Google I/O 2014 (My thoughts on one of the biggest tech events of the year)
This is a fairly long blog post, so if you're stretched for time, you can read the TL;DR version here.
Every year, most of the larger software companies hold their keynote conference where they show off the latest and greatest products and features they have in the pipeline. This year was no different. Microsoft had their //build/ conference, and Apple’s WWDC, both aimed at their developer audience. Today was Google’s turn, and frankly, it blew both Microsoft and Apple’s right out of the water by introducing three new product categories, Wear, Auto, and TV, of which Microsoft has never entered, and Apple has been rumoured to enter for years, but hasn’t. Let’s start from the beginning.
First, Google announced their new Android program aimed at connecting the next five billion people on the planet to modern smartphones. They called this, Android One.
It looks as if it was inspired by Motorola’s new line of Moto devices (X, G, & E), in that you’re getting great hardware that’s modern and future-proofed, for an unbeatably price, and the Nexus program, in which Android One phones run pure, stock Android. They’re made specifically in mind for these countries, running 4.5" screens, dual-sims, and FM radio — all features important for those users. As Sundar Pichai said, this platform is “high quality, low-cost” smartphones with widely available parts.” For devices that are going to priced at around $100, and under, they’ll make for excellent alternatives to those who want more than just Windows Mobile/Phone, BlackBerry, and the plague that is Samsung’s never ending torrent of plastic.
Next up was the Developer Preview of Android L, which if going by the previous named releases for Android, has yet to be fully named. Lychee, Lollipop, Lemon Meringue? Who knows. What we do know, however, is that it’s the biggest, and most important release of Android to date. It’s Android, re-thought and redesigned from the ground up, and it looks beautiful. We first saw an example of this in the recent UI update to the Google+ app. It’s cleaner, using a mix of squared boxes, round buttons, and bright, playful colours. It’s not as dark as the Holo design language that first appeared on Android 4.0 ICS, but not as translucent and empty feeling as iOS either. It’s a really nice, pleasant feeling inbetween, even making generally cluttered looks apps like Gmail look much cleaner.
It gets better. Remember how good, and how near-perfect the Android notification system was? Google made it better. The lockscreen and notification shade are now basically one in the same, letting you see all of your notifications in one place. If you’re inside of a movie or game, you get a heads-up, enhanced notification that you can view, and then dismiss or click to enter the app it’s from. I’m just glad it’s not a chat-heads me-too clone, as it actually looks far more functional and useful, not taking up tons of screen real-estate for prolonged periods of time. And, this is all compatible with Android Wear. If you swipe away/dismiss a notification on either your Android phone or Android Wear device, it disappears from the other as well. The sync is just a beautiful feature.
They went a step further, and improved Google Search. So now when you search for something, you can tap the information card, and then once again to right into the corresponding app on your phone. We already have this, but right now you have to set your defaults, adding an extra step initially. Maybe this will make things a tad more efficient.
And finally, for Android L, is Project Volta. Much like Project Butter and Project Svelte before it, Volta is it’s own dedicated attempt at making one singular aspect of Android infinitely better. In this case, it’s the battery.
It includes a battery saver, similar to what we’ve seen in the Galaxy S5 and the One M8, as well as a Battery Historian, which not only lets you get a more in-depth look at what exactly is draining your battery, but also wakelocks as well, which any Nexus owner will tell you is the bane of their existence. Along side this, Android will now get security updates pushed through Google Play, rather than an entire system update. This goes along with Google releasing the rest of their apps to the Play Store, and ART finally replacing Dalvik (as well as being 64-bit compatible) as the exclusive run-time, means that we’ll get faster, better, and far more secure devices in the long run.
The best part about all of this is that the new design language, Material Design, scales across phones, tablets, and now Chrome (and Chrome OS as well), meaning that instead of Chrome OS and Android feeling like extremely distant cousins, they now feel like close siblings. The continuity between these two is very similar to what we saw in the OS X Yosemite demo at WWDC ‘14, but it’s still a really nice addition.
This in relation to Chrome OS now being able to run Android apps, it’s a beautiful thing, giving it a sense of continuity if you will. Android L is just chalk full of new animations, eye-candy, and general polish.
During the presentation, we saw many of the speakers with big watches on, some circular, some square-ish. These were the first Android Wear devices being worn out into the wild, and they were impressive. Android Wear is basically Google Now on your wrist, and that’s an amazing thing. It shows you notifications from all your apps, music, directions, and more, all in one convenient place, and it looks beautiful, following the Material Design language first seen in Android L.
