Google made a staggering number of announcements about its latest products and projects at I/O, its annual developer conference. And while just keeping track of all of the things that Google shared is a tall order in and of itself, a more important question that what you missed if you weren’t in the select audience at the event is which of the ideas will actually be implemented and find success.
Not every project that a giant tech company, like Google, undertakes is going to be a runaway success. And while Google famously accepts that fact — even encouraging the innovative thinkers employed by divisions like Google X to pursue ideas that may never lead to a commercial success — in the face of an overwhelming number of announcements, it can be helpful to get some background on which announcements really merit your attention.
We’ll start with the next version of Android and take a look at everything from Google’s new mobile payments apps to its virtual reality aspirations to its new photo storage service. We’ll even look at a few of the more obscure projects and products that the tech giant has in the works, and try to get to the bottom of which of the new ideas are really going to catch on and which are more likely to see only limited implementation, or fall by the wayside along with past projects that failed to really take off. Read on for your guide to the most important announcements Google made at I/O 2015, and to learn about which of the projects it announced can really live up to the hype.
During the keynote at I/O 2015, Google’s vice president of engineering David Burke announced that Android M will succeed Android Lollipop this year (though the company hasn’t disclosed what “M” stands for yet). Google has already released the Android M Developer Preview for the Nexus 5, 6, 9, and Nexus Player; it will be followed by a full release later this year. While Android 5.0 Lollipop introduced a new design and interface, M is expected to focus on stability and usability. As Dan Seifert reported for The Verge, Google’s Sundar Pichai says that the company has “gone back to the basics” in improving the quality of the platform.
With Android M, Google has redesigned its app permissions system, and users will be able to approve or deny specific security permissions like camera or location access on a case-by-case basis. Android M will bring a revamped web browsing experience within Chrome. Developers will be able to insert “webviews” directly into their apps with Chrome Custom Tabs, and integrate Chrome features like automatic sign-in, saved passwords, autofill, and multi-process security. Apps will also be able to open content directly, instead of popping up a dialog box to ask the user’s permission each time.
A battery-saving feature called Doze will also debut with Android M. The system will better manage background processes by determining when someone is actually using the device, and shutting down processes when the user isn’t active. Additionally, Android M will introduce native USB Type-C support for faster charging, and will enable users to charge other devices with their Android phones — a feature that’s as interesting as it is unexpected.
As Dan Graziano notes, writing for CNET, not everyone is excited about Android M. That has a lot to do with the same issues that will determine whether Android M will be widely adopted. While the latest version of Android competitor iOS is available to hundreds of millions of iPhones on the day it’s released, the process of updating Android phones is more complex. Google first pushes the latest version of Android to more than 80 member companies in the Open Handset Alliance, and each manufacturer fine-tunes the code for its devices. Users of unlocked phones, which aren’t carrier-specific, get the update as soon as a manufacturer distributes it.
But a carrier adds “yet another layer of bureaucracy to the software update process,” and users of phones purchased through a carrier can sometimes wait for half a year or more before getting a new version of Android. Many companies don’t bother updating less-popular models that are even a year old, and even manufacturers who forego customizing Android in order to deliver timely updates struggle to keep up. The update process contributes to the fragmentation of the Android platform. While Android Lollipop was released in November of 2014, only 10% of devices ran the software as of May 2015. Android M, unfortunately, is likely to see similarly low and slow adoption, as many users who want the software have little recourse from delays caused by manufacturers and carriers.
With Android M, Google is introducing a new payments system called Android Pay, which uses NFC and Host Card Emulation for tap-to-pay transactions and for in-app payments and purchases. Seifert reports that Android Pay will be preinstalled on AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile devices and will be accepted in 700,000 stores across the United States. Significantly, Android Pay will also support fingerprint scanners, like the one integrated into Samsung’s Galaxy S6, and will work on any device running KitKat or newer.
