So Google I/O 2016 happened last evening (East African time) and as expected, there was the usual basket full of goodies from El-Goog. In short, I/O 16, like the previous I/O meets, lived up to the conference’s billing as the mid-year Christmas for all Google watchers and Android enthusiasts.
Rather than bore you with endless tales you may not be interested in, here’s a roundup of everything exciting announced at Google’s annual developer conference in San Francisco yesterday:
1. Google Home
If you have heard of Amazon’s smart assistant, Echo, then you know what to expect of Google Home.
Google Home is a voice-activated hardware device with a built-in speaker and microphones that aims to make your home really smart. It is more like the Echo in functionality but with one key differentiator: it rides on the power of Google’s search product and all the data the company has about you. Not only will it get to interact with you in the home using voice but it will be doing so with a headstart since it already knows quite a lot about you.
Even though Amazon has had a year and a half headstart with the Echo which keeps on fascinating the tech press, Google Home is expected to give Amazon’s product a run for its money. How it interfaces with existing Google products which most people use and the ability to issue commands directly to a connected Chromecast, Google’s streaming dongle, are some of its core strengths even before it starts shipping.
Sadly, though, Google Home’s availability will be limited to the US and it will only support English, at least for now. Oh, and it supports just one Google account so in a typical home setup, not every user will be able to tie their account to the family Google Home if that ever becomes a thing. That and its apparent lack of portability since the speaker has to be always connected to power for it to function. What a problem to have!
2. Google Assistant
This is Google’s voice technology which powers Google Home.
All those voice queries that users will be able to shoot at Google Home will be courtesy of Google Assistant, a modern-day chatbot leveraging on Google’s famous natural language processing platform.
With Google Assistant, we can now stop comparing Google Now with the likes of Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Google Assistant is their real counterpart and what looks like a natural evolution of Google Now, the context-aware assistant that has been around on Google’s Android platform for 4 years now.
Google Assistant won’t just be on Google Home. It will be on your smartphone, your smartwatch, your everything. Google boss Sundar Pichai has this to say about Home:
We think of this assistant as an ambient experience that extends across devices, it’ll be on their phones, the devices they wear, in their cars, and in their homes.
3. Google Daydream
Remember Daydream? It is a small feature found on your Android device buried deep in the settings application that you can activate so that you get some little nice animations and other information like the clock on your device when it is docked or charging. No, we’re not talking about that one. Google Daydream is something else.
It is that Android VR that rumours were pointing to prior to I/O 2016.
According to Google, its early virtual reality effort, Cardboard, drew a lot of interest from users around the world. In fact, 50 million Cardboard applications have been installed so far. That’s a huge number for something that is only starting to go mainstream and hints at its enormous untapped potential. To that end, there was need for something more than Cardboard. That something is Daydream.
Daydream is an evolution of Google Cardboard. In fact, it is more than that. It is not a mere VR headset like Cardboard, it is an entire platform! Google Daydream includes a VR app store, headset, controllers and a host of smartphones that will be compatible with it.
“VR should be mobile, approachable, and for everyone.” Clay Bavor, Google’s VP for VR
Google is already working with several device makers so that their next batch of smartphones is Daydream-ready. This includes Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus and Alcatel. Basically, the who’s who of the Android device world are onboard. Users and enthusiasts like me and you should buckle up because this is going to be an exciting ride when the devices start arriving later in the year.
When Daydream finally arrives, there will already be some content from partners that Google is currently working with like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, CNN, HBO Now, Netflix, NBA, Hulu, IMAX, Lionsgate, EA Games among others. Developers can as well start preparing their applications for Daydream in the latest Android N preview builds.
While Google did not announce any Daydream hardware at the I/O 2016 keynote, it did show off a reference device which its partners will use as a guide when making their own VR headsets. By following Google’s guidelines, VR devices will provide a lag time of under 20 milliseconds i.e. the time it takes between making a movement and the same actually being reflected on the VR screen will be extremely short for you to even notice.
4. Android N
For quite some time, we will continue being in the dark about some things associated with the new version of Google’s mobile operating system. Like the name.
Google still doesn’t have a name for Android N. True to its promise to crowdsource the name, the company is inviting everyone to submit a name. There’s a catch, though. That does not necessarily mean that Google will have in mind whatever you suggest when it finally makes the final decision on what to go with. Just feel good when submitting Namey McNameface as the name and expect nothing more.
THIS IS SOLELY INTENDED TO BE FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES; THE NAME(S) YOU SUBMIT WILL NOT BE JUDGED AND THERE WILL BE NO PRIZES OR COMPENSATION AWARDED TO ANY PARTICIPANT.
Maybe Google just wants to avoid a dirty costly lawsuit some time later by someone wanting to take credit for the name?
There’s still a couple of exciting stuff coming to Android N that we had previously not been that privy to. Like the virtual reality support and better performance when gaming thanks to improvements to Vulkan, the low-overhead API that Google chose for graphics on Android.
