Smart watches, TVs and cars featured prominently on Wednesday as Google laid out its plans for pushing its Android smartphone software into new fields. At its annual I/O developer event in San Francisco, “wearables” had pride of place, with news that the first smartwatches based on Android Wear are now on sale – before Apple unveils its much-anticipated iWatch. With Android TV and Android Auto, on the other hand, Google was playing catch up with Apple. The event pointed to how the battle for the next big tech markets beyond the smartphone will be fought. Richard Waters and Tim Bradshaw were at the Moscone Center for this round.
The show starts in about 15 minutes.
This is the same hall Apple used at its developer conference last month, only Google has opened up the room even wider. 6,000 people expected, “only” 4,000 at Apple.
Apple’s event was a huge hit with developers. The message: stick in the iOS world and we can make it easier for you to build great apps and make money – and there’s none of the fragmentation and security concerns of Android.
The Google response: Android may not be the well-ordered universe of Apple, but it is far bigger and more vibrant. A “noisy, cacophanous, cantakerous democracy” is how Sundar Pichai described it in this interview with Business Week this week. Should be a fascinating study in contrasting styles
We’ve just been given the five minute warning
These excitable characters from the Google Developers Group are sitting right behind us. I suspect it’s going to get noisy.
Here we go… A mechanical countdown machine is rolling balls across the stage, pouring water into a spinning wheel and rolling spinning hammers to smash a window. It’s all very Maker Faire…
Flappy Bird, Monument Valley, Pinterest and Twitter are among the apps featured in the intro video. Biggest cheer for the unlikely hit game Flappy Bird, of course… “Here’s to what you build next.”
Now Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP for Android, Chrome and Apps takes to the stage.
Pichai is underlining the global nature of the Android user and developer base, with a tour of livestream viewing parties in the UK, Brazil and Nigeria – the latter being an all-women event. “At IO this year we are very excited there is over 20 per cent female participation, which is up from 8 per cent last year,” he says.
STATS: The number of active users of Android doubled from 223m in 2012 to 538m last year to over 1bn today. This is the first time Google has released an active user figure for Android. Android users send 20bn text messages, 93m selfies and 1.5 trillion steps and check their phones 100bn times every day, he says. Some hints there in what Google is focusing its attention on with the next generation of Android: fitness and fast access to information through wearable devices.
MORE STATS: Pichai says Android tablets have increased market share from 39 per cent in 2012 to 46 per cent in 2013 to 62 per cent today (these are shipment numbers, not sales, and do not include forks like Kindle Fire).
A chart of Android sales showed steep growth but did not have any numbers associated with it. One proxy for engagement: YouTube tablet views on Android is now at 42 per cent.
NEW INITIATIVE: Android One: a new set of hardware reference platforms – Google-certified components for high-quality entry level smartphones, which Pichai says will allow manufacturers to build an affordable but powerful smartphone more easily and quickly.
Android One devices will run stock Android (rather than something modified by the OEM), with auto-updates straight from Google. This is part of a wider effort to get more Android phones running the latest version of its software – an area where Google lags Apple’s iOS by a significant degree today.
Android One answers some of the fragmentation criticisms Android often gets. Google will control the updates, so old phones won’t get stranded with ancient versions of the software. But local handset makers and carriers will be able to customise the apps for their markets.
ANDROID UPDATE: The “L” version of Android has been prepped for devices beyond the smartphone and has a very big focus on design.
“Material design” is Google’s phrase for its new Android design language – which folds and flips like physical paper. Google’s developer kit will help app makers layer different user-interface elements on top of each other and with smooth animations. This is partly a response to the flattened, layered iOS 7, released by Apple last year – which itself was a simplified version of the iPhone operating system in response to Android and Windows Phone.
The design of different versions of Android across devices is also being harmonised, so it looks consistent – “from your watch to your laptop to your television”.
Apple announced 4,000 new APIs at its developer event so…. Google says it has 5,000 new capabilities for developers to draw on. OK, you win the numbers game, we get it.
Android notifications are getting a bit of a makeover, just as iOS 8 improved the way iPhone users can interact with messages pushed by apps.
A “heads up” notification can be used to let you know about something urgent without interrupting what you’re doing. Notifications on the lock screen are prioritised according to what Android thinks are the most important.
A neat and simple idea for securely skipping the wearying need to put a passcode in every time you unlock the phone: Android detects that you are nearby from your Bluetooth smart watch, and so does not ask for your PIN. If the watch isn’t close, the PIN screen still pops up.
The new Chrome browser mingles apps and web-apps seamlessly, so a search result that pertains to an app installed on the phone will open directly in the app. Search for a restaurant, and click the OpenTable search result to make a reservation in that app.
