Today was the eighth annual Google Conference, I/O. This is the day when Google unveils everything that it has been working towards over the past year, and typically, it features some really interesting improvements to existing services, as well as announcements of some new products.
This year was no different. During the nearly two hour long keynote, we saw several of Google's top execs and team leaders take to the stage to discuss several new things: The Android M Developer Preview, Chrome, Android Pay, Android Wear, The Internet of Things, Google Now, Maps, Photos, and interestingly enough, Cardboard.
So, let's start breaking it down.
Android M Developer Preview
Much like with the release of last year's Android 5.0 Lollipop, Google is keeping what name of it's next iteration of Android under wraps. Going by the internal code of Macadamia Nut Cookie, M is also following it's predecessor L in that there will be a Developer Preview, so that devs can get used to all of the new changes in the updated operating system.
What Google focused on during the keynote was an updated permissions, giving you more granular controls, Chrome, Android Pay, and a renewed focus on battery life.
The updated permissions are actually really good, something that should have happened long ago. Currently, when you want to install an application, the Play Store informs you of everything the app is requestion permission to access. That will still be there, to an extent, but instead of having a long laundry list of permissions that are hard to understand, Google has simplified them.
Apps no longer have blanket access to everything, from your contacts to camera to microphone. The permissions are now only triggered when you access a certain event inside of the application. Google gave the example of WhatsApp. Let's say you want to take a photo, using the camera inside the share-a-photo shortcut in the conversation panel. Instead of already having access, WhatsApp will ask you for permission in a one-time only pop-up dialog box. This way, if you never use that feature, WhatsApp will never have access to that permission. It's a way to directly control what your apps can and cannot access on your phone, and it's a step in the right direction.
Chrome was also talked about heavily. In it's current state, it feels more like an app, something separate from your workflow. When you browse Twitter, Facebook, or your RSS reader of choice, and click on a link, the app will boot you out into Chrome. It's jarring, and not effective. Sure, there are a ways around this using apps like Link Bubble or Flynx, but those are more so a stop-gap. They too feel separate, and not really a part of the overall experience that you get from the app you're currently inside of. The way Google is tackling this is by including something called Chrome Custom Tabs.
Custom tabs effectively are the same thing as Facebook Instant Articles. The way it works is that let's say your inside an app, and you find a link that you want to quickly check out. You click on it, and instead of being booted out into Chrome, you remain inside of the app. Instead what happens is that a secondary pane slides out from the right. It looks like it belongs in the app itself, borrowing the colours and overall aesthetics, but it's actually a dedicated Chrome window. You could say that it's a form of an internal browser, but it formats itself so much nicer and better than anything else that's currently being used. Chrome takes this a step further too. Instead of only being used for articles, like Facebook Instant, it works with just about any link you throw at it.
Chrome also has another really interesting feature. Any of the passwords that you have saved inside of the browser will carry over to apps of the same name. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Amazon. No longer will you have to enter in your passwords multiple times, and that makes me really happy.
Android Pay was also debuted at I/O. Compared to the fanfare around Apple Pay, Android Pay's announcement was a little subdued and felt like more of a secondary announcement. It works just like Apple Pay does - any Android device that's NFC enabled can go up to a payment terminal, tap, and it will allow you to select your payment method from a variety of cards that you enter and store on the device itself. It's seamless, and seems fairly quick. No more fumbling with change, or trying to pry apart too many cards that are stuck together in your wallet.
Android Pay seems like the most natural progression of what Google Wallet was always meant to be. Not only does it work in brick-and-mortar retail stores, it will also work online and inside your apps. If you need to make a quick IAP to get that Candy Crush fix, or if you really just want to buy that sick beat from Taylor Swift, you can do so now through Android Pay. It's a one tap solution online, meaning you don't have to enter that 16 digit string of numbers, and you immediately get an email receipt.
What's great about Android Pay is that Google is also tackling fingerprint sensors head-on. Fingerprint readers have been present in Android in some shape or form since 2011, starting with the Motorola ATRIX. Instead of leaving it up to OEMs like Samsung and Motorola, Google is enabling the proper APIs in Android M for fingerprint sensors and scanners, so you know that it will work. You don't have to worry if Samsung will get it right or not, because it's not something that they're tacking on to Android - it's already baked right in.
Remember Project Volta? It was announced at I/O '14, along side Android L. It was meant to be Google's attempt at managing the battery performance on your phone, and for the most part, it didn't really live up to the hype. Aside from the Battery Saver mode built into stock Android, Volta didn't do much to ease the battery drain. It didn't help that Android Lollipop had a nasty memory leak bug that still has yet to be really fixed.
