Google used its Google I/O event to talk up growth of the Android ecosystem beyond smartphones and tablets into the wearables and auto space, as well as unveiling the next Android release and a new platform targeting the IoT market.
The company said that customers can choose from seven different Android Wear watches, and that by the end of the year 35 car models will offer Android Auto. And manufacturers are also starting to offer televisions supporting Android TV.
Sundar Pichai, SVP of products at Google, said: “We have to remember that with the phone, we started with one phone and now there are 400 OEMs, 500 carriers and over 4,000 devices. The same journey is under way in each of these areas.”
Unveiling the next version of Android, currently referred to only as ‘M’, Pichai said that “L was a major release for us, in which we tackled many, many form factors. For M, we have gone back to the basics. We have really focused on polish and quality, we have literally solved thousands of bugs, more importantly we have thought through every detail to make it better.”
The new release will see Google updating the model it uses to grant permission for apps to access device features and user information. Dave Burke, VP of engineering, said: “We are greatly simplifying app permissions to a smaller set of easily understood things, like location, camera, microphone. Apps will now ask for permission the first time you try to use a feature, instead of asking at app installation time.”
Permissions can also be monitored and modified retrospectively.
Burke told developers that a “really nice side-effect” of the change is that it is faster to get users up-and-running in an app, and that with the old model, adding a new permission can impact update adoption. “With the new permissions model, updates are seamless, as user involvement is deferred until right when it is needed,” he said.
Android M will also see standardised support for fingerprint sensors, a feature which device makers have been including in devices for some time. “It works across a breadth of sensors and devices, and exposes a standard API to developers,” Burke said.
Also highlighted was new power management tools, intended to offer improved battery live. Motion sensors can detect if a device has been left unattended, in which case it will back-off background activity and enter a deeper sleep – while still enabling it to respond to alarms, messages or other high-priority notifications.
Burke said that in a test using identical Nexus 9 tablets, standby time was increased by as much as two times.
While the platform is still in the works, a developer preview has been made available for select Nexus devices.
Also unveiled was Google’s new platform play for the Internet of Things market – a sector which is not without significant activities from a number of vendors.
Pichai unveiled “Project Brillo”, describing it as “the underlying operating system for the internet of things”. Google said it is a new platform derived from Android that lets developers and manufacturers build connected devices. It also includes a communications protocol (Weave) developed in partnership with Nest, a set of developer APIs, a core set of schemas and a certification programme to enable interoperability.
“Today, people are making connected devices, like smart lightbulbs, but it’s really hard for developers and device makers. Just like in the early days of smartphones, you don’t know exactly how to build your software stack. Developers don’t know how to target these experiences. And finally, for users it is really difficult to make all of this work together,” he said.
“We have collaborated closely, we’ve pulled in people from the Nest, Android and Chrome OS teams, to take a fundamentally new approach to the Internet of Things. And we want to provide an end-to-end, complete solution for our ecosystem,” he continued.
Pichai described it as “basically the lower levels of Android – the kernel, the hardware abstraction layer, the real core essentials, so it can run on devices with a minimal footprint”. And because of this commonality, “you get immediate scale”, he said.
Brillo will launch later this year, with Google stating that it is previewing the platform “because we’re committed to fostering a vibrant ecosystem in which we all work together to move the industry forward”.
Another high-profile launch was Android Pay – see our separate report here.
Google Now update
Google also said that Google Now has been expanded to “give people on-demand assistance in the moment they need it”.
“To assist you, we need to be able to do three things really well: understand your context; bring you answers proactively; and help you take action, get stuff done,” Aparna Chennapragada, director of Google Now, said.
In order to address the last of these, she said that the company has “just started a pilot programme with over 100 partners where we proactively surface actions and information from apps in Google Now,” in order to make it easier to act on information highlighted.
And the company is “working on a new capability to assist you in the moment,” called Now on Tap. This uses new functionality in the Android M release to enable users to tap and hold the home button for information without having to leave the app in use.