clever is how Google is further integrating the web. Using the new “Polymer” SDK for the web, normal websites will be able to use the sorts of swishy graphics and features usually reserved for apps – at up to 60fps. A concession to the increasing popularity of web apps perhaps?
Good news for the paranoid (me) too – Google is introducing a battery saver mode, that like the battery savers on a number of third-party Android devices will switch off (say) bluetooth or wifi, and so on, so you can eek out that last little bit of battery.
Developers too are also getting battery help – a new battery analysis tool for them will help them optimise the power usage on their apps.
The start of the presentation made a huge show of how Google has come up with a new design language to use across all of its products: on the web, on mobile and elsewhere.
L will use what they call “material design”. What this means is that whilst Google will continue to move towards flat blocks of colour – but the company will also be adding “depth” – in that elements will slide over and resize depending on what is contextually relevant. Its hard to explain – so watch this video instead:
Better updating Android devices
One of the major problems for Android compared to the likes of iOS is fragmentation: because updates are often pushed out through the likes of Samsung or phone carriers, upgrades are less consistent, so less people are running the latest version. To combat this, Google are rolling out a new service called “Android One”, that will ensure compatible devices are always updated to the latest versions of Android (a bit like Google Play edition phones are supposed to do).
What’s really interesting is the company even want to do it for hardware: Whilst Google doesn’t want to make phones itself, if I’m understanding correctly, it is essentially open sourcing sets of hardware designs for Android phones – meaning that manufacturers can grab the pre-designed designs and start cranking out phones. This should help cut costs in the developing world – Google announced that with one of its partners it will be releasing a sub-$100 Android phone. Nice.
Here’s where things got interesting. We’ve known about Android Wear for some time but today was the first time we got to see it properly in action. Designed for smartwatches, it will display all of your phone notifications and can even run app-style tasks. A bit like a Pebble. But it’s very clever how it works.
By default, the watchface will show you whatever it deems the most relevant piece of information – essentially Google Now. So in the demo, for example, it displayed the status of a forthcoming flight.
Navigation is pretty straightforward – scroll up and down to cycle through apps, swipe left or right to engage with apps or delete notifications. Notifications sync back to your phone too – so if you dismiss something on the watch, it won’t still be on your phone.
Voice commands was a big part of the Android Wear too. Essentially the same as Google’s normal voice search interface, you can ask questions and get it to display stuff back to you – but with a view optimised for such a small screen. In the demo, the presenter said “Play some music”, and it started the Android music player.
You can also manage calls through watches – either rejecting them, or choosing to send an SMS with a button press (saying something like “I’m busy now, call later”).
What was nice too was that apps are kept up to date because they’re extensions of the phone apps – so if it is up to date on your phone, it is up to date on your wrist.
Android Wear will be supporting both round and square faces (for “fashion reasons”) and Google announced the first two Android Wear devices would be the LG G watch and Samsung Gear Live (yep, Samsung are back with Android again). Both are available to order now. The first round-screened watch, the Moto 360 will be out later this year.
The in-car experience looks set to massively improve. “Android Auto” works in a similar way to Android Wear. All you have to do is plug your phone into your car and Android Auto cars will automatically configure the dashboard screen how you like it, and let you control it with the car. What was clever was that because the apps all live on your phone – the car is essentially a dumb frontend – it means that apps can be easily updated, and you won’t have to replace your car whenever you replace your phone.
Being car stuff, all of the apps are related to one of three things: messaging, navigation or music – and the idea was it is all voice controlled (though you can use the touchscreen on the dashboard if you wish).
Like we’ve seen from Apple’s car features, it will read all of your messages to you too as they come in. Similarly, you can chat with Google Maps to set up navigation.
Perhaps the best thing about Android Auto was that it has also been opened up to apps… but not in a completely crazy way. Google has only opened up two APIs to developers: for messaging and music… so you can’t flick through Tinder or watch Netflix whilst driving. What this means though is that other popular messaging apps, such as WhatsApp could conceivably build into it so you can receive and send messages from these services whilst driving too. Whilst no messaging partners were announced, it was shown on screen that Spotify, TuneIn Radio and Stitcher (amongst others) are already on-board to work with the Android Auto music player.
The only downside is just how long it is going to take for Android TV to become a reality: though Google announced 40 new car manufacturers had joined the Open Automotive Alliance, there was only vague talk of the first supporting cars rolling off of the production line at the end of the year. So we suspect it will be a while before it takes off.
Finally Google is taking TV seriously. The company announced a new TV platform that will run on forthcoming smart TVs and set-top-boxes including all of Sony’s 2015 range of 4K TVs.
