Google has been holding its annual developer conference for ten years now, but I/O is no longer just a developer conference. It’s a place for Google to announce and show off some of its latest technologies, and talk about the future. At I/O 2017, Google announced new products powered by machine learning, some big improvements to Assistant and Google Home, and it offered up a glimpse of the future of Android in your car. Here are the five most important things announced at I/O.
Android O beta
The next version of Android moved one step closer to release at Google I/O this year. The beta for Android O was officially launched, which means you can quite easily play around with it as long as you’ve got one of the supported devices. Specifically, a Pixel, Pixel XL, Nexus 6P, or Nexus 5X.
This isn’t the first we’ve seen of Android O — the alpha build was launched in March, but that was available only as a system image. To install that, your phone needed to have an unlocked bootloader, and installation required the use of a desktop computer with the Android dev tools installed. Now, all you have to do is visit the Android beta program site.
After logging in, you can select the phone you wish to enroll in the program. An OTA update to Android O will appear several minutes later. You won’t need to unlock your bootloader, and none of your data will be deleted. Although, this is pre-release software. Things could go wrong. Your phone will be flashed back to Android 7.1 if you decide to leave the beta. That will delete your data, so proceed with caution.
Google Home and Assistant
Google talked a lot about machine learning at I/O, and one of the places you see that most is in Assistant. This voice-activated control platform is getting some notable enhancements. On the phone side, Assistant is no longer voice-only. When calling up Assistant on your phone, you can tap the keyboard icon to type commands and questions instead of speaking them.
Assistant on phones is also capable of using “actions” now. Assistant actions are the third-party services that you can switch over to from the standard Assistant controls. There are over 250 of them including Alarm.com, Logitech Harmony, and Samsung SmartThings. There’s even a directory of services available on the phone. That goes for both Android and iOS. Yes, there’s an Assistant app on iOS now.
There are a few features specific to Google Home as well. The device apparently has a latent Bluetooth radio that is being woken up, so you can beam audio to it as a Cast device or regular Bluetooth. Google Home can also place phone calls — just tell it who to call, and it does the rest. The person on the other end sees your regular mobile number, so they don’t even know you’re calling with Home. Lastly, Assistant will be able to offer proactive notifications about things that might be coming up on your schedule.
Google released Android Auto alongside Lollipop, and it has done little to improve the platform since then. Maybe that’s because Google is looking at a different way to get Android in the car. Google had two demos of the “Android Automotive” platform at I/O, which is much more ambitious than Android Auto.
Whereas Android Auto is just a projected interface powered by your phone, Android Automotive is the Android operating system actually running on a car. Some automakers have used Android as the base for their infotainment systems, but they’re old, heavily skinned, and lack all Google services. Google wants to improve this software and build its own app platform into it. That means Assistant is included, so you have access to a myriad of apps and services without installing anything on the car.
It’s unclear how updates will work with Android Automotive. It’s possible your car could end up very outdated, and you’ll probably keep a car much longer than a phone. The upshot to having Android built-in is better control of the car’s systems. The demos included the ability to use Assistant to control the air conditioning or open the sunroof.
In another example of Google’s machine learning prowess, CEO Sundar Pichai announced Google Lens during the keynote. This is a new type of visual search technology that can recognize objects and provide information and actions.
Google offered up a few demos of how Lens might be useful. In one, Lens was shown the label on the bottom of a Wi-Fi router. It correctly identified the SSID and password, then offered to log the phone into the network. In another, Lens was shown a restaurant storefront. It figured out what it was and offered reviews from Maps.
Google Lens will be part of Assistant and photos when it rolls out. Users will be able to capture images in Assistant to get data from the real world. In Photos, Lens will be able to find actionable content as your images are uploaded. We don’t know when lens will roll out to Assistant and Photos, but it will happen “soon.” Lens will come to more products down the road.
Programming languages are not particularly interesting, unless you happen to be a developer. And Google I/O is still technically a developer conference. So, Google got big cheers when it announced that the Kotlin programming language will be fully supported by Android.
Android’s primary language for developers has always been Java, but Kotlin can run on the Java Virtual Machine — it’s completely interoperable. It’s also a much more modern language that’s well-suited for application development with cleaner syntax, functional programming, and more. It’s often compared to Apple’s Swift programming language. Google had a number of demos that showed how a few lines of Kotlin code could replace dozens of lines in Java.
This doesn’t necessarily matter to users right now, but it will be a very good thing in the future. Developers who embrace Kotlin may be able to produce better apps faster. Kotlin could also encourage some iOS developers to give Android a shot. That’s all good for those of us who use apps.
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