Notes on the Google I/O Keynote

The following is notes and observations taken while watching the Google I/O Keynote video yesterday morning. All in all it was a good presentation, albeit a bit too long for my taste. There’s some announcements that make Google feel a little late to the party while others that are legitimately intriguing.

Android M Developer Preview

Android applications will now ask permission for access to things like the camera, your contacts, current location, microphone, calendar, etc. And, it asks for this permission when the application tries to retrieve it rather than during installation. Users can also revoke permissions or see what information you’ve allowed an application access to from within the app’s settings. I never realized that Android behaved this way and it seems crazy to me that it’s done so for so long. As far as I can remember iOS has always asked for permissions in this way and I’m glad Android is finally catching up — this is clearly the best way to handle it.

Chrome Custom Tabs is an interesting way to handle web links from within applications. It’s not too dissimilar from the way application developers build web views into their applications now, but from a developer standpoint it seems to be much easier to implement. Essentially, users will get all the benefits of using the full browser — saved passwords, autofill, Google translate, etc. — without the jarring context change of having the application open the full web browser. And, developers get easier to implement web views that still give them the ability to make subtle design changes like a custom button in the toolbar.

Android will now have a more powerful way for applications to claim ownership of links allowing better linking between applications. Instead of getting a dialog box asking the user what application they want to open a link in, developers can claim ownership of a domain with their application. During app installation the OS will check with the web server to ensure that the application is certified to open links to that site. This seems like a really neat way to implement this sort of deep linking within applications, but they didn’t discuss whether or not users would be able to revoke this permission if they later wanted to open links in the web browser, instead. Will the OS ask me if I want this functionality when I install an application that supports it?

Android is also standardizing support for fingerprint sensors. This support will work across a breadth of different hardware and will offer a standard API for developers. With Android M, the OS will have built-in support to use the fingerprint sensor to unlock your device, purchase items in the Play Store, and make payments with Android Pay.

Google has also made some improvements to the power management features in Android including something they call Doze. Doze uses motion data to determine when a device isn’t in use and significantly decreases the device’s activity in order to improve battery life. In their testing, they found that many devices can experience battery life that lasts up to two times longer using this new power management scheme. I’m a little skeptical of their “2x longer” claims, but even if there’s only an improvement of 25% that’s still quite significant.

Google has also been working with device manufacturers to bring USB-C to Android handsets. This will finally give Android users a reversible cable — something iPhone owners have had for over two and a half years now — which is leaps and bounds better than the junky Micro USB connector that most Android handsets have used for years.

Android Pay

Yet another NFC-based payment solution. I can’t believe they’re calling it “Android Pay.” Couldn’t they come up with a better name that doesn’t sound so similar to Apple Pay? Not only do they share the word “Pay” between them, but they also have the same initials — even the same number of syllables.

The biggest concern I have about the adoption of Android Pay is simply the slow adoption rate of Android operating systems in general. When the majority of users are still running a version of Android that came out in late 2013 and which only accounts for about 40% of users, why would I expect any significant adoption of Android Pay within the next two years?

Android Wear

I’m always surprised at how ugly Android Wear looks to me. For whatever reason its far more attractive in my mind than it is in reality. And, I don’t understand why they feel the need to have the display on at all times. It just seems like an unnecessary battery-killing “feature” akin to Blackberry desperately trying, and failing, to convince the world that we should want hardware keyboards.

And, bragging about 4,000+ apps isn’t that impressive — Apple Watch launched with over 3,000 and I’ve recently seen estimates saying that there are over 5,000 apps available for it already.

Brillo OS

Brillo is built on a stripped down version of Android while Weave is the communication layer that talks to all of the connected devices and appliances on your network. This gives developers standardized and custom schemas for interacting with the connected devices in your home. Google will offer a developer preview of Brillo in Q3 2015 and the full stack will be available by the end of the year.

What a terrible name for a technology product. I don’t know if I’m supposed to install it on my smart waffle maker or use it to clean my bath tub.

Now on Tap

Advancements to Google Now that can use contextual information about the app your using to provide information and offer actionable items to help you get stuff done. For example, you can tap and hold on the home button while viewing a conversation with your spouse and it will display contact information, offer links to restaurants or other businesses mentioned in the conversation, and more.

Now on Tap looks like an incredible feature for Android users that allows for more seamless movement throughout the OS by linking the information you’re currently viewing in any app to whatever action items you’re most likely to want given the context. The proof is in the pudding, of course, who knows how well it will actually work or how useful it will truly be when its released. But, it sure looked impressive in the demo.

Google Photos

Another one of Google’s oh so original product names. Google Photos automatically backs up and syncs all of your photos and videos on all of your devices. The new app displays your photos in a very similar fashion to Apple Photos in which you can zoom out to ever increasing periods of time with smaller and smaller thumbnails of your photos. And while zoomed out, you can drill down into your photos by tapping or pinching at them.