Doze, however, is Google's 2015 attempt at rectifying all of this. Android M will intelligently learn how often you use your device, and during what times of the day. So if you use it more during the waking hours, it won't necessarily drop down into a deep sleep every time you power off the display. But if you don't use it when you're sleeping, the device will drop down into a deeper sleep state, only allowing alarms and certain notifications that you want to come through to come through. Google said they had tested this on a device with Lollipop and a device running the developer preview of M, and on M, the battery lasted up to 2x as longer as it did on Lollipop. If that's true, that's really good news, because it means I can likely drop the number of power banks that I carry on me on a daily basis.
Along with the new software, there will be some new hardware coming with Android M. When the next Nexus device (or devices if the rumours are to be correct) launches likely in the fall, it will support USB Type-C. Yes, the same connector type found in the new MacBook, the Nokia N1, and in the 2015 Chromebook Pixel. It's that reversible, universal USB connection that I'm really excited about, because it's taken Apple's Lightning connector idea, and doused it in a cocktail of tech steroids. What's cool about this is that because it's reversible, you can decide how you want the connection to function. You have charge your phone, or use your phone to charge other device, or use it to transfer data like normal. I'm interested in seeing how this will all play out once M is released in full, but that's still a few months away.
And last but not least, Google has fixed, yes fixed, copy/paste. I've always found that while copy/paste is better and more accurate on Android than it is on iOS (personal preference), it still needed some work.You'd have to be extremely precise when dragging your finger across words, or it'd highlight everything, or something, nothing at all. The new copy/paste works by highlighting word chunks, letting you go back letter by letter when you want to de-select something. And instead of having the copy/cut/paste buttons at the very top of your screen, you now have a floating bar instead hovering right above the selection that you've just highlighted. This is so good that during the keynote, someone actually yelled out, "FINALLY!" Yup.
Android Wear was fully announced roughly a year ago. Since then, various OEMs have made devices, from Samsung, to LG and Motorola. The whole concept of Android Wear in general is kind of genius in it's utter simplicity - it serves as both a watch, and your notification center. You don't have to dive into an app on your watch to do everything you need to do; that's saved for your phone. What happens on your watch are quick, glanceable, and actionable, or so Google says, and I have to agree with them. As it is, once I get a notification on my phone, I get distracted by diving into the rest of that notification's app. On the watch, I don't want to be doing that. I want to see it, reply or dismiss it, and then get back to my life. And that's something I find you don't get on the Apple Watch.
"Checking the time is really cool."
Android Wear, in it's current form, has over 4.000 dedicated apps to get notifications from. You can get direction, do more voice-actions like yell into your watch to hail an Uber down, and so much more. And yet, you don't get drawn all the way it. It's there, a simple, effortless extension of your life.
Right now, there are over 1,500 different watch faces for Android Wear, and as far as I can tell, only 10 for the Apple Watch, lending even more credence to Google's, "Be Together, Not The Same," ad campaign.
What they did with Android Wear this time around was extend its use-case even further, by letting it become one of the central pieces in Project Brillo, it's new push towards the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things is a simple idea - why should your appliances be dumb and stuck in the past? Why can't they all talk to one another and learn? Why can't they adapt to your schedule, automating themselves to make your life easier?
This is where Project Brillo comes in. Brillo is derived from Android, but is polished down to just the lower layers like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy. This means that you can set your stove to preheat when you're 10 minutes away from home, or turn on your washing machine as you sit on your couch. It's the first step to automating your home and your life, letting you control everything from your phone or watch.
What's interesting is that Google has pulled in members from the Nest, Chrome OS, and Android teams to help build Brillo, which they hope to make into the underlying OS for all IoT devices. This ensures that everything can and will talk together using something that they call WEAVE, which is the communications layer.
While this portion of the presentation was fairly brief, I'm sure that we'll hear more in the weeks and months to come.
Google Now is easily one of the more futuristic and impressive ventures Google has ever implemented into, well, anything. It's incredibly useful, giving you contextual cards based on your search history and location. Let's say I searched for a pair of headphones two weeks ago, and Google noticed that Amazon decided to put it on sale. I'd get a card notification letting me know that. That's one of the many, many things that Google now can do, and today, it just got infinitely better.