It’s a partial response to the invisibility of apps to Google search. At least when it comes to things you’ve seen before in apps, you’ll be able to find it again through the search box. Presumably a possible next step, not talked about here, will be opening up ways for other people to discover the same in-app content when they do similar searches.
The second major theme of L is performance, Google says. That includes advanced graphic effects such as tessellation and support for 64-bit chips, a shift the iPhone made last year. The line between the capabilities of a desktop PC and a mobile device continues to narrow.
A protester is trying to interrupt the keynote, shouting vainly over the huge bank of speakers about wealth inequality. She’s waving a banner at the front of the stage as the keynote details some improvements to Android’s battery life. The presenter tries to defuse the situation by cracking a joke as the protester is led away by security guards.
Pichai is back on stage. He sets Android apart from Apple: It’s not a vertically integrated product but an open platform, at scale, in which innovation happens at “a very very fast pace”
He hits back at Tim Cook: Android lets developers add extra keyboards or widdgets “four or five years ago”. These are things Apple just announced for the forthcoming iOS 8.
Now, security. Cook scored some big hits when he quoted an article that denounced Android as a “toxic hellstew of vulnerabilities.” Less than half a percent of Android users suffer any kind of malware problem, says Pichai. Still, when you have 1bn users that’s still a lot of people.
Sundar Pichai is back on stage to set out a manifesto for Android:
“We are making everything contextually aware. We want to bring the right information to you at the right time. We want the experience to be voice enabled… and for users to interact with computers in an intuitive way. We want the experience to be seamless… to pick up where you left off. Users always have their smartphone so we want to make sure all these connected experiences work with your smartphone… on wearables, cars and TVs.”
WEARABLES: Now we are talking about Android Wear: for round and square watch faces, fitness tracking, responsive to the voice and acting as a security key.
We are getting a demo of how LG’s Android-based smart watch works.
Swiping up and down on the watch’s touchscreen cycles through a sequence of “cards” sent from a tethered smartphone, from Facebook posts and Google Now notifications to text messages. Notifications can be dismissed by swiping away. Pressing and holding on the watch face brings up personalisation options, such as new watch faces. Saying “OK Google” and an instruction works just the same as voice control with a phone.
“…All without having to fumble around and get out his phone.” Is saving a few seconds of fumbling a compelling enough sell for wearable devices?
Android users check their phones 125 times a day, Google says.
“With glance-able notifications and quick voice actions, Android Wear gives you what you need, when you need it,” bringing “useful timely information at a glance”, such as the local bus schedule.
“The best wearable apps respond to the user’s context and put glanceable content on the screen.” For example, Pinterest’s smartwatch app will let you know when you are near somewhere that has been pinned by someone you follow.
“Glanceable” and “contextual” seem to be the wearable words of the day here, which is unfortunate as I don’t believe the FT style guide has ruled on how to spell glanceable.
Sidenote: we are an hour into the keynote and despite all the talk of wearables, nobody has mentioned Glass yet at all. Two years ago at IO, a team of skydivers stormed into the building, streaming the whole thing from Google’s headset.
Google is demoing ridesharing service Lyft’s app – just say “call me a car” into your watch. Lyft is a rival to Uber, the taxi app in which Google Ventures is a big investor…
An interesting hedge by Samsung: it is using Android Wear for its new Gear Live smartwatch, in addition to the wearables it’s already released using its own Tizen operating system.
Samsung and LG’s Android Wear devices can be ordered from today. But there are groans from developers when Google says the round-faced Motorola smartwatch will be available “later this summer” – perhaps they were hoping for a freebie device today…
CARS: Next up, Android in the car. January saw Google launch the “Open Automotive Alliance”, and now it’s announcing Android Auto, a voice-controlled dashboard display. An Android phone “casts” its apps to the car, which can be controlled by steering wheel buttons or a touchscreen. Navigation, music and phone calls are front and centre in the user interface.
The first cars using Android Auto will go on sale later this year. Partners include Audi, Chrysler, Ford, VW and Honda.
LIVING ROOM: Google is announcing Android TV, an extension of its mobile platform onto the big screen.
“We are simply giving TV the same level of attention as smartphones and tablets…. There is now one Android SDK for all form factors.”
Android TV is about content, not apps. The top layer of icons on the screen carries the shows you watch, with apps pushed further down. That answers one of the criticisms of the last failed attempt at Google TV, that it was too complex and wasn’t a good replacement for the old TV experience of just turning on the box and having something to watch.
Android TV also supports games and Chromecast-style “casting” of music or video from a smartphone. The Google Play appstore has also been redesigned for the big screen, opening in the coming months.
