Going into Google I/O this year, I was most interested to see where the search giant would take its dominant Android mobile OS. And not surprisingly, there were many Android-related announcements in the day keynote. Here’s a quick rundown.
As you may know, the next version of Android is currently codenamed “N” and will likely ship in the second half of the year. But those with Google Nexus devices can test pre-release versions of Android N now, and on Tuesday Google announced a third preview release. (Which I’m installing on my Nexus 6P as I type this.)
As a major release, Android N will of course include a ton of new features, and in the keynote Google highlighted three many areas of advance: Performance, productivity, and security.
Better performance and security aren’t hard to understand, but I’m most interested in the productivity angle, as you might know: In Can Google and Apple Pull the Plug on the PC Market?, I openly wondered about the impact this Android release will have on the future of Windows. And today, we’ll be treated to news that Android apps and the Google Play Store are indeed coming to Chrome OS as rumored. (I’ll write about that after it’s officially announced.)
Google discussed two primary productivity advances on Wednesday: Multi-window support and Direct Reply.
Android’s multi-support is straightforward, but it will help transform this mobile OS into a more productive platform that will better compete with more complex Windows and macOS systems. As its name implies, multi-window support means that Android N devices will be able to display more than one window—and thus, more than one app—at a time. This can happen in one of two ways, split-screen mode, where the two apps appear side-by-side, and picture-in-picture, which is primarily for providing video playback in a small window while you do other things full-screen. (Both features are already available in iOS, by the way.)
What’s missing here, of course, is floating windows. For that, I suspect, you will need Chrome OS. And again, more on that later today.
Direct Reply is a feature that will be familiar to users of Windows phones and iPhone: It expands pop-up notifications (what we call “notifications toasts” in Windows phones) to support in-line replies. What this means is that you can reply to a notification in fairly sophisticated ways, depending on the underlying capabilities of the app, without leaving the app you’re currently using.
This one is potentially controversial: A new Android feature—which is not N-specific, interestingly—will allow users to instantly run new apps with “a single tap,” without requiring them to be installed first. Called Instant Apps, this feature will work on all Android Jellybean (4.1) and newer systems, and will require app updates, but not new apps, Google says.
“Whether someone discovers your app from search, social media, messaging or other deep links, they’ll be able to experience a fast and powerful native Android app without needing to stop and install your app first or reauthenticate,” Google says.
Hey, what could go wrong?
Given the popularity of virtual reality (VR) and the success of Google’s amazing and affordable Cardboard, it is perhaps not surprising that the firm is now working to create a sweet spot between Cardboard and more powerful but expensive solutions such as HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Samsung Gear VR. To do so, it will add formal support for a special VR Mode to Android, and will expand Android for use specifically in VR headsets.
VR Mode changes how Android works, Google says, from “how the operating system reads sensor data to how it sends pixels to the display, to make it especially built to provide high quality mobile VR experiences. It will simply be made part of Android N.
Google’s efforts to make Android more suitable for VR headsets are more far reaching. Code-named Daydream, this is a reference design for Android-powered VR headsets that will not require a separate phone (or a high-end PC or gaming console, for that matter.)
If you’re familiar with Oculus Rift (which I recently used) or HTC Vive (which I used for the first time earlier this week), the Daydream hardware will look familiar, with your basic VR headset and an ancillary controller that looks a lot like a new Apple TV remote. The software end is likewise familiar, with the main UI being a now-standard VR-type field of easily selected choices hanging over a cartoon-like backdrop.
Android Wear 2.0 Preview
On Wednesday, Google provided a quick preview of Android Wear 2.0, which will ship later this year. This major new version finally provides the infrastructure for truly standalone apps (just as Apple did recently on Apple Watch) with Internet access over Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or cellular. There’s also a new notification design, a new complications API (just like Apple Watch) that will help expand the capabilities of the watch faces from which you can choose, deeper integration with Google Fit, and more. This is a big area, so I’ll be looking at Android Wear 2.0 more in the future.
Android TV and Google Cast
Android TV received only a passing mention in the day one Google I/O keynote, but Google separately announced that its hardware partners are shipping new TVs and its services partners—CNN, Comedy Central, MTV, Freeform, Nickelodeon, Spotify, STARZ, WATCH ABC, WATCH Disney Channel, WATCH Disney Junior, ESPN and many more—are coming on board with apps. That PIP feature in Android N specifically targets Android TV as well, Google noted.
Likewise, Google Cast is expanding to new TVs from Magnavox, Philips, Polaroid, Toshiba, Westinghouse and more, and there are now over 1000 1000 Cast-enabled apps in the Google Play Store.