Alongside search, Android is one of the core pillars of Google’s success. It’s found on over a billion devices, and it’s often the first place to find new products like Google Assistant, AI-powered image recognition, and more. But at the same time, Android is also the foundation for Wear OS, Android Auto, and Google’s streaming TV platform Android TV. And while I don’t want to take away from Google’s accomplishments on phones, this year at Google I/O 2019, it seems like Google’s broader Android ecosystem could steal some of the spotlight from Google’s ever-evolving mobile OS.
Don’t get me wrong, with each new version of Android, Google continues to add features like Duplex or new digital wellbeing tools that make it easier to simplify or improve our lives. But at the same time, many of Android’s most significant issues (except for one) have been mostly solved. Honestly, the Android feature I’m looking forward to the most is a full system-wide dark mode to help save my eyes from blinding UIs. There’s evidence this might finally be the year we get it.
That said, Google always saves a few surprises for Google I/O, and all this speculation could be premature.
The first car with stock Android Auto appears
Android Auto can be found in several cars, but typically, it’s hidden beneath a software layer installed by the car maker. But last year, Google announced a partnership with Volvo to bring the first car to market featuring stock Android Auto. And with the announcement of the Polestar 2 back in February, we now have a much better idea of what that’ll look like.
The Polestar 2 is an important milestone for Android Auto. Instead of being covered up or hidden away, Google’s putting its platform front and centre. If you look at the vehicle’s price and specs, we’re looking at a car designed to compete head-to-head against a Tesla Model 3, but instead of Tesla’s proprietary infotainment system, you get something based on the mobile OS that so many people are already familiar with. Big things are coming for Android Auto, and I’d expect to find out a lot more about new features and partnerships at Google I/O.
Wear OS, widgets and more
For a long time, I’ve felt that Wear OS lived in a weird no man’s land. Wear OS devices lack the performance, features, and rich app ecosystem you get from an Apple Watch, while also not having enough support to take on more fitness-focused wearables from companies like Garmin or Fitbit.
Wear OS has made a lot of progress over the last year. It got a redesign, Qualcomm announced an updated chip to power the platform, and just last week, the Google announced the addition of widgets—or what Google calls Tiles. But still, a big piece of the puzzle seems to be missing. No third-party Wear OS device maker has been able to build a smartwatch that fully lives up to Google’s vision of what the platform can and should be. That said, the chances that the rumoured Pixel Watch will show up at Google I/O seem kind of slim, but I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility.
Last year, Google faked us out. After leaks about a potential new Android TV device hit a month before Google I/O, the device ended up being a simple Chromecast refresh. But with a growing number of TVs featuring Android TV built-in, not to mention Apple giving its competing platform a big boost recently, it feels like Google really needs to give more attention and support to Android TV.
If you look at all the Android TV boxes out there, the Nvidia Shield TV—a third-party product that launched way back in 2015—remains the best Android TV device on the market. If you didn’t know better, you might think Android TV is a platform intended to play second fiddle to Chromecast devices, instead of being an incredibly powerful and easy-to-use streaming video platform.
However, with the number of purpose-built Android TV apps having surpassed 5,000 and hints of new first-party hardware slated for sometime this year, I’m hoping to see Google shed some new light on what’s going on with Android TV.
The Stadia story continues
Stadia, alongside similar projects like Microsoft’s xCloud could usher in a new era for gaming, but I’m not sure I’ll ever like the Stadia logo. Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)
At GDC in March, Google held a coming out party for Stadia, promising to bring AAA titles at 1080P and 4K resolutions to pretty much anyone with an internet connect, but without the need for complicated or expensive local hardware. And while questions remain about how Stadia will be affected by people’s broadband connections, from a consumer standpoint, there are even bigger questions about Stadia that need answering. How much will it cost (or more importantly, how much would you be willing to pay), how will customers acquire new games, and what kind of games will work best on Google’s game streaming service.
Because GDC only took place a couple of months ago, some of these questions may not get answered until closer to Stadia’s official launch later this year. But between a session called “What’s New in Gaming at Google” and a deep dive on Stadia’s steaming tech already listed on Google I/O’s schedule of events, it feels like the Stadia stampede will continue.
A new midrange Pixel
Google has never announced a new phone at Google I/O, but it seems a new Pixel is basically a lock. And while some folks are already feeling down about the rumoured Pixel 3a, I think underestimating the importance of a cheap Pixel is a big mistake.
It will be interesting to see how Google translates the idea of a Pixel 3 into something that potentially costs half the price.Photo: Sam Rutherford (Gizmodo)
Think about it. The best thing about the Pixel 3 isn’t its specs or hardware, it’s all the Pixel-first software features Google crams into its family of phones such as Duplex, Night Sight, and more. These features aren’t limited by the phone’s hardware, but more by Google’s development skills and its ability to harness the power of AI. And if Google can bring these features to a device with a more affordable price tag without comprising too much on specs and performance, the Pixel 3a could be Google’s most enticing phone yet.
Back to Q
So what’s Android Q going to be called? Quince? Quindim? Queen of Puddings? With Google’s traditional preference for sweet, dessert-themed names, the letter Q doesn’t exactly leave Google with a lot of options.
I’ve been using the beta version of Android Q for a couple of months, and so far, it hasn’t felt too different from what you get in Android 9 Pie. A lot of new additions to Android Q are more future-thinking, such as better testing and compatibility for devices with foldable screens, or simple usability improvements like being able to share wifi passwords by flashing someone a QR code. But right now, the core OS itself doesn’t feel all that different.
That’s a problem because things like the “pill button” nav system instituted in Android 9 never felt like it went far enough to developing full gesture-based navigation. It wasn’t a significant improvement on the classic three-button Android nav, as the Android 9 pill still took up precious screen real estate at the bottom of the display. And remember that one big Android problem I said Google hasn’t solved yet? That’s still an issue. Despite the introduction of Treble in Android 9, most Android phone OEMs continue to struggle to deliver timely software updates.
However, with a developer session led by Google senior software engineer Jim Sproch about building a next-gen UI framework for Android, Google could be setting the stage for some significant Android changes in the future.
In case all the above wasn’t enough, there’s also a bunch of other miscellaneous updates we could see at I/O 2019, including the arrival of something called the Nest Hub Max, which appears to be a 10-inch version of the Goole Home Hub, but with a larger screen, built-in webcam, and possibly support for local smart home management.
Google also has a history of announcing a new feature for Google Photos every year at I/O. (Last year, we saw a bunch of new features for Google Lens.) Also, every time I see Google CEO Sundar Pichai on-stage, it seems like he is talking about the power AI and machine learning, so I’d expect to get an update on Google Duplex or possible a new application of machine learning technology. Either way, don’t be surprised if Android itself is the least exciting topic at Google I/O. With everything Google has going on, it’s not a big deal if Google’s most important OS takes a backseat to the company’s rapidly expanding ecosystem.