Using machine learning, Google Photos automatically organizes your photos based on location, faces, and photo subjects like stadiums, beaches, etc. These features are the most compelling to me. But, I wonder how accurate it really is, especially their claims of being able to recognize a specific face from the time they’re born all the way into their teenage years and beyond without needing to tag the photos by hand. This is something I’ve found to be nearly impossible in other facial recognition systems, but if they’ve managed to figure it out with a high level of accuracy then Google Photos will truly be something special.

The photos assistant is another cool feature that offers suggested creations from your photo library that you can share. They didn’t talk about it too much on stage, but if it suggests groups of photos that could be used for sharing, making photo books, or printing to hang on the wall it’ll be quite the useful feature. It’s always a pain to try and find the 3-4 good photos to be used in a project and anything that can help with that will be greatly appreciated.

Google Photos can store unlimited photos and videos for free in a high quality compressed format. Or you can choose to store the original, uncompressed files at full resolution. But, doing so means that those photos and videos will count towards your account’s storage (which costs about $10 per terabyte per month at most tiers). And, its available today for Android, iOS, or the web.

Free is a compelling price point and Gmail for images is an incredible, three-word pitch to describe what they’re doing. But, I don’t know if I really want Google to store all of my photos and video. I’m sure the privacy policy and terms of use is just fine now, but what’s it going to look like in 5-10 years and will I even know if they make changes that I dislike?

But, I do like the idea of using a third-party service to keep all of my photos on all of my devices. It would mean that my fiancée and I could setup a Google account that we share in order to keep our photo library unified between the both of us —something I’ve been wanting for months. Maybe I’ll start looking at other, similar services that come from companies with less ties to the NSA.

Google Optimized Search

Not only has Google shrunk the page size and decreased load time on the search results page in countries where internet connections are often slow, they will now begin serving optimized web pages to those users when clicking on a link in search results. These optimized, Google-served pages will load four times faster and use 80% fewer bytes than non-optimized pages.

If only web designers and developers would do the work to shrink their own webpages.

Cloud Test Labs

Google will run automated testing on your apps. Simply upload your application and they’ll run it on the top 20 Android devices around the world. You’ll receive a free report with crash logs and videos. This is a necessary evil for Google. I’m sure they don’t really want to do it, but unfortunately there’s just too many Android handsets to expect developers to test their apps on all of them.

Family Store

All of the family-friendly content in the Google Play Store will now be accompanied by a star-logo. When viewing the family store you can browse content based on age and the top listings and search results will only display family-friendly results. They’re introducing a character browser (like Netflix’s) which will display content based on a specific character such as Dora the Explorer, Peppa Pig, Cailou, Mickey Mouse, and more. There will be objective third-party content ratings for apps, a new set of parental controls, stronger password protection for in-app purchases, and labels on applications that are ad-supported.

These are great additions to the Google Play Store and will be welcomed by anyone with kids who use Android devices. I wouldn’t mind Apple stealing some of these ideas for the App Store.

Google Cardboard

The Cardboard SDK now supports Android and iOS. And, the new version of Cardboard supports phones with screens up to six inches and the built-in button now works with all phones.

Cardboard Expeditions lets classrooms go on field trips to anywhere in the world. A boxer on Google arrives with everything you need to travel. It includes cardboard and phones for every student and a tablet for the teacher. All of these devices are synchronized so that when the teacher chooses a location, the entire classroom jumps there together in virtual reality.

This is the first implementation of VR that I could see really taking off. My fiancée’s an elementary school teacher and I can assure you her students would absolutely love lessons that made good use of Expeditions. She could use it to teach about habitats, planets, animals, the types of homes in various cultures, and almost anything else you could think of. The possibilities are endless.

Jump

Enables any creator to capture the world in virtual reality video and make it available to anyone. Google is opening up the camera geometry, video assembler, and player to the world. They will be sharing everythng they’ve learned making VR video this summer so that anyone who’s motivated can build their own Jump camera rig. GoPro also plans to build and sell a Jump-ready 360-degree camera array.

The assembler takes the video recorded by each of the sixteen cameras in the Jump rig and assembles it into virtual reality video. This summer, YouTube will begin supporting Jump. You’ll be able to watch VR video with your smartphone and Cardboard.

Overall

There were plenty of other announcements on stage at the I/O keynote — Network Quality Estimator, Polymer 1.0, developer pages on Play Store, etc. — but the above are the most important of the bunch. If I had to pick my favorites it would probably be Google Photos and Cardboard Expeditions. Photos is the one service everyone’s been talking about because it’s available today and being able to back up all of your photos to the cloud for free is an amazing proposition. I doubt I’ll use it. But for those who do, I’m sure they’ll absolutely love it.

Cardboard Expeditions isn’t getting enough attention, if you ask me. I’m likely biased because I’ll be marrying an elementary teacher next year, but Expeditions has the opportunity to create a whole new kind of lesson plan. When students are able to see with their own eyes how big an elephant is, what kind of wildlife live under the sea, or what it’s like to walk the streets in another country, they’ll have an opportunity to make connections to the lesson that just aren’t possible with regular video or photos. Cardboard Expeditions might not have the immediate impact that Google’s other announcements will! but in 5-10 years when technology like this has been put in more classrooms, that’s when we could start to see how big of an impact it truly has on the lives of students around the world.

 

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