As Mike Isaac reported for The New York Times, both Android Pay and a revamped Google Wallet represent a shift in strategy from Google’s past mobile commerce efforts (which have largely flopped). Android Pay works in almost the same way that Apple Pay functions in online and offline transactions, and Google will use tokenization to provide merchants with a customer’s payment information without sharing their card numbers.
Google Wallet, an unsuccessful attempt at building a mobile wallet, isn’t going away, but is being repurposed as a peer-to-peer payments app, which will enable both Android and iOS users to transfer money to one another. As Android Pay is pitted against PayPal, Google Wallet is now a direct competitor to Venmo, PayPal’s popular peer-to-peer payments app — and the crowded nature of the payments section of the app store will certainly be a factor in whether it gains popularity with users. As Emil Protalinski reports for VentureBeat, all current Google Wallet users will be upgraded to Android Pay, giving the app a head start.
The update that will replace the Google Wallet app with the Android Pay app is scheduled to occur after Android Pay launches with Android M, and users who are interested in the new Google Wallet app will need to download the new version. Users have a variety of options to choose among for both mobile wallets and peer-to-peer payments apps, but Android Pay’s security features, combined with its wide support for a variety of Android phones, could get a high number of users to give it a try.
Brillo and Weave
On the first day of I/O, Sundar Pichai announced Brillo, an Android-derived operating system for connected devices, created by Android and Nest Labs. He also unveiled Weave, a software tool that enables devices to communicate with one another. Brillo will be released by the third quarter of this year, and Weave’s developer stack will land in the fourth quarter. “For the first time,” Pichai told the audience, “we are bringing a comprehensive end-to-end solution. And we hope we can connect devices in a seamless way.”
Peter Bright reported for Ars Technica that Brillo is smaller and slimmer than Android, and provides a kernel, hardware abstraction, connectivity, and security infrastructure. Google didn’t specify the range of systems-on-chips it will support or its specific hardware requirements, though rumors have estimated that it could go as low as 32 or 64 MB of RAM, making it considerably smaller than regular Android.
Weave is described as a communications layer for Internet of things devices. It provides a common language for devices to “advertise” their capabilities to other devices on the same network, exposing APIs across platforms so that devices can speak the same language. Bright characterizes Weave as “broadly comparable” to Apple’s HomeKit system for device discovery, configuration, and communication, and will form the “glue” to bind separate networked devices into an automated and interoperable system.
Adam Clark Estes, writing for Gizmodo, reports that Google’s Weave obviously isn’t the first unifying standard for Internet of things devices; Zigbee and Z-Wave have been around for some time, and systems like Wink have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to make the Internet of things easier for the average user. Google appears to be launching Weave to compete with Apple’s HomeKit, and how the competition plays out between the two platforms will have a big effect on how widely Google’s system is implemented. The range and quality of compatible devices for each system will be a factor, as will the ability of each company’s marketing to convince users that setting up a smart home is worth the time.
Cardboard and Jump
As Conor Dougherty reported for The New York Times, Google announced several programs that aim to put its Cardboard virtual reality viewer at the center of a “growing online world” where you can use a smartphone and YouTube to watch 3D videos. Google introduced the Cardboard viewer — essentially a cardboard box with some lenses and a magnet — as a gift at last year’s I/O. The goal was to create an inexpensive virtual reality device, an object that Google achieved by creating a “comically simple contraption” into which a user slips his or her smartphone.
At I/O this year, Google introduced initiatives to expand virtual reality to as many phones as possible. A new software kit makes it easier for developers to build Cardboard apps for iPhones, and a redesign of the Cardboard hardware itself enables it to accommodate any smartphone. Google’s approach to virtual reality is low on cost and frills, but (successfully) targets building an audience instead of making money. Cardboard creator Clay Bavor announced that Google has shipped more than a million units of the device since its debut last year, and Google will bringCardboard to the classroom with Expeditions, which Quartz’s Mike Murphy describes as “a cheaper version of the Magic Schoolbus.”