Right now, there are three OEMs — LG, Samsung, and Motorola. Both LG and Samsung took the square face route, with Samsung basically optimizing their Gear Neo to work with Android Wear. It’s definitely better though, since it means it opens up more phones that aren’t just Samsung devices to wearables. I just hope that they can’t run any of their awful, custom skins, on top of it, leaving it pristine. The last is the Motorola 360, which is the first device to sport a round face. It just looks gorgeous, and the crowd seemed to be the most excited for this device as opposed to LG and Samsung’s offerings. While I/O attendees get either the LG G Watch or the Samsung Gear Live, they also get a second Android Wear device in the form of the Moto 360, when that becomes available. I would say that I’m jealous, but it’s hard to feel excited about the boring, square boxes offered by Samsung & LG when Motorola has produced an absolute beautiful work of art in the Moto 360. Oh, and all Android Wear devices are water resistant, which is a real nice touch that makes so much sense.
This one’s huge. It’s Android, well, Google Now, inside of your car. On the screen, you can control navigation, phone, and music, with more to come.
And it’s completely voice controlled, meaning you can ask your car what time a restaurant is open until, and then ask for directions, all seamlessly. It will also read out your messages to you, to help prevent dangerous texting and driving, letting you keep your focus on the road. Right now, they have 44 partners signed up, and the first Android Auto cars will be out by 2015. I’m really interested in seeing what people will make of this.
The third and final product category is the one that I’m most confused about. Android TV. It’s the refresh to the abysmal failure that was Google TV, but I’m not so sure that I can tell the difference. Like Google TV, Android TV is baked right into the the screen. You use your phone’s screen as a remote to scroll through your apps, shows, and games, as well as featured Google Play content. Android TV also follows the design language first seen in Android L, so it certainly looks pretty, but we’ve seen this, and frankly, I’m getting PTSD flashbacks to the horror that was the Nexus Q.
The weird part about all of this is that it supports Googlecast, so it basically functions like a Chromecast, and this is where I don’t know what to make of it. Personally, when it Android TV was first leaked back in April by The Verge, I thought it would be pushed either as a software update to the Chromecast itself, or be bundled with the Chromecast 2. That, to me, would make far more sense, but instead we still have the Chromecast, and now Android TV. Rather than feeling like a product family, they feel like competing products — the antithesis to Chrome and Android now.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?
So, what does all of this mean? Well, it basically means that Google is trying to be everywhere you need it to be, with your phone at the centre of it all. Think about it. Google Now is at the core of Mobile, Wear, Auto, and TV. It can do everything that Siri and Cortana can, and then some. It’s Google trying to take over both technology & media, while making sure they’re doing it in as beautiful a way as possible. Since Matias Duarte joined Googled before the release of Android 4.0 ICS in 2011, we knew that Google wanted to distance themselves from their ugly past. Literally.
From Android 4.0 to 4.4 KitKat, we’ve seen their vision slowly grow, and Android L, whether it’s 4.5 or 5.0, is the first time we’ve seen what it has always meant to be — unified and beautiful across devices without any compromise to functionality.
I think what I most appreciated about this year’s I/O keynote was the fact that unlike Apple’s direct jabs at Android at WWDC ‘14, Google chose a much more subtle route.
“Custom keyboards, widgets: those things happened in Android four to five years ago.”
That’s what Sundar Pichai said on-stage in regards to Google wanting to build a more open platform that extends out to other aspects of your life, from Auto, to Wearables, to your living room. It’s as if Google wanted to say that yeah, widgets and customization are all a part of the Android experience, but that’s not everything — it’s more than that. While they did spend time talking about the aesthetics of Android, they didn’t dwell on it too long. Instead, each keynote speaker briefly touched upon it before moving onto how it makes using the app a better experience, and how that leads to using their various products from Android, to Chrome OS, a much better, more seamless experience as a whole. It’s just an interesting comparison to see where priorities lie between companies.
Google also took a page straight out of Apple’s book, by announcing the Developer Preview of Android three months ahead of the actual release in the Fall, a first since they’ve usually announced and released at the same time. Hopefully this means that Google is listening to the community with a closer ear now, so that many of the bugs get ironed out before the release of Android L to prevent back to back system updates within two weeks of each other.
There’s no doubt that this is the single biggest, and single most important release in the history of Android. With over 5,000 new APIs, a total re-thought redesign of the UI, and the extension into new fields with your phone at the centre of it all, Google made me feel excited again about the future of Android today, and that’s probably the best reaction they were hoping for — a re-energized community.