9 Google Projects to Look Out for in 2016
January is a great time to look to the year ahead and do some big-picture thinking about what will be going on in the tech world. One of the most interesting companies to watch in the year ahead? Google, or, more accurately, Alphabet, the umbrella corporation that was recently formed by Google’s founders. Alphabet oversees Google and an impressive number of smaller companies, all working to create products and services that could eventually become billion-dollar businesses of their own.
As Seth Fiegerman reports for Mashable, Google insiders and analysts alike think that the first full year that Alphabet and Google operate under the new arrangement will be an exciting one. They expect the company to make significant acquisitions, make progress with moonshot projects, and operate with more transparency throughout its business. But no one is keeping closer track of Alphabet’s movements than Ron Amadeo, who recently compiled Ars Technica’s latest Google Tracker, an exhaustive roundup of all of the things that Alphabet will be working on this year.
Amadeo notes that documents published during the initial formation of Alphabet reveal a lot about the company’s structure. While Google will still work on search, ads, maps, apps, YouTube, and Android, other individual companies inside Alphabet include Calico, Nest, Google Fiber, Google Ventures, Google Capital, and Google X. Other companies that have since been revealed include Verily, which is working on the Baseline Study and the smart contact lens; Sidewalk Labs, which applies moonshot thinking to city life; DeepMind, an artificial intelligence group; a division for Google X’s self-driving car; and Access and Energy, a division which includes Google Fiber. Google X is currently in charge of projects like Project Wing, the Replicant robot division, the self-driving car, Project Loon, and Makani.
So what are the highlights of what you can expect out of Google this year? Read on for nine of the most exciting things we expect to see come out of Alphabet and all the companies within it in 2016.
1. Android everywhere
Amadeo reports that Android is going to be everywhere in 2016, expanding from smartphones, tablets, smartwatches, and televisions to run on PCs, cars, virtual reality headsets, and Internet of Things devices. It’s also possible that Android will take the best parts of Google’s Chrome OS and the two will merge together to run on an Android computer, of sorts.
In 2016, Google could show off an early version of this merged operating system, perhaps with an extended developer preview. Chrome will likely wind down to a maintenance-only release cycle as Google switches its focus to the new, Android-based operating system. Google is also likely to build a version of Android to power car infotainment systems, which would be a big step forward from Android Auto, which isn’t an operating system, but is an app that runs on your smartphone and renders an interface to send to your car’s dashboard screen.
2. Android N
With all of the discussion of Android and Chrome OS merging, it’s a little unclear how that could affect Google’s usual schedule for updating Android. Android N and the hybrid operating system could be the same thing, or Android N could be released while Google works on merging Chrome OS and Android behind the scenes. If Android N is, in fact, the hybrid project, then it’s possible that the larger project will need extended development time, and that the release will be pushed to 2017. It’s also possible that the final version of Android N and the preview version of the hybrid operating system are separate projects, and N could be released on Google’s usual timeline while the “Android for PCs” project won’t appear until 2017.
Regardless of whether the hybrid operating system is introduced with Android N, we already have a good idea of the features Google will introduce with the next version of Android. You can expect a new messaging app, one that integrates chatbots (which we’re predicting are going to be the killer app of 2016). Android is also expected to gain split-screen capabilities, which will be critical for making Android tablets more useful. Android N could also support Rich Communications Services (RCS), a new standard that brings instant messaging features to basic carrier texting. Additionally, Google Photos is expected to gain a video editor, Google could launch a Podcasts app, and Google Calendar could take advantage of the company’s Timeful acquisition.
3. Driverless car
Google will likely push aggressively ahead with the self-driving car in 2016. As Amadeo notes, it’s been reported that Google has entered a joint venture with Ford to start a driverless ride-sharing business. Such a deal hasn’t been announced by either party, but could make sense given the likelihood that Google is seeking a partner to build the self-driving car it’s been designing.
Because the car the company has been working on integrates some extremely expensive components, like a $70,000 LIDAR system, it seems likely that it’s going to design its own LIDAR system, with the intent to have someone else manufacture it. That someone else might be Samsung, which recently announced the formation of an automotive components division.
