The Google I/O conference is ostensibly meant for developers, but the reality is that there are always important products announced there. Every year we expect big things from the company that has become much more than a search giant. Two years ago we witnessed the wild hijinks of co-founder Sergey Brin leaping out of a zeppelin to demonstrate Google Glass, while last year brought us an array of incremental updates to Google’s products and CEO Larry Page’s whispered dreams of a private, unregulated utopian island.
This year, expectations are high for Android, the phone operating system that’s taken the world by storm. It seems pretty clear that Google is looking beyond the phone, with plans to put it on your wrist, your TV, and in your car. But Android is just one of the many things Google works on. There’s Chrome, there’s search; there are web apps and internet-delivering balloons and mysterious plans to get humans to live forever.
There’s no way that Google can cram all of that into June 25th’s two-hour keynote, but the year’s biggest nerd party will nonetheless be an assault of new technologies and, hopefully, new products. Here are 11 things to watch out for at Google I/O this year.
Android Wear is here: Google has already said quite a bit about Android Wear, its new platform for wearable devices. Though fitness bands will be able to work with the new system, you should expect I/O to be a huge coming out party for smartwatches. The Moto 360 is the most exciting one we’ve seen so far, but we’re guessing that LG’s G Watch will probably be more front and center at the event, and could possibly even be given out to attendees. Android Wear allows for Google Now-style notifications and alerts, turn-by-turn directions, and voice control. There’s also Google Fit, which could be Google’s take on Apple’s HealthKit and will probably involve wearables in some way. Last but not least, recent rumors suggest that Samsung may debut a smartwatch running Android Wear this week.
The next version of Android is coming: Sundar Pichai confirmed to Bloomberg Businessweek that the next Android release will be previewed at I/O. It’s been nearly three years since Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" fundamentally overhauled the design and Android 4.4 "KitKat" came out last October. It might start with an L (Lollipop?). Don’t be surprised if we end up hearing quite a bit about the enterprise — Google has some catching up to do there.
The spate of leaks and rumors from Android Police have us expecting a very big visual change. The details are unclear, but signs are strong that we might see a UI overhaul that brings Google’s web apps and Android apps closer together, an update rumored to be based on a design framework called "Quantum Paper." That visual change might even be mirrored by a functional one: the so-called "Hera" leak could be Android’s answer to iOS 8’s app extensions — only it would use web technologies to allow deeper integration between (and within) apps.
Will Google finally figure out how to make Android better on television?
Android TV is getting rebooted: Google’s attempts to take over the television have historically been, well, pretty terrible. Google TV has been an out-and-out disaster, but the company did finally manage to salvage some success with the Chromecast. Google is probably going to try to build on that success with Android TV, which we detailed in April. The Wall Street Journal says to expect at least one Android TV-powered set-top box announcement at I/O. Interestingly, a version of Android TV was demonstrated at CES in January of this year. Hisense’s Pulse Pro was touted as running Android 4, and though it looks slightly different than the later leak, it’s at least another sign that Google is planning to support more traditional set-top boxes. Whether or not having both Chromecast and Android TV in the market will cause consumer confusion is still very much an open question, but hopefully the company has finally figured out that simpler is better when it comes to the living room.
Android is coming to the car: So far we’ve seen Android on your phone, tablet, wrist, face, and TV, but that’s apparently just the start. The next place is in your car. Google launched the Open Automotive Alliance in January, and it’s high time GM, Honda, Audi, and all the rest began announcing something. Right now signs point towards a system that allows you to control your phone from your dashboard, much in the same way that Apple’s CarPlay acts as a remote system. The battle for the car is on.
Home automation could be a focus: There’s also the Android@Home group, focused on home automation. The initiative has pretty much been missing in action of late, though perhaps we might see some new announcements. Google’s brand-new Nest division just went out and acquired Dropcam, but don’t assume that means we’ll see movement here. It’s much too early for any deep integration and Nest still operates like an independent entity within Google, but it's clear that this space matters a great deal to Google and it's willing to put its money where its mouth is.
