Last week, Google’s annual software developer-focused conference, Google I/O (“Innovation in the Open”) met in Mountain View, CA. The tech giant debuted several new innovations and some advancements to existing products. Some were expected, some were surprising, and some were disappointing—but all were interesting. Here are our key takeaways from this year’s I/O event.
The pleasant surprises . . .
“Ok Google, make a reservation at my favorite restaurant.” Google Assistant is the best natural language and context-aware virtual assistant to date. Using Google’s machine learning, Google Assistant understands voice commands and chain queries together, providing some very useful actions. The complexity suggested of being context-and-user-aware is incredible and if Google’s claims are accurate, they will reset the bar for virtual assistants.
Combined with the power of other Google applications, this feature looks to change the way we interact with our devices. According to Arthur C Clarke’s 3rd law of advanced technology: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It seems like Google Assistant is getting there.
Google acknowledged Amazon’s advancement in the home assistant space with Echo, announcing their own plans to carry this further by debuting Google Home. Combining the power of Google Assistant with other Google apps like Chromecast, Google Home provides powerful audio into a sleek, customizable home appliance that fits in with any decor. As a direct competitor with Echo, Google Home will definitely shake up this emerging market and may very well replace Echo as the dominant home assistant, although we will not know for sure until this fall.
One of Google’s more significant announcements was the introduction of Instant Apps, which allows Play Store to find an associated app after some user action (like opening a URL), and run just that part of the app natively without requiring the user to install the full app. It’s not currently known how permissions and privacy concerns will be addressed, but we are excited to start adding support for this feature. Backwards compatible to Jelly Bean, Instant Apps will again raise the bar of what users expect from their mobile devices – but we’ll have to wait to see how high the bar is raised later in 2016.
Some of the most exciting news this year (at least from a developer perspective) is the advancement in Android development tools. A completely revamped layout designer now includes: a “blueprint” mode, a new ViewGroup class that eliminates the need for nested ViewGroups increasing app performance, an enhanced Jack compiler for Java 8 that includes annotation support, an Espresso event recorder to easily create tests by recording app usage to a test class, and a C++ debugger for native development. These changes demonstrate Google’s commitment to providing a powerful toolset for experienced developers and also helping new developers transition to the platform.
The mild disappointments …
As expected, Google announced their VR initiative. Also available in the fall, Daydream will be a platform for VR on Android and a set of specifications for mobile devices, a mobile device powered headset, and a motion controller. Google will create their own headset and controller along with partner manufacturers but didn’t have one ready for I/O, which was disappointing and felt a bit rushed. Google’s only demo was a video showing an experience similar to what you see in Samsung’s Gear VR.
Allo and Duo Messaging Apps
Google is hoping to reinvent what’s possible with digital communication in two new messaging apps. Google’s new instant messenger app, Allo is powered by machine learning and Google Assistant to provide a more natural conversational application. Encryption is enabled by default for the sender, but end-to-end encryption is only available in Incognito Mode.
This seemed like a missed opportunity for Google. With the current public awareness of privacy and the U.S. Government’s role in asking companies like Google to circumvent that privacy, it seems odd for Google to not make end-to-end encryption enabled by default. It’s also unclear if SMS support is available, though we know many of Allo’s key features won’t function as SMS.
For video calling, Google introduced Duo, suggesting more intimate conversations and drawing the receiver into the conversation by showing a preview of the sender before answering the call. We expect there will be an option to disable or limit senders of the video preview, otherwise it will be very concerning that an anonymous person could send any video directly to another user.
The apps certainly have the resources to be the next big things in social media communication, but we will have to wait until this summer to test them ourselves – and more importantly, see if they will succeed in luring users from other popular messaging and video apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Skype.
Overall this year’s I/O was successful, but a bit underwhelming. The possibilities of Google Assistant, Google Home, Instant Apps, and the increased productivity from the advancement in Android tools are very exciting. Allo and Duo were impressive, but appeared limited with end-to-end encryption requiring Incognito Mode and the lack of SMS support. Daydream also felt like it was announced too soon with only a design reference to unveil and no physical devices. The wait-and-see stage has begun.
Image courtesy of Mohdammed Ali for Unsplash.