Once a year, Google sets aside a few days to tell—and sell—its own future.
Since 2008, the Google I/O conference has drawn thousands of developers of apps and gadgets, while also functioning as a sales pitch to the public about the next six to 12 months’ worth of projects.
Google likes to keep much of each year’s lineup of product announcements a surprise. But we know a few things about this year’s I/O, which is scheduled for Wednesday through Friday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. Here’s what we expect to see.
The Nth version of Android
Android announcements are sure to grab headlines at I/O 2016. New editions of Google’s mobile operating system are often introduced at this event, and in March of this year Google tipped its hand with a preview version of "Android N."
We know that this Android release will add a split-screen mode that puts one app’s window alongside or above another’s. That’s a good idea on both larger phones and tablets. It’s also an overdue catch-up to others in the mobile business. Samsung added a split-screen feature to Android devices years ago, and Apple did the same with iOS 9.
Google is also touting tidier notifications—those alerts that appear at the top of Android’s screen—that will give users more ways to act on them without first opening the corresponding apps. For example, you’ll be able to answer a Hangouts message by tapping a “Reply” button under the notification.
Android N also promises better battery life and reduced memory consumption, addressing two areas where smartphone users have probably never been satisfied—and may never be.
History suggests, however, that Google is keeping a few other Android N details under its hat. One of them is the operating system's full name—Google has christened each major Android release after a dessert, and “Nutella” seems to be one name popping into bloggers' minds, to follow last year’s “Marshmallow.” (Nutella is trademarked name, but that wouldn't necessarily deter Google—an earlier version of Android was called KitKat.)
Another, much more significant development would be the merging Google’s Chrome OS laptop operating system into Android. This possibility, raised in reports by the Wall Street Journal and other sources since last fall, could make those inexpensive Chromebooks more capable machines by allowing them to run mobile apps, and to more easily share information with Android smartphones.
Virtual Reality and the Internet of Things
I/O’s schedule of talks and presentations features a dozen sessions about virtual reality alone. Google’s interest in interactive 3-D panoramas isn’t new—2014’s I/O featured the debut of its cheap, clever Cardboard viewer, which uses plastic lenses in a cardboard, ViewFinder-esque housing to hold the user's phone, which can then play virtual reality (VR) content.
But Google may have a more ambitous headset in the works. The VR market is a highly competitive space right now; Google is up against Facebook (which owns Oculus VR), Samsung (which sells the Gear VR), and HTC (which has a headset called the Vive).
Google's Project Tango figures heavily in the company’s VR ambitions. This technology uses cameras and motion sensors to map out a space in three dimensions for later recreation in a VR headset—or an “augmented reality” (AR) overlay of what your phone’s camera sees. VR headsets have remained rather expensive, bulky contraptions, so in the near term AR experiences could be more attractive to a wider group of people.
The other big acronym to watch for at the conference is IoT, which stands for the Internet of Things. Google has gone on a spending spree buying up IoT companies such as Nest and Dropcam. Small, self-aware and Internet-connected devices IoT devices like Nest’s thermostat and Dropcam’s security cameras promise to make our homes smarter and safer, but they’ve also given us new setup hassles and new security worries.
And some time soon, Google could unveil a competitor to Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo personal assistant—reportedly code-named “Chirp." The Echo has sold well, providing its users a hands-free way to ask for weather updates, play music, and control IoT devices. Since voice control is looking like a big part of the future of both search and home automation, it's not surprising that Google wants to make its mark in that arena.
Reminder: It Won't All Actually Happen
The most important thing to keep in mind about I/O and tech events like it and Apple's upcoming WWDC: Their prophecies don’t always pan out.
For every product launched or promoted at an I/O conference that has since become a daily habit—for instance, the free and unlimited-storage Google Photos service introduced last year—others flop in the market or never even get into the hands of customers.
The Wave collaboration service demoed in 2009 never replaced e-mail. Google TV software looked promising as a smarter interface for your television in 2010 but paired poorly with existing cable boxes. Having wingsuited skydivers use Google Glass to livestream a jump onto the roof of San Francisco’s Moscone West convention center in 2012 did not make that cybernetic eyewear any more popular, and the Nexus Q streaming-media player introduced then never went on sale. The Android Wear smartwatches we saw touted in 2014 remain a marginal electronics accessory.
But what users want isn't always novel technology. Even after half a decade of Google saying it’s working to make it easier for smartphone manufacturers and wireless carriers to get new versions of Android onto existing smartphones, most users continue to be stuck with older, less capable, and less secure versions. Unfortunately, progress on that front is one development we don't expect to see this week.
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