Each and every year, Google holds their Google I/O Developer Conference in May at their Mountain View Campus in sunny California. While it might be a developer conference, which makes for a lot of code and a lot of API talk, it's also a place where Google launches the new version of Android and other key products. After all, without fresh platforms and new hardware, these developers can't the next big thing now, can they? Last year gave us Android M, which became Android 6.0 Marshmallow in the Fall of 2015, as well as Android Wear news, refinements to Android TV and more Android Auto news as well. There was Internet of Things talk as well, with the Internet giant launching not one, but two Operating Systems to get all of our gadgets talking to each other. 2016 is a new year of course, and Google I/O is just around the corner – with events getting started next Wednesday, in fact – so what could Google possible have in store for us this year?
While we covered what Google could have in store for us with Android N earlier this week, it makes to touch on it here as well. With N, it's abundantly clear that Google is looking to pump Android full of refinements, tweaks and new APIs. If we think of the last three major releases of Android – including N – then you could think of this as that third film in a trilogy that has it all. The Google I/O Schedule gives away some of what Google is focusing on with Android N this year, but the Developer Previews have already done much of that for us.
For a lot of users, the new attention paid to Android Tablets will be interesting to see, as Android N finally adopts a multi-window mode. This will allow, for instance, a user to have Evernote open at the same time as Chrome, and while there's talk of a freeform mode (think Windows or Mac OS X desktops) it's unclear if this will be available in the final version of N, which is set to launch later this year. If nothing else, multi-window will bring Google's mobile platform in line with Apple's iOS, which has provided the iPad true multitasking capabilities (as in seeing and using two apps or more at the same time) for a couple of years now. As too few developers take full advantage of the extra screen space on tablets, running two or more apps on Android could help make Tablets seem a little more useful once again. The Google Play Store is full of excellent apps, but many of them are designed for phones, which makes them feel limited on a tablet. Running two or more at the same time however, would soften the blow of this disappointing problem.
There have been a number of rumors surrounding Google debuting their own version of Apple's Force Touch. These first emerged due to new actions that were found in versions of the N Developer Preview. Since then however, it's been rumored that this new pressure sensitive feature won't be ready in time for Android N and might have been pushed back to Android O. We're not sure what to make of such a feature, but given the fact that only Huawei has managed to offer pressure sensitivity similar to the iPhone, Google's newest feature might not have all that many devices to end up in, which makes the wait for it be perfect in the next version of Android less of a concern.
Elsewhere, Android N is full of small tweaks and changes, some of them more noticeable than others. These include changes to the look and behavior of notifications on Android, with new APIs being issued to help developers clean up notifications. Direct Reply is one such new feature which Google is hoping will clean up the mess of individual apps having their own way of doing a quick reply, using the already-existing "RemoteInput" class. Google is hoping that all developers will then follow the same path to offer Direct Replies to their notifications. Visually, notifications look a lot cleaner, and the shade itself expands all the way to the very edge of the display. This can be described as a sort of turning back the clock to how it used to look in Android, with the notification shade covering up whatever else you have on display, rather than appearing to "float" on top of it as it does now. Notifications look cleaner, and appear to have new font choice and a different way of showing an icon to identify them, but developers can do more with them, too. As well as Direct Reply, Google is adding Bundled Notifications to Android, similar to how they work in Android Wear. This will mean that a Gmail notification can still contain 5 or more messages you received overnight, but it'll only appear the same as one new message would, with a button to expand and see the subject of each individual email. This should help clean up the notification shade when there's a lot going on.
APIs are often a big deal when a new version of Android comes around, and while there's rumor of an Android VR API emerging during the show, one thing we know for certain is that Vulkan is coming to Android. Similar to the adoption of OpenGL ES 3.0 in Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, Vulkan is a big step forward for games. Vulkan is a graphics API that was built by the Khronos Group with a little help from AMD and other industry names. While there's a lot involved in Vulkan, the headlining features are that it's designed to reduce the stress on a CPU and use a GPU (think that Adreno or Mali GPU in your phone) to better effect. For mobile however, the fact that Vulkan spreads workloads across multiple CPU cores should make a massive difference in performance. All of those quad-core and octa-core CPUs inside of phones should finally be used to their full potential when Vulkan games start hitting the Play Store.
