Even though Google started releasing developer previews of Android months ahead of I/O, the event is still where we get into the nitty-gritty of how the company’s mobile OS will change this year. We haven’t seen many big consumer-facing features in Android O just yet, although the revamped notification system sounds like it could be incredibly useful as more and more apps vie for our attention. Ditto that for the “copyless pasting” system that Google teased a few weeks ago — we should definitely hear more on that front.
Otherwise, we’re looking at a lot of behind-the-scenes improvements, but two of them could significantly impact the way people use their phones. Google is yet again promising to have made major advances in power-saving thanks to a new “background limit” feature that’ll restrict what apps can do when they aren’t front and center. Background services, location updates and “implicit broadcasts” will all be subject to automatic limiting by Android to help developers create apps that don’t trash your battery life — expect to hear more about how that all works during Wednesday’s keynote.
Just a few days ago, Google spilled the news about “Project Treble,” the latest attempt to make it easier for all Android smartphones to be updated to the most current operating system. Ever since it launched, phones that weren’t under Google’s direct control (like the Nexus and Pixel lines) lines have had to wait months for the latest version. And, sometimes it never arrives at all. But Project Treble’s new modular approach to Android means that from O forward, devices should receive updates much faster.
We haven’t heard too much about Instant Apps after they were introduced at I/O 2016. But the idea of being able to quickly load run a full Android app by clicking on a URL could make life a lot easier for Android users. Google did start limited testing of Instant Apps earlier this year, and we’re hoping to get some news about when they might be ready for consumers. Otherwise, we should hopefully hear about some Android O features that hasn’t been announced yet — there will almost certainly be some surprises in store.
The Google Assistant was probably the biggest announcement at I/O 2016, and that’s all because CEO Sundar Pichai said he wants it available basically anywhere you use Google. And he wants it to be personalized to you. One year in and that goal hasn’t quite been met yet, although there’s no doubt that Google’s conversational AI bot can be smart and useful in the right circumstances. Thus far, the main limitation has been availability. Assistant is integrated right into the Google Allo chat app, but it’s been hard getting users to switch over from texting, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and the plethora of other messaging apps out there. Pixel smartphone owners have it baked right in, and it’s rolling out to other Android phones as well, but there are still plenty of smartphones without it. And while Google Home is a good first attempt to take on Alexa, Amazon has a big lead here in sales and third-party compatibility.
We expect Google to address the challenges facing the Assistant head-on at I/O. We’ll likely see partnerships to get the Assistant on more smart home hardware and better ways for third-party developers to work with Google’s AI bot. We’ll surely hear about new capabilities, as well — earlier today, Bloomberg reported that Google would bring the Assistant to the iPhone and start building it into GE’s home appliances. Those would be two big ways for the Assistant to reach more customers.
Perhaps the most exciting developments will come from Google’s ever-growing virtual (and augmented) reality teams. Google’s DayDream VR platform launched at last year’s event, and while it was a bid to improve the quality of mobile VR experiences, the impact has been limited. The headset only works on Google’s Pixel phones and a handful of other devices. Expect an update on Daydream, although it may be just more colored headsets rather than anything major. We’d keep an eye on Tango too: the company’s 3D-mapping phones are one of the strongest augmented reality offerings so far. Google says it’s no longer a project, which sounds like Tango is ready for prime-time.
Earlier this week, Google announced that Android Auto would be the default option for infotainment in new Volvo and Audi vehicles. Cars with this new software will be on display at I/O this year, so we’ll get to see what happens when Android Auto is the one and only solution for music, navigation and other voice-activated features. Google teased something like this back at I/O in 2016, when we got to see a concept Maserati where Android ran every screen in the car — it even controlled the heating and A/C. While Volvo and Audi’s cars don’t go this far yet, it’s still notable to see new vehicles where you don’t need a phone to use Android Auto. Hopefully it’ll be better than the stock infotainment system found in most cars these days.
Android Wear: It’s been a year since Google first took the wraps off Android Wear 2.0, a major upgrade to the company’s smartwatch OS. But it was delayed far past the original fall launch timeframe, and in the last 12 months most Android Wear products were not terribly compelling. Google is almost certain to mention Wear onstage, but what exactly it’ll have to share is a bit of a mystery. With Wear 2.0 only just making its way to consumers, we don’t imagine it’ll get much of an overhaul this year.
Chrome OS: Google also announced its intention to bring Android apps to Chromebooks last year — but like Wear 2.0, the launch has been slow going. Samsung and Google announced the Chromebook Pro at CES, a laptop built specifically with Android apps in mind. Unfortunately, Samsung didn’t hit that release date, though there are signs we might see it announced before long — perhaps on stage this week, in fact. From the software end, we’re expecting more details on how Google can encourage developers to write apps that’ll work on both phones and laptops.
Fuschia: This one is a bit of a longshot. Last week, screenshots and details about Google’s mysterious “Fuschia” operating system were posted by Ars Technica. In a lot of ways, it looks like a new mobile phone OS that leaves behind a lot of the baggage that Android has accumulated over the years. That’s just what this current version looks like; it doesn’t mean Fuschia is necessarily destined for phones. Google hasn’t made any public statements about what they’re doing with it, but there’s an outside chance we’ll hear about it this week.
Android O’s name: A new version of Android means a new dessert-themed code name. Oreo? Oatmeal cookie? There aren’t a lot of mainstream treats with an O at the beginning. Last year, Google punted this to the crowd, taking suggestions for what the name would be. It wouldn’t surprise us to see them do the same thing this year.
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