In 2016, the total volume of Android app and game downloads was well over 81 billion. At the recently concluded 10th Google I/O developer conference (17-19 May, at the Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View, California), it was officially announced that the Android platform currently has more than 2 billion monthly active users. This year’s conference was mostly focused towards updates on announcements made in 2016 – and not on a series of new announcements per se. Over here, we will take readers through some of the most important highlights of Google I/O 2017:
Google Lens technology
The built-in camera of the average Android smartphone is all set to become more informative than ever before. The camera views will now be supported and analysed through Google Assistant – using a revolutionary technology called Google Lens – to generate useful, relevant information on the screen. For instance, videos and previous performances of a band can be pulled up by pointing the camera at a poster of a musical event, ratings of a restaurant can be viewed, and even the species of a flower can be identified. What’s more – if there is a wifi network available, users will be able to log in to it simply by pointing the Google Lens camera at the sign-in credentials. The phone camera will become an ‘input device’.
Note: With Lens, Google is playing the catch-up game with Samsung – which was the first to add artificial intelligence to phone camera, with the ‘Bixby Vision’ feature on the Galaxy S8 handset.
2. New virtual reality headsets
The collaboration of Google with Qualcomm for a standalone VR headset had already been in the news – and at the Google developers’ conference this year, it was finally announced. Unlike its predecessors, this headset does not require a paired smartphone to be docked in (before the headset is mounted). The Qualcomm headset will be powered by the robust Snapdragon 835 chipset (which is present in Samsung Galaxy S8) – and will have all the essential features, right from display and positional tracking, to powerful processor capabilities. The headset has been built on the existing Daydream platform, and will be launched by Lenovo and HTC in the second half of the year.
3. Artificial Intelligence to the fore
One of the most interesting announcements at Google I/O 2017 was the mention of the all-new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) – a custom-designed machine-learning chip that has been created on the Google TensorFlow platform. As revealed by Google last December, TPU would be used for seamless, accurate translation services – and would also ease out the process of creating artificial intelligence-based software on the cloud. In a sense, the new chip has the potential of transforming the cloud into an ‘AI field for Android’ – giving Google an edge over its rivals.
Note: The Tensor Processing Units were used in Google DeepMind (with AlphaGo), when it defeated 17-time Go world champion Lee Sedol 4-1.
Preview version of Android O
It is still not known what ‘O’ would stand for – but a preview version of the upcoming Android version was announced at this year’s I/O conference (the first developer preview was out in March) for beta testers. ‘Autofill’ and ‘Picture-in-picture’ were two of the features of Android O that were highlighted at the event by David Burke – the vice-president of engineering at Android. Yet another useful new feature of the latest Android iteration will be ‘smart text selection’. With the help of advanced machine learning standards, this feature will make selecting/copying text easier than ever. For example, double tapping on any part of an address (or a phone number, or a email id) will result in the entire address being selected. The platform will be able to ‘sense’ what the user wants to select, and act accordingly. The first beta of Android O can be tested on a compatible Google Pixel or Nexus handset.
iOS gets Google Assistant
Siri has a new competitor on its homeground (i.e., iOS) – and it’s none other than the uber-smart Google Assistant. While Assistant has no chance of becoming as popular as Siri on iOS (it will be limited inside the app, while Siri will remain the default digital assistant on the platform) – there is little room for doubting the improvements that have been made in the former. Google Assistant can now purchase event tickets (when pointed at a poster), translate foreign languages (by clicking pictures), and perform a wide range of other, useful tasks. People can also type in their instructions to Google Assistant, instead of talking to it. This adds an extra layer of convenience to end-users.
Smart responses in Gmail app
Yet another handy little feature for Gmail-users. The app (on both Android and iOS) has a new functionality named ‘Smart Responses’ – which allows people to select from a set of automated responses to emails (a maximum of three responses can be chosen). The responses are generated on the basis of the original email – and users have the option of adding more content with the custom response. Once again, an embedded machine learning system will be at the core of this feature, for prompt suggestion of automated, customized replies.
Suggested Sharing on Google Photos
Two key updates for Google Photos were announced at the annual I/O developer festival this year. The first is ‘Suggested Sharing’ – which provides recommendations of the names of people with whom a person can share photos. All shared images are viewable in a feed as well. The other feature is the ‘Shared Libraries’, in which a family of users can contribute photos. There are excellent personalization options available here – with people having the choice of sharing either the full album, or setting sharing parameters (e,g., from a certain date/time).