Google Glass needs to become official: We’re overdue for a consumer version of Google Glass, something that doesn’t cost $1,500 and maybe doesn’t look quite so nerdy. The Glass group has made steady progress over the last year or so, working with designers on new frames and software developers on new apps. But Google really needs to get Glass out of the "Explorer" phase and move on to an official launch. That won’t necessarily happen at I/O, but at the very least the company ought to provide an update on what’s next.
Android Silver is unlikely: The Nexus program has created some pretty great phones, but none of them have really been seen as massive retail successes. If rumors of the Android Silver program pan out, we could see that change. The idea behind Silver is for Google to aggressively support certain flagship devices that run the latest version of Android and have minimal customization — which would mean that retail and carrier stores would be more likely to carry top-tier phones without manufacturer or carrier cruft. Rumors suggest it may not launch until next year, though, so an announcement at I/O this year may be premature.
A new Nexus tablet probably won't happen until later: A new version of Android, if it comes, will probably launch on new hardware — keep an eye out for new Nexus tablets. The Nexus 10 is starting to feel a little long in the tooth, but there may be a curveball this year: a Nexus tablet with an 8.9-inch screen. It’s alternately been codenamed "Flounder" and "Volantis," and supposedly it’s being manufactured by HTC with an aluminum body and styling that looks quite a bit like the Nexus 5. It also might run on the ridiculously powerful Tegra K1 processor, which could make it very interesting for gamers. Unfortunately, current rumors have it pegged for Q4, so it’s not likely we’ll see it as soon as I/O.
Chrome OS could become touch-friendly: Chromebooks are getting awfully close to being good enough to become your primary computer, but the operating system still has a ways to go before it can truly compete with the likes of Windows or OS X. It seems like every year we ask if Google’s Sundar Pichai will finally bring Android and Chrome OS closer together, but this year the chances seem better than ever.
The aforementioned "Quantum Paper" UI might have something to do with it. There are rumblings of something called "Project Athena" that could finally make Chrome OS more touch-friendly, and given the multitude of touchscreen Chromebooks, it would be none too soon. Wrapped up in all this is a relatively nerdy thing called "Polymer," a next-gen framework for creating the bits that make up web apps. Google gave some hints at what Polymer could mean for web apps last year at I/O, and this year we expect to see what it all means.
Google+ needs some focus: Though it has its fans, Google+ has had a very rough year. It’s the social network that everybody loves to hate, thanks in no small part to Google’s aggressive efforts to make it the backbone of the company’s entire ecosystem. On top of that, executive Vic Gundotra left the company and even co-founder Sergey Brin admitted he probably should have been less involved. The one bright spot in all this is photos — Google has offered automatic uploading and lots of nifty features for your images, making Google+ a surprisingly good place to archive your pictures. It’s always been hard to figure out what Google+ is supposed to be and we’d love for Google to finally make it all clear this year at I/O, but don’t count on it. We’d be happy with continued advancements in Google Photos and a continued de-emphasis on foisting Google+’s social features on every corner of the web.
Robots and cars and balloons, oh my
Weird Google will be fun: The number of crazy and ambitious projects that come out of Google are almost too numerous to count. Project Ara is a modular smartphone. Project Tango has a tablet that can map rooms in 3D. Google Fiber is spreading high-speed internet throughout the country. Google Glass puts a computer on your face. Project Loon is launching internet-providing balloons around the world. Calico wants to cheat death. Google has been snapping up robotics companies at a heady clip. It’s investigating artificial intelligence. It’s building its own, impossibly cute self-driving cars. And those are just the projects that we know about.
Google loves to show off just how wild and weird it can be at I/O, and if it wants to impress (or scare) us, it has plenty to work with. Even if it’s not some wild project out of Google X, there’s always the chance that we’ll see new hardware like an updated Chromebook Pixel or Chromecast. Google loves to surprise us with the unexpected, and we’ll be there live and in force to see what happens. The event begins with the keynote on June 25th at 9AM PT / 12PM ET.