Very similar to Amazon’s Fire TV, this can be controlled with an app on your phone, your Androidwear smartwatch or by voice, it seems to take over the whole TV experience – with normal TV being just an app, in essence. In the demo, it appeared to work a bit like an Xbox One – so presumably forthcoming set-top-boxes might be offering a TV passthrough?
Later this year Google will be launching a Google TV store for TV apps. On the Android TV home screen there’s going to be automatically generated recommendations, which any installed app is allowed to hook into – and it appears that there will be unified search interface. This means if you search for a show you’ll be able to choose whether to watch on Google Play or Netflix, and so on.
There were some nice extras too. If you Google voice search an actor, it’ll not only show you what films they are in, but also relevant YouTube videos and so on. It can even do contextual searches like, like “Oscar winning films in 2002″.
Like the Fire TV, there was also an intriguing focus on games. The presenter showed off a games controller seemingly without remarking on it, so we’re not sure if there will be an ‘official’ design or just a specification for third parties to build to, but it does mean Google see the future of Android TV is as a games platform too. (In an announcement later in the presentation, Google Play Games also got an upgrade – supporting cloud-syncing saves).
Oh, and there was one other cool TV thing…
Big Chromecast Improvements
So Chromecast, and Google’s “Casting” protocol hasn’t been forgotten. In fact, all Android TV devices will have Casting built in – meaning Android TV will also function as a Chromecast. We can perhaps expect to see it built into Smart TVs too (presumably existing smart TVs could enable it through a software update?).
Google has massively revamped the Chromecast apps for phones and the website to aid discovery – showing you what apps support Chromecast, and the company has also added a bunch of new background options. So rather than scroll the photos Google has selected, you can choose from various photo sets (for example, images from space) and though it wasn’t mentioned on stage – you might even be able to get the news and weather displayed judging by one of the menus. Or of course – you can go for your own pictures too, assuming they’re uploaded to Google+ (yes, the on-stage presenters looked embarrassed whenever Google+ was mentioned). And get this – if you use Google voice search and ask “what’s on my Chromecast”, Google will know and display more information on the photo.
Google also announced plans to let you Cast without sharing the same wifi network. Using the cloud as an intermediary, Google will apparently work out what Chromecast devices you’re near (presumably using GPS) and will let you throw stuff straight on the screen. Great if you’re visiting a friend and don’t want to faff about with passwords. This will apparently be an opt-in feature for added security – and a PIN code can be used if need be.
Perhaps most intriguingly was the announcement that you will soon be able to mirror the screen from your Android device in real time to Chromecast. Apparently Google has developed new compression algorithms to do it smoothly – and it means another easy way of getting content on the TV. It seems that this feature may be limited to newer Android handsets – if I recall, the Galaxy S4 was the oldest Samsung supported, for instance.
Chromebooks Meet Android
You’d think that would have been enough for one presentation but no, there was more. Chomebooks – Google’s Chrome OS-running laptops are getting an update that will enable them to run Android apps. Whilst this was heavily caveated by Google, it sounds as though it will be easy for developers to convert their apps to run on the devices. One example on screen was Vine – where it was even possible to record a Vine as it hooked up with the Chromebook’s camera. Suddenly Chromebooks have become essentially Android tablets with keyboards.
What was also cool was that Chrome OS would pick up on your notifications from other devices – so like we’ve seen recently from Apple, you’ll also get notifications on incoming calls and text messages (amongst other things) on your Chromebook screen too.
Boring but important stuff for corporate users
Google didn’t go into much detail, but it appears to have done some sort of tie-up with Samsung’s Knox platform for corporate users. Essentially, with the next version of Android will enable corporate users to run apps on the same phone as users’ personal phones, with data kept strictly separate.
Marginally more excitingly, improvements to some Google Drive apps were announced. Google Slides is – like Sheets and Docs – getting a mobile app, and collaboration features are getting enhanced. Apparently Google Docs will soon natively support Word documents too, meaning no more mangled pages.
Hurrah – just as the rumours predicted, Google briefly teased its health platform “Google Fit”. This looks like it will work much like Apple’s Health app, aggregating together health data from a wide range of apps and devices (like fitness trackers, etc). But we didn’t get to see much of it, alas.
Behind the scenes stuff
Finally, Google announced a “cloud platform” – essentially matching what Apple did a few weeks ago. The idea here is that app developers will be able to host their apps in Google’s cloud rather than rely on their own hosting and services, which should makes apps able to scale quicker (not crash from a sudden increase in users), as well as earn Google some extra cash from developers.
By James O'Malley | June 25th, 2014