What the Google I/O schedule tells us about the future of Android

Google I/O may be a conference for developers, but what happens there will have a major impact on how you interact with Android and Google’s other services in the near future.

The conference covers all of Google's projects, but Android is definitely the star of this year’s show, which will be held in Mountain View from May 18 to 20. Some of the focus will be on better app performance and design, which is always in demand. Google will also have plenty to say about how Android will usher in a future of virtual reality and connectedness across your phone, car, television, and other devices that may not even be here yet.

After studying the schedule, there are four key themes that emerge, each illustrating how Android will move forward in the next year and what it will mean for putting your digital life in Google’s hands.

Google has big ambitions in virtual reality. Cardboard is just the start, as there have been rumors of the company building its own VR headset and indications from Android N about how the operating system will give more native support to VR. So set your eyes on the VR at Google session on May 19, which is hosted by Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president of virtual reality (who also has a fascinating photography blog). Right now Facebook-owned Oculus is leading the VR game and Google’s frenemy Samsung makes the most popular consumer device in the Gear VR.

So expect Google to invest heavily to ensure the company’s services are where the Internet is going. YouTube, as an example, recently added support for VR and 360-degree video. And the outdoor venue for Google I/O may not be a coincidence; it could be a showcase for all Google plans to do with digitizing the outside world.

We have more tangible evidence of the company’s plans for augmented reality with Project Tango. Two sessions are devoted to the technology, which empowers phones and tablets to see and sense the environment around them: one focused on gaming with Project Tango and another titled, “Introducing Project Tango Area Learning.”

Lenovo announced at CES that it would have a first phone with Project Tango technology by the end of this summer, so perhaps we’ll get to see a near-final version of this. Either way, Project Tango is inching out of the lab and into actual consumer products soon.

And let’s not forget about Android Auto. There’s a session titled “Android Auto for everyone,” which is all about helping developers extend their apps to the car dashboard. Android Auto has been gaining steam this year with expansions into new vehicles, which makes it a key piece of Google’s strategy to have Android and Google’s contextual information follow you wherever you are.

Another session that caught my eye was, “Building for billions on Android.” Led by a team of Android developer advocates, it’s likely to include strategies for making apps work across the wide swath of Android hardware. 

Google’s OS is growing strongest in what’s called emerging markets, places like India, China, and South American nations where many people are just now getting their first smartphone. Usually such phones are lower cost than a flagship sold in the U.S., and they’re powered by Android. That’s why Google sought to get directly involved with phone sales with Android One, though the program has had a mixed record.

In order for Google to keep people hooked into Android, the ecosystem needs good apps that will work well on devices that have lower computing power and Internet speed access. It’s the reality for developers who want to build on the platform, and it’ll be interesting to see what solutions Google offers.

Material Design is nearing its second birthday, as Google first announced the design language and guidelines at the 2014 I/O conference. However, even now some apps still haven’t fully embraced the look, which is probably due in part to how many mobile app developers put their initial emphasis on iOS. It also doesn’t help that, as a recent App Annie report revealed, the App Store earns almost double the revenue as does Google Play despite half the number of app downloads.

Day one has two different sessions focused on design issues: “Material improvements” and “Discover the expanded material design motion guidelines.” The former is to highlight all the tweaks to Material Design during the past couple of years, while the latter will give developers details on how the language has evolved.

Nick Butcher, a design and developer advocate at Google, will lead the first session. He’s one of the major evangelists for Material Design, which is highlighted notably in his Android app Plaid. These sessions should also serve as a reminder that Material Design is an evolving design language, not a static textbook. 

No one likes a slow app. Google doesn’t either, and there are multiple sessions geared towards strategies for faster performance and less memory usage.

For example, a workshop entitled “Android battery and memory optimizations” is led by two Googlers who should offer good insight into this area: Ashish Sharma heads Android’s Volta Team that focuses on lengthening battery life. Meghan Desai works on Android framework battery and memory management features for Google.

Then there’s “Lean and fast: putting your app on a diet.” The goal is to reduce the size of an app’s APK, which will certainly be welcome in an era where many phones don’t offer expandable storage. Hopefully there will be some game developers in this session, as they tend to be some of the heftiest apps around.

There’s going to be a lot to devour during the conference’s three days, and the entire Greenbot team will be there for all the action. Be sure to check our live coverage of the keynote on the morning of May 18 and follow along as we provide analysis of all the major reveals.


Derek Walter

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