Additionally, Google introduced a new virtual reality platform called Jump, and Mark Bergen reported for Re/Code that its first product is Array, a super-camera from GoPro that captures 360-degree footage by stitching together footage from 16 cameras into a single file meant to mimic the view from a human eye. The rendering technology enables the resulting 3D videos to be uploaded to YouTube (and viewed on Cardboard). Bergen notes that integrating virtual reality into YouTube makes sense, and with a “looming tidal wave” of virtual reality headsets on its way, Google and its rivals will need to drive adoption with unique content.
Dougherty points out that virtual reality has, for decades, been “the next big thing that never actually happened.” Many companies are betting on virtual reality and augmented reality, and though analysts expect that the first applications will be video games, they project that virtual reality will find a use in meetings, medical appointments, and beyond. And while companies from Facebook to Microsoft will seek to get users to pay hundreds of dollars to experience the first virtual reality apps and content, Google is already on its way toward building an early, curious audience for virtual reality content with a device just about anyone can build or buy.
Google Photos was one of the most popular announcements of this year’s I/O conference. Tim Moynihan wrote for Wired that Google has finally “freed” Google Photos, a service that “has long wanted to be the ultimate photo-management app” but has been “trapped—by Google+.” Google Photos is now available for Android, iOS, and the web, and Moynihan notes that while Google Photos is technically a new product, it shares DNA with the photo services integrated into Google+.
Google+ is still an entry point to the service, but you can manage your photos from the standalone Android or iOS apps or at photos.google.com. And your photos remain private unless you actively post or share them. Without manually tagging people or locations, you can search your photos for specific images. That function relies on algorithms that recognize people, places, and things in a photo, using the app’s computer vision capabilities and EXIF data of geotagged photos. The app groups photos featuring the same face, but, by design, won’t append an identity to that face.
The app not only features powerful organizational functions and search capabilities, but frees up storage on your phone with its free, unlimited cloud backup at a maximum resolution of 16 megapixels of 1080p video. (There are also economical options for photographers of higher-resolution shots.) The service works on iOS and Android, and offers the best value among free and paid options for photo storage, as illustrated by TechCrunch.
Interestingly enough, Jordan Novet reports for VentureBeat that throughout I/O, Google said nothing about its social network, Google+. The social network has undergone a few changes in the past few months, and Novet asked Sundar Pichai about the fate of Google+. “We are working on it,” Pichai told Novet, “You will hear more about it later this year.” The network’s official Google+ page noted that “it’s become clear that while social networks are great for sharing images and video clips, they’re not where most people want to store all their private, personal photos and videos.”
VentureBeat notes that Google Photos could gain traction as a photo service unique in its ability to work well on desktop and mobile, and to offer features that encourage you to back up your photos. Google is positioning the product as antithetical to a social network, emphasizing that shared links can be revoked and automatic organization and sharing geolocation can be turned off. Google reportedly has no plans to monetize the service; if enough people upload their photos to the platform, it will represent a great opportunity for Google to improve its computer vision tech.
Now on Tap
Google first unveiled Google Now in 2012, touting the virtual assistant’s functions enabled by the Knowledge Graph, essentially a database that categorizes information in useful ways, in conjunction with the stream of data a smartphone collects via the owner’s web searches and e-mails. Tom Simonite reported for MIT’s Technology Review that at this year’s I/O, Google revealed an extension of Now that enables it to watch — and offer assistance in response to — your activity in any app run on an Android device. The functionality will be available on Android M and later.
The feature, called Now on Tap, is activated when a user holds down the smartphone’s home button. If a friend suggests a movie to you in a text conversation, Now can offer a card that summarizes reviews of the movie and presents links to view a trailer. Now on Tap relies on tech that can understand everyday language and use contextual clues to provide answers and actions — the same artificial intelligence technology at the heart of Google Photos.
