Google IO 2016
Google held its annual conference, IO, yesterday and during its keynote we were presented with what Google has been working on recently as well as a peek on where they are heading for the next 12 months.
Along with the usual product updates we were expecting, the theme seemed similar to the likes of Facebook and Microsoft: Big pushes into VR and Bots (or Google Assistant in the case).
Google continued its yearly updates to its Android operating system. The versions are named alphabetically and this year we are at “N”, although Google has decided to crowd source the name this time around. During the keynote there was a great reference to the recent research vessel naming scandal here in the UK when they jokingly asked for the world not to pick “Namey McNameface”.
Feature-wise, Android N doesn't disappoint; it’s faster, includes native multitasking (split screen and picture in picture), better notification controls, and some well received battery optimisations and a new graphics API called Vulkan that will give game developers even better control of the device’s graphics card.
The new version is available for early preview now, although it will be officially released later this summer.
Android Wear 2.0
Google latest version of its wearable operating system follows a trend started by Apple with its recent Watch 2.0 update, whereby developers can access more resources within the device but also the watch can now operate independently from the paired smartphone. This is great news for who struggle to keep their smartphone charged during the day (a flat phone battery all but makes the smartwatch useless).
Some interesting changes are automatic exercise recognition and the addition of a new QWERTY keyboard UI that can appear on screen in order to reply to text messages or emails. Its definitely a useful, if cramped, feature.
In a move that seems acknowledge the importance of UX on such a tiny screen, Google have released a Material Design guideline for Wearables that makes for some interesting reading and I see becoming a go to reference for wearable UX.
Android Instant Apps
One of the more interesting technologies announced at IO was Android Instant Apps. The premise is simple: why shouldn't you be able to simply click a web link and be able to use a native app instantly? The goal being to avoid the search app, purchase app, install app, run app flow.
Google seem to be pushing this technology for apps that are typically “one use apps” such as for parking payment, single item purchases or rich media consumption such as video.
Its an interesting technology to be sure, and time will tell how well the developer community adopts it (there are some app code organisation constraints that developers need to follow).
Although Google voice and interaction technology is not new (Google Now has performed similar duties for some time), at IO 2016 Google seems to have solidified and made tangible the idea of “Google Assistant” as opposed to a referring to a collection of voice and machine learning technologies like it has in the past.
Along with showcasing the latest technological advances, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai demoed some very sophisticated voice interaction and ecommerce integration with the assistant. The ease with which he spoke with the assistant highlighted the improvements in natural language parsing that Google seem to have made over competitors.
Although not a direct service to consumers in itself, the Google Assistant is embedded and made available within other apps and services (such as Allo and Home).
Also of note is Google’s resistance to naming their assistant and following in the footsteps of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Facebook M and Amazon Alexa. They seem keen on keeping the assistant and Google synonymous.
Virtual Reality is all the rage at the moment, and although Google is no stranger to VR, today it firmly declared to the world that it takes it very seriously with the announcement of Daydream, a hardware and software platform for creating the next generation of VR experiences. What is interesting though, is that Google is sticking with smartphone centric paradigm whereby a phone is the central component of the VR experience. Hence Daydream will actually be built into Android N as a feature, as opposed to be a standalone app or SDK to be bundled into apps.
Unlike Google Cardboard which worked on most devices, Daydream will only work on new phones that support it. Google has announced Samsung, LG, Huawei, HTC, ZTE, Asus will be producing smartphones that support Daydream.
Google have finally entered into the home voice assistant markets with the introduction of Google Home. This is entering a market currently dominated by the likes of Amazon Echo, which has dominated for the past year virtually unchallenged.
Google Home takes the form of a small cylinder device you place in your home and which provided access to Google’s Assistant technology through voice and natural language processing.
Although it is great to finally have to giants such as Amazon and Google competing in this space, Google have yet to open up the Home API to external developers. Amazon Echo’s greatest power comes from the ever growing list of third party integrations (or “skills” as Amazon terms them). If Google want to play in this space, they’re going to have to court a lot of developers and get them to create quality integrations in order to make this ultimately successful.
New Messaging apps: Allo & Duo
Google announced two new communication platforms, Allo and Duo, for real time messaging and video calling respectively. Although not released yet (later this summer) from their feature lists they seem very capable apps and their cross platform nature means you won’t need to switch communication medium based on the recipient's device (eg FaceTime).
Google Allo is a new messaging app in the same vein as Facebook Messenger, whereby you can interact with Google Assistant conversationally to search or perform actions.
Along with the usual rich media support, Google has wired in its machine learning technology in order to understand your conversations and provide contextual suggestions. While many will balk at the idea of inviting Google into your personal conversations, Google seems to gone above and beyond to allay those fears by including end-to-end encryption as well as an “incognito” mode whereby the Google Assistant is switched off.
Google Duo is a new video chatting app designed to take on the likes of Apple’s FaceTime. Its focus seems to be simplicity and video performance. Google have stated that the video calling work well even on poor connections and its technology is robust enough to handle switching from Cellular to WiFi and back again without dropping a call.
An interesting feature is “Knock knock”, whereby the recipient of a call gets a video preview of the caller prior to answering the call.
This app is definitely going to be popular on Android, especially given lack of updates to Google Hangouts over the past few years.