What's up at Google?
With Google I/O come and gone, and subsequent announcements piling up, we’ve compiled a crash course to get you up to speed with Google’s latest.
Now that we’ve finally been informed which candy Android N was referencing, we felt that time was right for a comprehensive overview of the last few months’ announcements.
How can we assist you?
Let’s kick this off with an overview of the new products and apps Google launched or announced recently. First and perhaps most promising is Google Assistant, Google’s answer to “intelligent assistants” like Alexa and Siri. Like those competitors, this virtual assistant functions as a bot you can talk to complete a variety of tasks in a natural way. The announcement of Assistant did kick off a number of promising rumours – a complete integration with Google Now seems to be a logical next step, and there are some suggesting Google is building a set of Android Wear smartwatches with complete integration of the new Assistant.
Of course, none of that has been confirmed. What we do know about Assistant is that it ties in with a number of other fresh launches: Google Home, Allo, and Duo.
Allo and Duo are both new messaging apps, which will both exist next to Hangouts. Allo is touted as a “smart messaging app” on Google’s own blog, and brings a number of new features to the table. As mentioned, it integrates with the Assistant, which means you can chat with Google in the app, one-on-one, but also use its knowledge in your conversations with friends. This way, you can do things like find or book restaurants near you, check your calendars, or find photos, without having to leave the app.
Allo also adds Smart Reply (like in Inbox), so you can reply to messages with suggested answers. The answers learn from your language use, and analyse the content of both received text messages and images, to optimize its suggestions. Apart from that, the app offers a few fun things like stickers and a Shout and Whisper mode, and an Incognito mode with end-to-end encryption.
Duo, on the other hand, is a dedicated app for video calls. It’s created to be as simple as possible, with a minimal interface to focus on the conversation. It has a feature called Knock Knock, which shows you a live video preview of the person calling you before you pick up, and Google claims to have optimised the app for calls even on patchy network connections. All calls are also encrypted end-to-end.
All of these features are promising, and we can’t wait to see how the assistant integration performs in Allo, but the addition of yet another messaging app (or two, in this case) does not necessarily seem like the most elegant solution. It certainly does raise questions about the future of hangouts, which handles both text messages and video calls, but without the shiny new bells and whistles of Allo and Duo. Both apps will be available somewhere over the summer.
Google’s assistant will also get a physical incarnation with Google Home, a physical device that is more than a little reminiscent of the Amazon Echo. Place it in your home and you can give it voice commands for everything from dimming the lights to reciting the weather forecast.
Over to the big guns: what’s coming for Android?
Of course, it’s the changes and updates to the Android OS that have the biggest impact on users and developers, and there was no shortage of those recently.
Watch out: Wear and TV updates
First off, there’s Android Wear 2.0, which comes with a number of excellent updates. Apps can now run standalone, with direct network access of their own – a companion phone app isn’t needed anymore. Also nice is the addition of complications as widgets on your watchfaces. For now, this is only an option on watchfaces that implement these capabilities, but this will improve soon; the watchface will be able to simply implement a placeholder, and the user can fill it with any feature (s)he’d like. This opens up a number of nice possibilities for developers; we’re already spotting a number of interesting options to offer as complications in apps we’ve built. Next to the complications, the notification UI has been overhauled, adding a number of improvements and new features, and visual updates to fit the material design guidelines better.
There’s also an official keyboard for Android smartwatches included now, for those people who feel that typing on a watch is a worthwhile activity…
There have also been a number of updates and smaller improvements to Android TV. This includes a new Picture-in-Picture mode (which we’ve got our eyes on for our VTM application) and a new SDK for the Google Cast receiver. With an increasing amount of Android TV devices – both setup boxes and TV integrations – these new features will become even more relevant once they get released.
Satisfy your sweet tooth: Android Nougat
Android 7.0 or “N” has been in the works for quite a while, and we’ve just learned it’ll be called Nougat! Preview version 5 (for final testing) is on its way, and the final release – together with new Nexus devices – is planned for Q3. Android Nougat comes with a whole slew of updates and changes; we’ll give an overview of the most relevant ones.
First off, there has been an update to the system updates. No, unfortunately that does not include a change in the update policy for manufacturers… But both for developers running the beta program and for end users, updates have improved. For developers, the Android Beta program now allows for much easier downloading of updates. Just go to the beta program website, click on “enroll device”, and it downloads a system update over the air.