Brian Barrett reports for Wired that Now on Tap lays out Google’s plan for making apps obsolete and getting users back onto the web. Google Now project manager Aparna Chennapragada laid out a vision for Now in which the assistant not only offers all of the information you need, but knows when you need it and in what form. Google Now is no longer limited by its ability to draw only from Google services; last month, Google announced Now interactions with 70 new services, and at I/O, Chennapragada said that the number now tops 100. Its contextual awareness extends to more than 100 million places, drawn from the Knowledge Graph and from information housed in third-party apps.
Google Now’s ability to surface information negates the need for you to leave whatever app you’re using, and the combined power of the Google Now app and Now on Tap will leave little reason for users to juggle apps, or even to have an excessive number of them installed as Google continues to index the information within them. While this is likely bad for apps, it could be good for the services that power them in that it gives them the opportunity to be seen by a larger audience, not limited by their reach in the Google Play Store. Now on Tap represents a promising new direction for Google Now, and will likely enable an array of interesting new functions in the future.
Projects from ATAP
At I/O, Google announced two new projects on wearable technology. One was Project Soli, a device that uses radar to make your hand its main user interface. Jordan Novet reports for VentureBeat that Ivan Poupyrev, technical project lead at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, said that Soli includes the “first gesture radar that is small enough to fit in a wearable.” Poupyrev demonstrated how a user can rub his fingers together above the radar and get an instant response as the radar detects fine motions like hand gestures and finger movements. An API for Soli will be released later this year.
The company also provided new information about Project Jacquard, its touch-sensitive textile project, which hat aims to make conductive fabrics that can be woven into everyday clothes. (Conor Dougherty reports for The New York Times that the project is named for the French inventor of the Jacquard Loom, which both revolutionized textile manufacturing and helped pave the way for modern computing.) Much like the screen of a smartphone, the fabrics could register a user’s touch and transmit the information to a smartphone or a tablet. The fabrics are made from conductive yarns that can be woven on the same looms used to make traditional fabrics, and Google announced a partnership with Levi Strauss, in which they’ll try to make “interactive garments” that would enable the wearer to, for example, send a text message by swiping a jacket cuff.
Soli and Jacquard are just two of the latest projects to come out of the ATAP research and development group, the same division behind the Project Ara modular smartphone. Dougherty notes that Google has no shortage of “out-there” projects, though most of the attention paid to those goes to the projects of its Google X division, which is behind the self-driving car and other “moonshots.” ATAP, similarly, comes up with new products, but while the typical Google X project could take a decade or two to come to fruition, ATAP’s projects could hit the market within two to five years. (Though it’s hard to imagine those conductive jeans really taking off.)
Re/Code’s Liz Gannes notes that ATAP has 11 projects, and group leader Regina Dugan refers to ATAP as “a small band of pirates trying to do epic shit.” Project Tango, which is building camera and depth sensors to create indoor navigation representations without GPS for games and augmented reality, is getting closer to a release. And the head of Project Ara gave another update on the initiative’s progress, demonstrating an Ara smartphone and reporting that Ara is working on “contactless” data transfer and an electro-permanent-magnetic approach to assembling the phone components. A prototype run of Ara phones will be fabricated for participating developers in the next two weeks, and a developer build of Android with modularity support will be available this fall.
Google’s other announcements at I/O were numerous. The company opened its new email app Inbox to everyone, debuted a new Family Store for child-friendly apps, and announced advancements in deep learning. It also unveiled new Chromecast APIs that enable developers to create games; new AdWords, Analytics, and AdMob tools to help them monetize their apps; and a new Places API for iOS that enables developers to add better location data to their apps. It also unveiled Project Vault, an encrypted microSD card to store your most sensitive data; a new mobile app testing service called Cloud Test Labs; and Polymer 1.0, a web app toolkit that enables developers to bring app-like experiences to the browser.