Google Now Now on Tap, a weirdly awkward mouthful of a name, is insane. Basically, it reads your screen for information that it thinks you might want to know about, and then feeds it to you. So if I got a text or email from my friend asking to go see a movie, Mad Max for instance, and I want to know more about it, all I'd have to do is long press the home button and Google Now would pop up from the bottom, giving me all the information and links I'd need to know more about the movie, including the main actors. Another example is if you're looking up a a restaurant, and don't know exactly what the third item on the menu is, long press the home button and Google will just tell you.
"Word error rates in speech recognition has dropped from 23% down to 8% since 2013."
Even crazier? Get a text about a restaurant, pull up Now on Tap, and instantly make a reservation. No more fumbling around with your phone. The crazy thing is that you're not actually leaving the app you were just in. This happens all as a layer on top, meaning you can slide right back into your text, email, or Google search. And up until now, Google Now, while incredibly useful, felt much like Chrome - just another app that was a separate experience from everything else on your phone. Now it feels more natural, like the perfect evolution of search, building it right into your phone, making it predictive, superseding any query you might have.
Google Photos has long been one of Google's better products. It automatically backs everything up to your account, so that even when you lose or change your phone for a newer one, you can still access every photo you've ever taken. However, up until now, it was buried deep inside of Google+, a service that while I like, is really clunky. It wasn't the easiest to organize either, and would often leave you with duplicates of the same photo if you sent it in a message to any of your friends.
With Photos having officially been separate from Google+, Google seems to have fixed that. Now, you can access all your photos across your Android devices, the web, and now on your iOS device.
"But first, lemme take a selfie!"
What's great about Photos is that you can pinch-to-zoom right into a photo from a collection, or pinch-to-zoom out to see the day, week, months, or even years that your photos were taken in. That's not the craziest part - Photos can literally recognize you from birth to four years later. Even in a dimly lit shot of you taken from 15 feet away, Google can recognize you, and while that may seem scary, it really makes me excited because now it means I don't have to worry about tagging my photos. I can take 11 totally different pictures of my friend, and have Google group them all together automatically. Photos can even recognize places you've been to. Let's say you have photos of the CN Tower, you can search for the CN Tower right within the app, and every photo that has the CN Tower in it will pop up, again, all without you having to do any (geo)tagging or metadata entry.
Google also announced that you can store the original photo in it's full resolution up to 16MP and video up to 1080p using your exiting Google Drive storage, or it will compress the photo down in size. Even then, the compression isn't terrible, and the photos still look great. The kicker is that if you opt for the compressed image file size, you then get free, unlimited storage. Forever. Yeah, that's right. Google dropped the mic so hard on this one that I'm fairly sure Dropbox crapped their pants a little.
Cardboard & VR
Last year, in response to all the VR hype surrounding Occulus and Sony's Project Morpheus, Google decided to take them on in the most tongue-in-cheek manner possible. They created a simple cardboard housing for your phone that when paired with an app, turned your phone into a VR headset. It was cheap, and it worked really well. I distinctly remember various YouTubers being really impressed by it.
According to Google, there are currently 1 million Cardboard viewers, and the majority of them are in the classroom. They demoed how teachers are using it to help their students to interact with the study material on a greater level, which then actually gets them more excited and involved. It's also incredibly cheap. While I didn't get mine officially through Google's I/O event last year, I was able to order one online for $3 CDN from Hong Kong, and have it shipped to me within two weeks. You can't really get more affordable than that, and it beats plonking a TV down in front of your students.
For the next billion people, their smartphone will be their only computer, and for the vast majority, they will be Android users. Eight out of every 10 devices shipped worldwide are Android based now, meaning Google has an incredible reach for potentially life-changing educational resources found in Cardboard. Compared to the recently unveiled $1,500 price tag for the Occulus Rift, Cardboard is incredibly compelling.
Beyond the educational purposes, Google is also taking VR to the absolute next level with their 360-degree VR rig. They partnered up with GoPro for a demo video, and it's honestly incredible being pan around inside of a video - the element of immersion is quite incredible. Just watch for yourself
There were some other announcements during the keynote as well, but they were incredibly brief, or mentioned in passing (offline Google Maps, Project Loon, and self-driving cars). Regardless, Google set the stage for the next 12 months, and it's going to be an exciting time. Android M is set to release sometime in Q3, hopefully alongside a new Nexus or two. And with that comes a whole slew of new and exciting things to try out.
Android M, and the rest of this keynote, is the JellyBean update to ICS that we really needed in 2015 - small, meaningful, and incredibly important.