For Android users, Nougat will bring what Google calls “seamless updates”. Using the same update mechanism as ChromeOS, each system update will download in the background, requiring only a simple reboot to apply. In other words, you won’t be staring at an “Android is upgrading…” dialog for more than 15 minutes again!
Another big change can be found in the handling of notifications. A useful addition are direct replies: you can now send a text message directly within your notification, which speeds up the flow quite nicely. Google also brings bundled notifications, like on Android Wear, to Android proper. You can still see each notification in full, but they’re visually grouped together by app, which makes for a more structured view.
Finally, users can now customize the quick-settings tiles above notifications. Google released a new api to create custom tiles, which will give us all a lot more options for customisation (our Spencer team is already drafting their wishlist for this feature).
Why just one window
In an interesting move, Nougat brings multi-window support to all Android devices, not just to large tablets. Now you can open up two apps simultaneously on your phone’s screen, too. There’s support for 33%, 50%, and 66% views, and you can drag and drop between apps – for instance, drag an image from your downloads into your Microsoft Word document.
And then there’s my personal favourite among the updates: the new custom pointer API, which lets you create a custom mouse pointer when connecting a mouse/keyboard to your Android device. Unfortunately, it has its limitations: for instance, a set of sparkly stars that follow your mouse pointer, in true nineties fashion, turned out to be impossible.
On a whole other level – Android VR
Next to these updates to the Android OS itself, Google also announced a number of related technologies for the Android universe.
The first of those is Android VR, with a brand new platform called Daydream. Google is making sure Android is ready to board the VR bandwagon, with lots of internal API optimizations for smooth graphics. They also created a new C/C++ API for VR apps, which is very easy for OpenGL developers to get started with. There’s also a new VR mode with a custom launcher, called Daydream Home.
Google also created specs for “Daydream-ready” devices: which sensors, displays, etc a phone should possess to work optimally with the new platform. There are also specs for for a comfortable headset and for an intuitive remote control, and all of these are shared with manufacturers.
And they seem to be on board: Samsung, HTC, LG, Asus, Xiaomi, and Huawei are all preparing Daydream-ready devices, several of which will be available this fall.
Next on the list of innovations is the Awareness API, which takes us from VR to big brother.
The Awareness API gives developers access to 7 new kinds of context, including location, weather, user activity, and nearby beacons. Awareness exists of two APIs, using fences and snapshots, respectively, to personalise a user’s experience. While this opens up a number of incredibly interesting and useful implementations for devs and users, there’s also a definite possibility for abuses and shady tactics. It’ll be interesting to see the situation evolve in the following months.
Another interesting announcement were the Android Instant Apps. It fixes a situation every mobile user has encountered a few times: you’re on a web page or in an app and want to perform an action that requires another mobile app – one, as it turns out, you do not have installed. In that case, you will either be rerouted to a mobile website, or (probably more frequently), to the download page for the app you’re lacking. Instant apps solve this issue: if you’re confronted with such a link, Android will now just open the app… even if it’s not actually on your device. This system will work on API 16+ (4.1); it’s not released yet, but Google will reach out to interested developers (and of course, we’ve already signed up!).
And of course, there’s a whole slew of improvements in Android Studio 2.2. Going into detail would be a separate article, but you can expect UI editor improvements, new APK analyzer tools, and a new Espresso Test Recorder, which will help you with easy UI test recording. In theory, the test recorder will let you just press “Start record”, go through your app, and hit “stop record” to complete a test. Awesome as that may sound, it’s still very clearly a preview version, and has been quite slow and buggy in our experience. We’re looking forward to the finished version, though!
It’s easy to forget them – no matter how much time we all spend amassing Chrome tabs – but Chromebooks are still very much alive and kicking. They’re extremely popular in the US for use in education, and got quite a bit of traction in emerging markets, in both cases thanks to their attractive price point. Rumours that Google plans to merge Chrome OS and Android into one operating system have been flying for at least three years, but the company has always denied any such plans.
Now, they’re bringing the Google Play Store to ChromeOS. Apps will run in 3 predefined sizes on the Chromebooks, by running the Android Framework on top of ChromeOS – the added benefit being, of course, that developers don’t need to make any changes to their apps. Google has committed to a 6-weeks update cycle, to make sure Chromebooks always get the latest API levels and security updates.