4. Google Glass
Google Glass is still under the leadership of Nest founder Tony Fadell, and multiple reports say that the group working on the device is now called Project Aura. The team is expected to quietly release an enterprise edition of the device, as well as a consumer version, which is reportedly still in development. Project Aura is reportedly targeting a 2016 release for this consumer version.
5. Airborne projects
2016 will also bring progress on Google’s numerous projects to bring Internet access to areas where there isn’t any, all using airborne devices. Project Loon, which uses balloons to host a mesh network, will be scaled up, and perhaps launched in the U.S. Project Titan, an early-stage project to deploy solar-powered drones will join the same mesh network to provide cellular access. And Google seems to be investing in SpaceX to build a fleet of low-orbit satellites that would deliver Internet access.
Another project that will leverage airborne devices is Project Wing, which is an effort to create a drone that would be able to deliver products to your door. If Google succeeds, it would likely license the service to other companies — though that would exclude Amazon, which is developing its own drone delivery program.
Finally, Makani, a Google X company, is working on mounting a wind turbine onto a flying kite that’s tethered to the ground. The kites can fly higher in the atmosphere than a turbine, where the winds are stronger and there’s more energy to capture. The idea is to provide cheaper power than a turbine can offer, though it remains to be seen whether the project will prove to be a viable solution.
6. Virtual reality
In 2016, Google is going to expand its virtual reality efforts beyond the platform it created with its ultra cheap Google Cardboard headset, which uses a smartphone as a display. Amadeo reports that Google seems to be devoting extensive resources to assembling “the pieces for a full end-to-end solution that covers hardware and software,” though it’s unclear so far exactly what shape the project will take. Some expect Google to build a version of Android to power a virtual reality platform.
Google has also been reported to be in discussions with component vendors over collaborating on chip designs for virtual reality and augmented reality — chips that would have different system requirements than those used in smartphones, since they’d need to handle the task of completing complex 3D processing all the time. The chip would also make big changes to the camera image processor, which could power an augmented reality device.
Amadeo expects that whatever device this chips are intended to power, Google is going to play an active role in the hardware design — whether it turns out to be a headset, a “normal-looking” smartphone that drops into a headset like Cardboard or the Gear VR, or a more specialized smartphone-sized device that would also drop into a headset.
7. Internet of Things
Google released the OnHub WiFi router with lots of unanswered questions, like why the device has dormant Bluetooth and 802.15.4 radios or what other products the branding of the Google On app could be alluding to. Ars Technica thinks it’s the name of Google’s home automation ecosystem, though the company hasn’t confirmed.
Google’s other Internet of Things devices include Brillo, an Android-based operating system for Internet of Things devices; Weave, a communication platform that enables all of your devices to talk to one another; and Thread, a low-power network protocol that would compete with standards like Zigbee and Z-Wave. As Amadeo explains it, “Thread is the physical ‘wire’ that connects every device to every other device (it’s wireless, but you get the idea), Weave is the language they speak over that wire, and Brillo is the OS it all runs on.”
When all of these products are up and running and out of beta, other Google projects like Android TV will begin working with the home automation groups, building new experiences and services.
8. A YouTube Red expansion
YouTube launched the ad-free YouTube Red streaming service in 2015, and reportedly plans to compete even more directly with Netflix by offering online movies and TV shows. YouTube Red currently offers ad-free content and premium content from top YouTube stars, but adding traditional forms of content would likely widen the appeal of the service, which costs $9.99 per month.
9. New smartphones
Project Ara could finally launch its modular smartphone this year. The phone is comprised of an endoskeleton that holds modules, like the chip, battery, camera, and display. You’ll be able to swap out the modules to customize and upgrade your phone. The project has been repeatedly delayed, and it remains to be seen whether the underlying idea is going to work. Amadeo notes that as technology gets smaller and more integrated, every free cubic millimeter goes to more battery capacity. But Project Ara’s phone will use a lot of space for modular cases, physical support, and interconnects, leaving less room for battery — a compromise that many users may not want to make.
Another phone that could appear is one from Project Tango, a line of phones and tablets that integrate computer vision sensors. The sensors give the devices capabilities in 3D indoor mapping, depth sensing, and augmented reality. At CES, Google and Lenovo announced that the first commercial Tango device will launch this summer — though the companies didn’t share any design details or technical specifications.