Quick Thoughts: Google I/O – Android is here, there, and everywhere
– GOOG’s I/O keynote introduced the new “Android L” and focused on extending a consistent Android and application experience into new venues, such as wearables, TVs and automobiles
– Android L ushers in a unified design language called “Material Design” and a reference design for low-end smartphones that ensures a consistent experience for users and developers
– GOOG is also targeting the enterprise, with Android for Work, which separates personal and corporate functionality on devices and offers 1TB of cloud storage for each user at $10/mo
– GOOG is working to rein in Android’s fragmentation while maintaining an open ecosystem. AAPL is working to open its ecosystem while maintaining tight control over its user experience.
Google’s I/O developer’s conference comes hot on the heels of Apple’s similarly hype-filled WWDC, putting the contrasts between the two companies in sharp focus and highlighting the ways in which their two flagship platforms are evolving to be more similar. The knock on Android has always been its fragmentation – a topic that Apple CEO Tim Cook gleefully used to tweak his archrival Google during his WWDC keynote. To that end, this year’s I/O theme was consistency. Android L, announced at the conference, will knit the ecosystem together with a thorough and thoughtful software design framework intended to give users a consistent experience across multiple brands and categories of devices, and to give hardware and software developers a consistent environment within which to build their products. This is very “Apple” of Google, although introducing the Android One reference design for sub-$100 smartphones was about as “un-Apple” as you can get.
In contrast, the biggest criticism of Apple’s iOS has been its “my way or the highway” rigidity, a consideration against which Android obviously shines. To the grateful shock of the developers in attendance at the WWDC, Apple’s shindig was a coming out party of sorts for a somewhat more open iOS. Apple will provide a swath of new programming interfaces (APIs) that will give 3rd parties the keys to goodies that it had previously reserved for its own use. Henceforth, new iPhones will have apps that can co-ordinate with each other, access device hardware (e.g. the camera and fingerprint reader), replace minor elements of Apple’s default apps (like the keyboard), and even deliver information to the user through widget-like notifications. Google fanboy bloggers clucked that most of this was old hat to the Android ecosystem, but to the Apple faithful, the moves finally addressed real needs that they begrudgingly admitted that they had had all along.
Beyond the spectacle of well-known technology zealots stepping assuredly toward more balanced design philosophies, the dueling developers’ conferences offered new products and capabilities, and a glimpse at the companies’ future roadmaps. I covered Apple’s announcements in a previous blog post (http://live.ssrllc.com/2014/06/quick-thoughts-apple-is-all-about-the-devs/), so here’s equal time for the opposing party.
Sundar Pichai has the modest title of Senior Vice President at Google, but, with responsibility for Android, Chrome and Google’s applications, he has a big job and is, increasingly, the public face of Google. Unlike 2012, when a team of skydivers paratrooped to the Moscone Center to deliver the first Google Glass prototypes, Pichai kept things conventional and low key, opening the three hour I/O keynote with a set of impressive statistics detailing Android’s meteoric growth across devices from 77M users in 2011 to 1B in 2014 – a CAGR of over 135%. Hailing the rise of inexpensive smartphones enabled by heavily commoditized components, Pichai unveiled Android One, a set of reference design specs for low-end handsets to ensure a consistent experience for the next billion smartphone users in emerging markets. A typical Android One device would feature a full version of Android with auto updates, dual sim card support, a 4.5” screen, SD card, and FM radio and retail for about $100. Initially, the reference design program will be implemented by Indian handset makers Karbonn, Micromax, and Spice, with hope that established Chinese players, like Xiaomi, ZTE, or Huawei, will take part in the near future. Android already dominates the low-end market, an area where Apple has refused to compete, but this is where the fragmentation issues – e.g. old versions of Android, incompatible or inadequate hardware, etc. – have been the most acute. Android One, if it can really get traction, could solve this problem and make the “next billion” smartphone users full-fledged members of the Google ecosystem.
