This series of articles aims to take the latest events from the world of technology and pick out the best bits, showcasing the latest ideas and trends which will soon be swinging your way. Today, we take a look at the keynote speech delivered at Google’s latest developer conference.
While Google are certainly a lot less showy than their fruit-based competitors in Cupertino (and certainly attract less public attention), that is not to say that they are any less interesting when it comes to their events. If anything, the keynote delivered to developers at Google I/O 2016 on 18th May demonstrates that even a company as large and pervasive as Google can keep some secrets up their sleeve, with several new products demonstrated and a couple being fairly close to release. And so without any further ado, let’s take a look at what El Goog have planned for us over the coming months…
The Google Assistant
Pinning down the Google Assistant is a little tricky, especially because it will provide the background to a number of other Google services. Those who currently use an Android phone will likely be familiar with Google Now, and it is probably best to see the Google Assistant as a direct development of the same concept which Apple (with Siri) and Microsoft (with Cortana) are also attempting to tackle. Google Assistant is a system built on machine learning, which (Google hopes) will help you complete everyday tasks with ease by learning about you and your actions. They describe it as ‘a Google for you, by you‘ – certainly a grand statement, but if the past few years have shown us anything, it is that machine learning holds the potential for some great things. It also, rather handily, fits nicely with two other products showcased during the I/O keynote.
Google Home (available ‘later this year’)
The first of these products is Google Home – something which I cannot help but compare with the J.A.R.V.I.S. system seen in Iron Man. While Amazon might have beaten Google to the mark here with their Amazon Echo unit, Google are jumping in head-first, fitting the Google Home unit within their broader ecosystem of home devices. The Home unit does look a little like an air freshener, but allows for anyone to participate in a two-way dialogue with the aforementioned Google Assistant. It has all of the standard voice assistant features – calendar, notepad and checking the weather – but also brings together a number of other devices. You can, for example, tell Google Home to play music through a specific Chromecast Audio unit in your house, and it will be able to do that through a direct connection to a number of streaming services (there is also a ‘compact speaker’ built in). The same applies for standard Chromecast and television shows or movies.
Perhaps the most interesting use is connection to the wider ‘Internet of Things’. Google Home can connect directly to devices within your ‘smart home’ be they thermostats, lights or coffee machines. Google also hope that external developers will make use of the features available to them and bring additional functionality – I, for one, look forward to ordering a takeaway from Just Eat without having to go anywhere near my phone.
Communication is definitely the name of the game with these two – Allo (pronounced Aloe, apparently) and Duo are Google’s new text and video-chatting apps respectively, designed from the ground-up to incorporate new technologies such as the Google Assistant. There are a number of common features between the two – they both, for example, feature end-to-end encryption as an additional security measure. They both also use your phone number as your unique identifier (as opposed to your Google Account), which means that they should work in a similar manner to WhatsApp and Telegram. Android fans have asked for an iMessage equivalent for some time, but with Google Hangouts already existing, one must question how useful fragmenting communications will really be – not just for Google, but for their users as well.
Allo comes with the usual array of emojis and emoticons, but also packs a number of other features which are a little more specialised – WhisperShout can be used to change the size of your message and therefore draw attention to important messages (or your latest cat photo), while Ink lets you draw on any images you send. Integration with Google Assistant means that a feature called Smart Reply has been introduced, allowing for unique contextual replies to be created for you to simply send with one tap. You can also summon Google Assistant directly within the app, allowing you to book tables at a restaurant (among other things) without leaving the app.
Duo, on the other hand, is described as a ‘video-calling experience which feels magical every time’ and sits as the companion to Allo. Perhaps the biggest feature is Knock Knock, showing you a preview of the caller before you even pick up. This allows you to contextualise the call – who the caller is, why they are calling and where they are. Duo also saw a lot of optimisation from the team at Google, allowing for instant and seamless transmission of video even when network quality is poor.
Android N (expected ‘later this summer’; ‘beta-quality’ version available for specific devices now)
We’re heading into the tenth year of Android development and Google are keen to stress the diversity of the brand, now encompassing phones, televisions, watches and cars. Much like Windows and OS X, Android sees new versions released fairly frequently, with Android N being the next one scheduled. This particular version of the Android software aims for ‘a new level of product excellence’, introducing changes inspired by users and making the environment more intuitive to use. But what has actually changed?
With regards to performance, Android N is adopting the Vulkan API. There are a variety of technical reasons as to why this is a good thing, but in real-world terms what should be noticed is an overall improvement in graphical fidelity and quality. They’ve also spent time working on the Android Runtime, leading to faster app installs and a much more snappy system as a whole.
Security is up next, introducing file-based encryption for the first time on Android and dividing up system processes in order to improve overall system security. Perhaps most useful, however, is the introduction of seamless updates. Those of you who already use Chromebooks will be familiar with the system they use, essentially downloading updates in the background and then switching to the updated system seamlessly on the next reboot. This system is now being introduced to Android N, getting rid of the much-hated ‘Android is Updating’ screen in the process.
Last up is productivity and the Recent Apps screen. Google have decided to simplify the list, reducing the number of apps on the list and adding a few hotkeys to make it significantly easier to use. Multi-window is also making its way to Android at long last, allowing for multiple windows to be open simultaneously and (hopefully) capitalising on the larger screen sizes, which are becoming the norm. A Direct Reply feature has been added to select notifications, and all Unicode 9 emojis have been built into the system.
Oh, and you can get in on the action and help name Android N – check out the submission form online!
Plenty more was covered in the keynote (now available online), ranging from Android Wear to a new virtual reality system called Daydream. Stay tuned for more updates as the details for these technologies are fleshed out, and we’ll see you again after the next tech event!