Note: Printed ‘Photo Books’ – created by including images from Google Photos – can also be created. Users have the option of creating 9” hardcover photo books ($19.99) or 7” softcover photo books ($9.99) directly from their smartphone.
360-degree videos on TV
360-degree videos will no longer be limited to virtual reality headsets and the screens of compatible mobile devices. It was announced at Google I/O 2017 that live streaming of 360-degree videos will also be possible on Android TVs. Playback of pre-recorded videos from the YouTube application will also be supported. During high-profile musical or sporting events, the option of viewing live 360-videos is definitely an exciting proposition.
More power to Google Home
The Google Home smart speaker was first announced at the 2016 I/O conference – and while it had decent-enough features, it had not been able to mount a serious challenge to Amazon Echo. Google clearly has plans to turn that around, with a plethora of new features being announced for Home at I/O 2017. For starters, hands-free calling (only outgoing calls) will be supported by the smart speaker (Amazon Echo already has this feature). Calls can be placed to mobile and landline numbers within the United States without any costs. In addition, the calling feature will have personalized voice recognition – ensuring that a generic command like ‘Call Dad’ results in the correct number (for different users) being dialled. The new ‘proactive assistance’ feature will generate real-time notifications on day-to-day things (transportation, traffic, etc.). The built-in Bluetooth radio will be usable as any other open Bluetooth speaker. The ‘visual displays’ of Google Home is another cool new feature. It displays the requested information on the screen of a connected device (say, the calendar on a Chromecast-connected TV).
Note: Deezer, HBO Now, SoundCloud and Hulu will all be controllable from Google Home from now on. The speaker debuted in UK earlier this year, and will become available in Japan, Canada, Germany, Australia and a few other countries soon.
10. Sharing the VR experience
The ambitious Google Daydream platform has the ‘Euphrates’ software update lined up – as announced at the conference. Among the many new features that this update will bring to the table, the most interesting one is the arrival of end-to-end Google Cast support. Directly from the standalone headset, select VR activities can be projected on TV screens (and hence, shared with others). Apart from this, a custom ‘VR theater’ can be created with the breakthrough YouTube virtual reality feature. A group of people will be able to enjoy the same VR experience in the theater.
11. Arrival of Android Go
The Android One initiative, launched in 2014, offered an insight into how Google was planning to target the mid-to-low end of its market. The Android Go project is an extension of the same initiative, for reaching out to the so-called ‘next billion’ users, primarily from developing countries. To put things simply, Android Go is a lightweight version of the Android platform (it isn’t a separate project by itself) – which will be present in budget smartphones with less than 1 GB RAM space. It will have its very own Play Store, with ‘lite’ versions of most popular apps. These will take up less of memory space, and use less data for functioning. YouTube Go – a special, preview-only version of the YouTube app, warrants a special mention in this regard. People can check out low-res video montages on YouTube Go, before deciding whether (s)he would actually watch a particular clip.
12. Wider playing field for Android Instant Apps
Announced at the 9th Google I/O, Android Instant Apps work only on the Marshmallow and Nougat platforms. What’s more, only a few Google partners had access to the Instant Apps feature. Things are going to change soon though, with Google having plans to make Instant Apps available on Android 5.0 Lollipop as well. More importantly, this feature would now be available for all third-party mobile app developers – who can start making ‘instant’ versions of their applications. Making Instant Apps mainstream is a definite objective of Google, and the wider playing field will give this feature a big boost.
Note: To know more about Android Instant Apps, click here.
13. Prototypes of Android Auto
Volvo and Audi are both onboard to use the Android platform for setting up their in-car infotainment systems. While this announcement was made a couple of days before Google I/O 2017 kicked off, the first prototypes were displayed during the conference. The in-built Google Assistant support will introduce a host of powerful controls for drivers – and practically all tasks, right from adjusting the car AC, to framing a navigation chart – will be performed by the Android vehicle control system. Android Auto will be getting…smarter.
In addition to the above, Google has also introduced a new ‘Transactions’ feature (for smartphones with Google Assistant) – for quickly pulling up address and card information at the time of transactions. The ‘Indoor Mapping’ feature, powered by VPS (visual positioning service) will help in specifying the precise location of things inside an area. Apparently, Google is also planning to take on LinkedIn, by adding job listings within the main search functionality (Google Jobs).
While Google I/O 2017 did not have too many new and innovative launches, there were several important updates – particularly for Google Home and Daydream VR. The company is clearly focusing on improving its existing line of products – and making an attempt to reach out to more users. The conference had plenty of fascinating news for Android developers as well as general tech enthusiasts…that’s for sure!