As a veteran of four Google I/O conferences, it’s clear that this year’s event was the least exciting for users and attendees, but it was definitely the most exciting for serious developers.
Unlike at past I/Os, nobody jumped out of blimps to deliver Google Glass to Sergey Brin. Rock star CEO Larry Page didn’t give a hushed and momentous surprise speech. Google didn’t give away a ridiculously expensive assortment of unreleased gadgets to attendees. The vast majority of announcements this year were either announced or leaked earlier, reducing the surprise factor. Even the food was poor cafeteria fare.
Some attendees were stunned by the conspicuous absence of such Google products as Google Glass, Chromebooks, Google+, Nexus smartphones, Project Ara and Project Fi.
But those are the complaints of shallow and entitled crybabies. Serious developers were thrilled by what they saw and heard at Google I/O.
The unofficial theme of this year’s Google I/O should be “delivery on things promised in the past.”
These days Google’s biggest risk factor is the company’s own fickleness. It launches and promises things, then often either fails to support and improve them, or it kills them outright.
This year’s Google I/O showed a more clear-thinking and mature Google, bent on refocusing on its core strengths of Web-based everything, machine intelligence, massive compute scale and—yeah, I’ll say it—elegant interface design.
Let’s start with the world’s most popular operating system.
Developers care about and look forward to seeing each new version of Android. Google trotted out the “M” version without designating a sugary snack food name for it. Android M is a refined, polished and updated version of the new approach to Android unveiled last year. Last year’s Material Design and card-centric interface is greatly enhanced with a huge number of tweaks and changes.
Android Gets a Better Virtual Assistant
Most impressively, the long-existing Google Now got a new feature called “Now on Tap,” which enables developers to build Google Now access into their apps. Once this integration is effected, users of apps can ask Google Now questions, and the app itself provides the context. For example, a music app can enable the user to simply talk and say, “Who sings this?” Google Now will use the data from the app itself to know who “this” is and can answer without leaving the app.
Google Now has integrations with more than 100 services. The virtual assistant service taps into Google’s Knowledge Graph, which contains more than one billion “entities” (sports teams, recipes and other “things”).
Google Now has gained a new sense of both context and agency, which means you can have it do things for you like order groceries for delivery by talking at it (courtesy of an Instacart integration).
Another subtle point to be made about Google Now is that it has (perhaps accidentally) become the best reason for users (and possibly developers) to choose Android over iOS. The reason is that the integrations Google can enable on its own operating system are impossible with Apple’s tightly controlled, relatively exclusionary and unapologetically closed iOS.
One killer example is that for Android M, the user can press and hold the home button on any app, which tells Google Now to launch, read what’s going on with the screen and provide on-the-fly contextual information about whatever’s there.
Google Now was great. Now it’s really great.
Android Gets a Better Virtual Wallet
Google was an early mover on mobile payments, and its first Google Wallet offering landed with a thud and failed to catch on. More recently, Apple launched the more successful Apple Pay. This week Google officially trotted out Android Pay, which does more or less what Google Wallet did. OK, it does less. And that’s the point.
Android Pay is a near-field communication-based tap-to-pay system for Android devices. It’s for buying stuff in stores, rather than doubling (as Google Wallet did) as a peer-to-peer payment system and virtual debit card.
Apple Pay smoked Google Wallet because buying things involved simply touching the fingerprint sensor while taping the phone on the register. Likewise, Android Pay dumps the app gymnastics and enables instant, fingerprint-authenticated payments.
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I’m hearing that Google Wallet will be pivoted to become a dedicated peer-to-peer payment system, while Android Pay will be for buying stuff from stores.
Android Pay puts Android on the map as a real competitor to Apple Pay.
Android Gets 26 Billion More Devices
Google announced a new operating system for the Internet of things and home automation called Project Brillo, which Google says is “Android-derived.” That sounds like spin, but importantly it means Android developers don’t have to start from scratch when creating Internet of things implementations that will work with the 26 billion Internet of things devices Gartner says will exist by 2020.
Brillo was hardly a surprise as the news was leaked earlier in the week, but an API framework for standardizing communication between Internet of things devices and Android phones and tablets was a complete surprise. Called Weave, the platform-agnostic API was pitched as a resource for anyone to use.
We knew Google would get into the Internet of things space in a big way. And this is it.
Everyone Gets Free Unlimited Photo Storage
Google announced a new photo service called Google Photos. This news is the biggest by far for the public and the most insignificant for developers because there’s no API or way for third-party apps to use it.
Google+ already had the best cloud-based photo editing tools in the industry. Google improved these further, and added free, unlimited cloud storage to the mix and consciously uncoupled from Google+ (it’s a stand-alone service now). Photos are limited to 16 megapixel and videos to 1080p resolution. Oh, and the images are compressed with an admittedly lossless technology.
The photo management and editing tools in Google Photos are mind-bogglingly simple and powerful. Sharing is a one-tap affair. And the machine-learning intensive search feature is jaw-dropping. For example, it can tell the difference between a golden retriever and a cocker spaniel, figure out the location of a picture without geolocation data and even distinguish between different kinds of food.
Best of all, photos are liberated from the constraints of platform. Anyone with a Web browser can manage and edit their pictures. And they can be shared instantly on any social network, email platform, messaging service or even with a direct link.
Google Photos is as far ahead of the competition as the Apple iPad was in 2011. There’s literally no reason to use anything else.
Content Creators Get an Open-Source Way to Create VR Videos
Google announced a number of changes around its low-cost, open-source Cardboard virtual reality platform, including an initiative for schools, a new version of Cardboard that supports both iOS phones and large phones up to 6 inches.
But the biggest Cardboard news is that Google announced Jump, which is an open-source, three-part system for the creation of virtual reality content. GoPro is an early partner—and why wouldn’t it be? You need to buy 16 GoPro cameras to use it!
Jump consists of 16 camera modules mounted in a circle, a Jump assembler, which is software and a service that crunches 16 disparate video streams into a stereoscopic VR video (this is much harder and far more important for a quality VR experience than it sounds).
And finally Google also announced that YouTube would support Jump VR videos.
There’s suddenly no part of the virtual reality equation that Google doesn’t have a system or platform for.
Google also announced a wide range of solid improvements to different services that just make them better. Google Maps got offline turn-by-turn directions. Google partnered with Levi’s to make interactive jackets. Android M got a “Doze” mode for vastly improved battery life. Paranoid users got “Project Vault,” which is a secure microcomputer-on-a-stick that provides a user-controlled security element. The list goes on and on.
The truth is that small, incremental enhancements across all Google initiatives mean that Google is doing it right. If you want to see people jumping out of blimps, go to the GoPro events. If you want to build the next killer app, Google I/O is something you still don’t want to miss.