Most of the rest of the keynote was devoted to the upcoming new Android L release, which breaks with Google’s previous confectionary naming convention. With Android L, Google is focused on tightening the platform to assure consistent experiences across various types and brands of devices, and on extending Android into new device categories. A big piece of the consistency push is a refreshed look and feel called “Material Design,” which was presented by Google’s VP of design, Matias Duarte. The new look is minimalistic, taking a page from Jony Ive’s playbook, but focuses more on shapes and objects and allows developers to add the illusion of depth. These design guidelines will be ported to other Google products, including Chrome. The new Android SDK also allows developers to port designs to other screen sizes easily and Google now offers unified style guidelines for every screen and device. This update was badly needed for an Android ecosystem that has struggled to compete with Apple on design. As for the OS itself, it appears most UI updates are largely incremental enhancements such as faster screen transitions, an updated lock screen system, and new notifications. The new enhanced notifications are designed to be less interruptive, e.g. a notification pop-up on top of an app can be closed without affecting the app. Android’s Chrome browser also gets a multitasking upgrade. In the guts of the phone, Android L will support 64-bit processors and applications and also features a new battery saver mode.
Android for Work is a set of features that separate work and personal aspects of devices brought into enterprises through BYOD programs. To date, Android has suffered from perceptions that the open platform is insecure, leading many enterprises to insist on closed-platform devices like iPhones and Blackberries or to purchase security solutions from 3rd party developers like Good Technology or AirWatch. Android for Work borrows liberally from long time Google partner Samsung’s “Knox” enterprise security platform, opening its features to all Android licensees. “Knox” has already gained many key government certifications for security – a critical step toward selling more enterprises on the Android platform. Android for Work dovetails nicely with the announced “Drive for Work” program, which offers enterprises unlimited encrypted document storage for Android users at just $10 per month per device.
The most awaited announcements during the Keynote were centered on the extension of Android to wearables, automobiles, and the living room TV. Google noted that smartphone users check their devices more than 125 times a day. The extension to new categories of devices intends to allow users to access their information more conveniently and more safely, and, perhaps, to induce them to check in with Android even more often. As expected, Google demoed Android Wear, the OS’s extension for watches and other connected accessories, on an LG G watch. The Android Wear UI is controlled by both touchscreen and voice activation, enhancing a users experience with a paired Android device. Android Wear uses Google Now functionality to anticipate and deliver contextually relevant information, including notifications pushed to it by 3rd party apps. The I/O demo showed a user ordering a car service right from a watch with a single spoken command, and it’s easy to imagine ways in which app developers may make use of the immediacy that comes from the wrist watch form factor. The Android wear spec leaves device makers leeway to differentiate their designs as well, supporting customized “looks” and supporting both round and rectangular displays. Google also announced the Google Fit platform, which is similar to Apple’s HealthKit solution and supports a myriad of fitness trackers and devices. Incidentally, I/O attendees walked away with a free Samsung or LG smartwatch, a voucher for a free Motorola 360 smartwatch when it is ready to ship, and an ingenious cardboard folding virtual reality headset that works with 10 specially designed apps for Android smartphones.
Google also previewed Android Auto, which pairs an Android smartphone with a compatible vehicle entertainment/navigation system. Android Auto will allow an Android user to pair their phone and interact with it using their vehicle’s controls, while running navigation, communication, music, and other apps from the phone. It works a lot like Apple’s CarPlay, which was quietly launched at the Geneva auto show in March of this year. At first glance, Android Auto looks to be the better solution, with Google Maps and other voice controlled features. Android Auto has yet to launch, but Google has signed some 40 partners to its Open Automotive Alliance including several overlaps with Apple’s CarPlay list, like Chevy, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Subaru and Volvo. Of course, each platform also has its exclusives, with Apple claiming Mercedes and Ferrari, while Google has the likes of Audi, Chrysler, Fiat, Maserati and Volkswagen. Given the longstanding possessiveness that car makers have had for their infotainment systems, it is not clear how any of this plays out for Apple and Google.
Google did NOT bring out a new set-top box, as had been rumored, but it is bringing Android to compatible TVs using hardware made by partners that include Sony, Sharp, TP Vision, Razer and Asus. The interface is simple and brings together features found on the Chromecast and combines them with search and personalized Google services. The result is an integrated TV experience that allows users to use complex voice commands to search titles across services like Google Play, Netflix, and Hulu. Android TV can be controlled by other Android devices such as smartphones, tablets and the new Android Wear watches. The latter is nothing new as Apple has enabled iPhone and iPad apps to control AppleTV for some time, but does show effort to craft a more tightly integrated ecosystem. While the Android TV store will open in the Fall, we expect Google will start to acquire content and perhaps offer its own answer to Netflix and Hulu. This could be a bold move considering Apple has yet to crystalize its strategy to go after the living room.
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