Android TV will be built into televisions, set-top boxes and games consoles, Google says, including new sets from Sony and Sharp and boxes from Asus and Razr. We’ll see if this does better than Google’s previous efforts to break into the living room… Remember Google TV? Thought not.
The Chromecast streaming dongle has been a quiet success for Google – millions of the cheap devices have been sold, Google says, without giving precise numbers. YouTube sees more active engagement on Chromecast than any other streaming product, Google says.
Chromecast also has an improved “ambient experience” that makes your TV into a huge photo frame, for when you’re not watching films and shows. Personalise the feed: add your own photos from Google+, places from Google Maps, weather and artworks from selected museums. “Your TV is now the largest picture frame in the house.”
Both these Google TV devices go up against Amazon’s new Fire TV – which also emphasises games and voice search – and Apple’s ageing Apple TV box. However, expect Apple to bring out a new, souped-up TV box later this year.
CHROMEBOOKS: Sundar Pichai is back on stage to talk about Google’s cloud-centric laptops. Eight manufacturers now make 15 kinds of Chromebooks, available in 28 countries. He cites particular investment in schools, where sales have grown sixfold in the US (again, no precise numbers).
Some Android apps will now work on Chromebooks, Pichai says – with minimal tweaks required from developers to make them work with a mouse and keyboard rather than touchscreens. Productivity app Evernote, Twitter’s video app Vine and newsreader Flipboard are examples demoed. “We are working on new experiences to bring Android and Chrome together,” he says, despite the different operating systems.
This is somewhat familiar to Apple’s new “Continuity” features shown off a few weeks ago at WWDC, which let iOS and Mac OSX work together more easily. Microsoft, meanwhile, is trying to make every shape and size of device run the same Windows operating system.
Something for corporations: Android at work. It includes full separation between personal and work data on the same device. ”All your personal data is isolated from your corporate stuff, and vice versa,” says Pichai. It will be in the next release of Android, and users of older versions of Android will be able to get it through an app. Also for companies: a native version of Office.
Urs Holzle, the man in charge of Google’s computing infrastructure, is now on stage to talk about the Google cloud platform, which lets developers run their services on Google’s own technology. Now this is something Apple really can’t match. Google has triggered a price war against Amazon and Microsoft in this so-called Infrastructure as a service market.
(A second protestor stands up in the audience to try to interrupt proceedings, he’s shouting something about the company building “robots that kill people”. Holzle carries on and the protestor is ushered out.)
This being a developer event, the keynote is now going deeply geeky, more than two hours in.
What we’re waiting for: the rumoured Google Fit, a response to Apple’s HealthKit; more details on the future of Google+; any sighting of Google Glass, or the company’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin; skydivers; killer robots…
Holzle wraps up on this part of the event. On to Google Play – altogether a lighter moment.
APP STORE: Now we are hearing about new development, distribution and monetisation tools for Google Play. Although Android has more devices, Apple’s App Store still makes more money for developers and tend to offer higher engagement. Small piece of news: Google has acquired Appurify, an app testing service for both iOS and Android (Apple recently bought Testflight, a similar service).
This is big: Google Fit is a new set of APIs for managing fitness data from apps and sensors for devices including wearables. This follows Apple’s new HealthKit and Health app for bringing together multiple sources of health and fitness data, announced at WWDC. It will be interesting to see whether consumers feel more comfortable entrusting Apple or Google with this very personal information. Adidas and Nike are both on board with Google Fit, as are Withings, Runkeeper and Intel’s Basis.
Next: How to find more users through the Play store. Discovery is a real issue for developers, Apple is also trying harder to tackle this. First comes games, with personal game profiles: these changes depending on which games you play and the achievements you reach.
Two and a half hours later, Google is sending some of the audience to sleep
The promise of new gadgets might wake people up…
Google has paid out $5bn to developers over the last year, says Pichai – up from $2bn the year before. Apple still owns the high-end customers, but Google Android is becoming a serious money machine.
Apple said in January that it had paid out a total of $15bn to developers since the App Store launched in 2008.
Every developer gets the LG G Watch or the Samsung Gear Live. Cue whoops, cheers. Even bigger noise as Pichai says that everyone will get the round-faced Moto 360 watch too, when it comes out.
And that’s it!
No Larry, no Sergey, no Glass, no robots.
A low-key ending from Pichai, who doesn’t bring the showmanship of Vic Gundotra, the former Google+ head who used to figure prominently at these events. But the message was pretty clear: it’s Android Everywhere.
Android Wear, Android Auto and Android TV were the stars of the show. Android also got a major spring clean, with a fresher and more unified design template for apps. Also, as Apple did last month, Google risked losing the attention of its non-geek audience as it made a very concerted pitch to persuade developers that it has the best tools for creating, distributing and making money from apps.
Missing in action: no Google Glass and no Google+.