— Google Play (@GooglePlay) May 18, 2016
5. Unicode 9 Emojis
It is not just you who feels that Android emojis are plain ugly. Google also knows it. While it doesn’t appear to be changing that anytime soon, at least it will be adding 72 new emojis to make you feel a bit better. Android emojis will also be getting those skin tone emojis that iOS has had for nearly a year now. Oh, and the feminists can rejoice. There will be more gender-specific emojis in Android than there have been before thanks to Google baking in the latest emojis from the Unicode Consortium in Android N.
Android is the first mobile platform to adopt the Unicode 9 Emoji standard. #io16
— Android Developers (@AndroidDev) May 18, 2016
6. Android Instant Apps
What if you didn’t have to install every other application just so that you can use it? That is, in a nutshell, what Android Instant Apps are all about. Really.
Many a time you just want particular information and not everything. However, there are very few to no options on how to do just that. You usually end up having two not-so-intuitive choices: download a mobile app to get that information or load up an entire website to do the same. What if the app developers modularized their application so that you are only served the specific bits of the app you need instead of having to download the entire app? That’s the premise of Android Instant Apps.
The best thing about Instant Apps is that you won’t need to be on Android N to experience them, any device running Android 4.1 going up will be let into the party.
— Google (@google) May 18, 2016
7. Android Wear 2.0
Over two years since it was launched, Android Wear, Google’s platform for wearables based on its mobile platform, Android, is finally getting the big makeover that its users have been waiting for.
Users will be able to add things like widgets to watch faces (both Google’s and third-party watch faces).
While it is still ridiculous to imagine typing or doing anything along those lines on a smartwatch’s tiny screen, Google is going ahead to try and make that comfortable. It is introducing a smart reply feature that allows users to respond to messages in a much faster way by selecting a more expanded list of built-in responses. For those that want a more personal touch how about taking advantage of the QWERTY keyboard that Android Wear smartwatches are getting in Android Wear 2.0? Or just use their fingers to draw some quick gestures?
The biggest update to Android Wear, in my opinion, is Android Wear smartwatches fully becoming standalone devices, entirely not beholden to smartphones. This has been achieved by allowing third party applications full network access (Bluetooth, cellular networks or Wi-Fi).
Of course, it wouldn’t be Android Wear 2.0 without an overhaul in the user interface and support for Android N so if you are one of those people on the fast lane of Android with a Nexus smartphone with the latest Android N preview builds installed, your Android Wear-based smartwatch should play along just nicely once it gets the update.
8. Allo and Duo
If there’s anything we can say about Google and its attempts to crack mobile messaging is that they are commendable. The company is persistent. Persistence wears out resistance they said. We are not sure if that is the case for Google but… Allo and Duo are like what? Its 1,000th messaging apps?
Unlike previous attempts like Messenger and Hangouts, Allo and Duo are what we can call “more clever” messaging apps.
Allo taps the power of the new Google Assistant and Google’s own Knowledge Graph to provide a new take at messaging. For instance, users can chat with a @Google chatbot in Allo to get all manner of responses to their queries.
Unlike approaches we’ve had recently from the likes of Facebook which is welcoming as many chatbots as possible onto its Messenger platform, Google’s own chatbot will be the only one on Allo as the company endeavours to be different and provide something different than the competition.
Allo’s other key strength right from the start is its built-in image recognition that automatically detects beings or objects in shared images and suggests others along the same line. With “smart reply”-like features, it can even just do the chatting for you.
Duo is the video version of Allo. With Duo, Google is taking on Apple’s FaceTime and Microsoft’s Skype. Skype, to be honest, doesn’t offer the best video calling experience on mobile. Hopefully, Duo will fix that? Maybe but since it doesn’t have video-conferencing, that may be a stretch. It does have one impressive feature, though, Knock Knock lets you see the person you are placing a video call to moments before they answer your call. Creepy but exciting as well.
Both Allo and Duo will be solely available on mobile on both Android and iOS. They all require a user’s mobile phone number as part of the sign-up process. After that, users can either to continue using them that way or opt to link their Google accounts as well. Both apps offer end-to-end encryption, a feature that has been recently introduced on messaging apps like Whatsapp. In Allo, end-to-end encryption is turned on when a user opts to chat in Incognito mode. In Duo, all video calls are encrypted.
9. The other stuff
There was just so much stuff showed off at last evening’s keynote. This includes finally getting an answer to that mysterious tweet by Hugo Barra. It’s an Android TV box. Xiaomi announced a new version of its Mi Box that will have 4K streaming and run on Android TV.
Other stuff includes Google announcing some more Google Cast and Android TV partners. If you’ve never heard of Google then here’s a quick intro: instead of using Google’s media streaming dongle, Chromecast, the same can be built right into TV sets to make it easy to “cast” content from iOS and Android devices. That is what Google Cast is all about.
While still on Android TV, it will be getting several new applications as well as features like picture-in-picture, HDR and live recording capabilities.
Android Pay, Google’s mobile payments platform is also getting some updates. For instance, it will now be possible to checkout using Android Pay on the mobile web just as it is on apps.
Did Google I/O 2016 bring everything you wanted?