There's a lot more in Android N than we can over here, but these are some of the bigger user-facing changes that we'll notice. As for the launch date of Android N? Well, Google themselves stated earlier this year that they will "hand off the final N release to device makers this summer". Of course, this could mean that folks like Samsung and LG have time with the final code before N is released in earnest, even to the likes of Nexus devices. We'll probably find out a final release date, or at least a release window next week, so stay tuned.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
Right now, Virtual Reality has become something of a hot ticket, with it hitting the mainstream in a big way during the first half of 2016. Not only did Samsung giveaway free Gear VR headsets with their latest and greatest, but games like Minecraft have hit the platform. Elsewhere, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have become available, but Google is arguably in the best position of them all with Android. With the Cardboard blueprint being open source, there are hundreds of great VR headsets readily available in stores and online, all compatible with the ever-growing amount of apps and games on the Play Store. Now, Google is capitalizing on this with Android VR.
Android VR has been rumored a number of times quite recently, and while it's not clear what it is going to be for definite, it's definitely something. Rumors first pointed towards a standalone Virtual Reality Headset, but its appearance in the Google Play Developer Console suggests something more platform-related. Appearing alongside Android Wear and Android TV listings in the Developer Console, it appears as though the "Android VR" moniker could be a way of organizing VR content and better marketing Cardboard and other compatible headsets. This, of course, opens up the doors for compatible VR headsets in a similar fashion to an Android Wear watch from Huawei or LG, too. It would make sense for Google to squeeze the throttle a little more with their VR offerings, after all everyone else is doing it, and Google hasn't spent time and money researching the technology for nothing. As the iPhone lags behind everyone else in terms of Virtual Reality, the "Android VR" branding could be an excellent way to get people to jump ship, and at the very least it's one more string to Android's bow.
Where Augmented Reality is concerned, that being the blending of the real and virtual together via a phone or tablet display, Google has Project Tango in the works. The Google I/O Schedule confirms that something new is coming where Tango is confirmed, and rumors this past week have pointed to something involving interior mapping. As we've seen time and time again, Project Tango is all about about mapping a real space and then using it virtually for gaming, mapping or other commercial uses. The first consumer-grade Project Tango – built by Lenovo – is said to be launched next week during the show, which would give users new ways of interacting with their space, and it's possible that Google have something up their sleeve in terms of apps and games. So far, we've seen what Project Tango is capable of in controlled environments – such as a tour around Barcelona's Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya – offering expanded tours or embellished content while focusing on something real in front of you. What Project Tango can do in anyone's front room or anyone's business will be interesting to see, and the potential is huge for Google to change mobile entertainment for good, but how useful the devices will be outside of Project Tango's limited uses will be the real key for many people.
Android + Chrome OS = ?
Ever since Sundar Pichai – now CEO of Google – was put in charge of both Chrome and Android, the burning fire that is speculation of the two becoming one has been burning brighter than ever. Said speculation recently reached fever pitch when screens of the Play Store running on Chrome OS surfaced, the very same Play Store that serves as a window to the vast majority of all Android apps. Chrome OS has been able to run Android apps since 2014, thanks to the App Runtime for Chrome (ARC), but only select apps have been officially able to run on Chrome OS, there are ways out there to run all Android apps on Chrome OS of course, but it's not perfect and without a distribution method it's hard to stay up-to-date or 100% secure. That's where the Play Store on Chrome OS comes in, and also opens up Chromebooks and other Chrome OS devices everywhere to millions of Android apps and games.
The two platforms have gotten closer and closer over the last few years, but what would a merger between the two mean? Many believe this would lead to a unified operating system that Google could use to take on Apple and Microsoft with in an increasing-mobile world. This all makes sense, and at this point there's little reason not to bring the two together. Android has the Chrome browser, which means billions of people around the world are familiar with the Chrome brand even if they've never used a computer. This leads us to the above equation, what would such a platform be called? Would it simply be called Android, or something else entirely? Our green robot friend certainly has a massive brand presence these days, but Google will need to brand the end product carefully not to confuse people, and there's a chance that consumers could become confused. Are we going to see Android Books hit the market, with the Chromecast become just the Google Cast? There are a lot of questions that Google will have to answer should the two become one, but such a merger would certainly give Apple and Microsoft – the latter in particular – something to worry about.
