Google I/O was a flurry of excitement with new apps, updates to platforms and a host of innovations, highlighting how many of the company’s biggest and most important products will look a lot different six months from now. Google unveiled its vision for a more ubiquitous way of interacting with technology with the announcement of Google Assistant, messenger Allo, the Echo-like speaker Home and Google’s rival to FaceTime, Duo. Improvements to Android, along with a mobile virtual reality (VR) platform were also announced; but perhaps the most significant announcement is how Google will run Android apps without the need to download them.
While we cover some of the highlights from the Google I/O conference,the updates to Android N and how they impact future app development, will be our focus.
Google Assistant seems to be a new name for Google Now based on natural-language processing, it is clearly focused on being able to speak naturally to the software. The assistant uses the phone’s context, including location, orientation, if it’s playing music etc. to determine the context of what a user is referring to or requesting and use this to provide the user with relevant information.
Google introduced its new AI-powered, smart messaging app Allo, which Google’s Engineering Director, Erik Kay, explained “works over time to make conversations easier and more productive”. It comes with some great features including the standard stickers and emojis; Whisper Shout, which allows users to change text size; and a feature that allows users to share search results in the thread as cards, a search for nearby restaurants for example. Allo also features an impressive smart-reply feature, which suggests responses. The more Allo is used, the more it learns how to respond and tailor suggestions. The Google chatbot built into Allo allows a user to interact with all the Google services by using natural language. One of Allo’s distinguishing features is being able to use Google Assistant for information and automatically generated replies.
Google now has a mobile VR platform, built on Android N. Google has developed the backbone software for Android N, to provide users with an entire VR ecosystem to play in. Although it appears that Daydream will only work on new phones with special screens and sensors, Google has apparently already created a VR-supported version of apps like YouTube, Street View and Google Play Store for it. There was even talk of a new VR standalone headset that doesn’t require tethering to a phone or tablet, as well as a lower-end VR headset announced at the conference.
Duo is Google’s video chatting app that is completely dedicated to a video-only experience. One particularly useful feature of Duo, is a live video preview of the caller, so users can see who is calling before answering. It is simple to use and is tied to a user’s phone number and will be made available on both Android and iOS this year.
Google Home is a new voice-activated smart speaker that uses the newly branded Google Assistant to support a range of impressive features designed for the smart home. Users will be able to stream music directly from the cloud, control video content, connect with smart home devices and answer questions and execute commands, using Google’s Assistant technology to make sense of the queries. Google Home will also enable users to use third party apps to order a takeaway or book a taxi.
Android Wear 2.0
Android Wear 2.0 will be helping make smartwatches more autonomous by relying less on smartphones and cellular connections. Fully independent apps, that exist entirely to operate on the watch, have been developed with access to cellular connections, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and GPS in this major overhaul of Google’s smartwatch OS. Google also showed a small, swipeable QWERTY keyboard for smartwatches, along with Smart reply and handwriting features. Google’s update is enabling compatible watches to do more without a phone, has made communication more simple through new input methods and has introduced significant improvements to the UI with the comprehensive Material Design-themed overhaul to the OS.
With the OS having been released before the Google I/O conference we were given the first look at Android N with a developer preview in March. We were already aware of the new look folders for apps and updates to emjois that would be available on the OS, along with the split-screen multitasking and quick settings buttons.
With the release of the new beta Google has announced security improvements to the OS, which include file-based encryption and automatic downloads of the latest software updates without you having to do anything. New features also include more control over notification size from different apps and a new picture-in-picture mode and Google also demonstrated new tools to help developers with UI implementation and testing.
However, it is the announcement of Instant Apps that is by far the biggest and most exciting feature that was announced at Google I/O. To improve the browsing experience in mobile and help developers get their apps into the hands of users, Android Instant Apps enables users to click on a URL to load parts of apps, even if the user doesn’t have them installed. Native apps will be available in a few seconds and will provide access to fully functional modules, for the user to interact with the app in the same way as if it had been downloaded to the device.
Google has indicated that it will be a fairly simple process to modularise Android apps for the programme, which will be rolled later this year. Instant apps could replace the need for web pages for some companies, where clicking on a link will deliver native app functionality instead.
Android apps will also be accessible via Chrome OS, running on newer, more powerful Chromebooks. While this does provide an opportunity for Android apps to become much more widely accessible, it does pose a potential issue for UX and UI design of these apps. Making Android apps available on Chrome OS will mean an app will instantly be accessible across an additional five million devices, with differing screen sizes and user interface expectations. There are also indications that this move is a precursor to Android apps being made available on Chrome. This would add a billion extra devices able to access Android apps and would require an innovative approach to UX/UI design or building for particular hardware requirements.
Android N Technology
Upgrading to Android N will also be a seamless process going forward, to hopefully encourage all Android users to take advantage of using the most advanced versions of the OS. All new Android phones will be built with a second partition that will have an exact copy of the OS in it to facilitate upgrade installation after rebooting a device. The offline partition can be updated with the new version of Android, which will be automatically switched over after the device is rebooted; and you will still have the option to revert to the older version if there are any problems.
Downloading apps will also be a much quicker and a more simple process with Android N. The pre-app compiler is being replaced with a just in time compiler, which will mean installing an app in a few seconds, instead of minutes. A new Awareness API is also being introduced to prompt an app into action or perform certain background tasks based on triggers such as weather, location, time, Beacons or Wi-Fi hotspots.
True multitasking support is finally here with Android N and could have some interesting implications for app developers. The Split Screen feature could help facilitate the development of simpler apps by removing features like email support. Android’s appeal to the enterprise will also likely be strengthened as multi-window support will enable multitasking. This will allow users to have two apps open on the screen, or two elements of the same app running at the same time, like mail app showing inbox and compose in two windows. The Activity Awareness API also presents a lot of potential for companies developing apps where the app can behave differently dependent on context or circumstance – if it’s raining, prioritise indoor user tasks, for example. Apps accessible via Chrome OS will also be welcomed by companies looking at both mobile and desktop support for their applications – although there will be a range of important decisions to be made from a UI and UX perspective. Quality Assurance has also got simpler with Google’s two minute test across the 15 most popular devices; providing an easy way to test across more devices.
It is clear apps will get smarter and what they can enable for users more impressive. Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, sees the future of computing as an ‘ambient experience that extends beyond devices’ and we can’t wait to see where we’re going.