The Smart Home and Google "Chirp"
Last year during I/O '15, Google introduced not one, but two Internet of Things platforms; Brillo and Weave. Brillo is "derived from Android" and is the OS that will run on smart connected devices that Google's partners decide to launch later this year, while Weave is the platform that connects the phone to the cloud and then the cloud to the Brillo device, and so on. Since these two platforms were announced however, we've not heard much from Google concerning their progress. Back at CES in January of this year, we did hear about some partners working on Brillo and Weave chips and end products, such as ASUS, Marvell and more. It's possible that Google will use this year's I/O conference as a platform to invite their hardware partners to launch or detail upcoming products that will make use of the two platforms. It'd be nice to see what these platforms can do once devices hit shelves, and as Samsung and others have already gotten polished products in homes all over the world, Google have some catching up to do.
One smart home product that has become something of an underground hit is Amazon's Echo, a device that runs their own Alexa platform. We can think of Alexa as a sort of Siri competitor, a device running Alexa will listen to you, connect to the web and then furnish you with the info you need. Since it launched as a strange Bluetooth speaker-cum-assistant, Alexa has grown much smarter and can now has a laundry list of party tricks. Far beyond ordering you refills on Amazon, Alexa can function similarly to Google Now, and will perform all kinds of tasks for you.
Speaking of Google, there are rumors that something called "Chirp" is right around the corner, itself a direct competitor to Amazon's Alexa. Rumor has it that Chirp will be powered by Google's excellent voice recognition software, and hook into Google's search engine as well as the Knowledge Graph that delivers answers as statements or images through Google Now, but instead voice them aloud. Considering that Amazon has had some success launching Alexa as a consumer-facing product and we're more comfortable talking to machines than we ever have been, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Google launch something similar. Google have a massive understanding of how to get machines to deal with human speech and they have so much information at their fingertips that they could easily offer something very, very useful with whatever hardware Chirp ends up in.
More Expansion for Google Play
We've already covered how Android VR is likely to be a part of the Play Store that holds virtual reality content, but it seems as if the Play Store is about to get some attention from Google overall. For some time now, there's been word of the Play Store spreading its tentacles to other platforms, and Chrome OS is certainly one of them, but what about iOS and even Windows Phone? While unlikely to happen, it's clear that the Play Store has become a good source of revenue for Google, and we're likely to see the Play Store get a little smarter, a little easier to use and a little easier access if you're in China. Rumors of Google working with the Chinese Government to launch the Play Store in China have been swirling for some time now, and it's no secret that Google needs this more than the Chinese do. After all, high-end devices from the likes of Huawei, Xiaomi and ZTE have plenty of app stores to choose from, some of the better and more popular ones coming from Google's Chinese counterparts, Baidu and Tencent. The Chinese market is an important one for Google, and as the whole point behind Android is to get people on Google services, the Internet giant desperately needs to plant their feet in China soon.
It's been quite some time now since we heard anything substantial from Project Ara, in fact it was last year's Google I/O that gave us all goosebumps about the potential of Ara. Last year, we saw a phone with no camera gain a camera from an inserted module and then take a picture, with no need to reboot or anything, it works just a like a USB webcam. Impressive stuff. The whole concept of Ara is nothing short of impressive, but just what Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), responsible for Ara, have been up to is unclear, and I/O is the perfect place to let us all in on their progress.
It's likely that we'll see some sort of progress report on how far away Ara is from becoming a reality and then a consumer product, which should certainly reassure people that Ara isn't to become Vaporware any time soon. Just what they'll have to show off, we can't say, but more of the same from last year might be more than likely. There's also the possibility of discussion and demonstrations of how partner devices might be put together in the future as well. After all, it's unlikely the market would be happy with Google being the only company making Ara devices, and it wouldn't benefit the industry, so perhaps this year we'll see some device partner talk.
Android Auto and the Car
If Virtual Reality is one of two trends that have taken off throughout 2016, then smart cars, self-driving cars and such is the other. Google recently signed a deal with Fiat Chrysler relating to self-driving cars, and it's likely that we're going to hear more on this next week. There are still some things undecided between the two, but for Google this is a big deal, they now have both Lexus and Fiat Chrysler involved in some way or another, which makes their self-driving project not only credible, but something that could launch as a very real product in the very near future. During the keynote come Wednesday, we're sure to get lots of data about what's been happening as well as how much progress they've made.
As for Android Auto, there's something on the schedule about Android Auto, and it looks like Google will have a lot to say about their automotive version of Android. Whether or not this will be tied in to the new Android N is unclear but it's more likely than not that the two will share most of their features. As always, we'll be looking forward to hearing who's jumping on board for 2017 and beyond in terms of manufacturers supporting Android Auto, and it's likely that we'll have a clear picture for Auto for the rest of 2016 at least.