What to expect from the biggest Google conference ever.
It's Google I/O time! The 2016 installment of Google's annual developer conference kicks off Wednesday, May 18 in Mountain View, California with a two-hour opening keynote. With a new venue and the promise of announcements on the future of Android N, VR, Chrome OS and much more, it's sure to be one of the highlights of the year in mobile tech.
With just a few days to go until developers descend on Shoreline Amphitheater, we've rounded up details of what we're expecting from Google I/O 2016.
A new venue
Aside from what's actually announced and shown at Google I/O 2016, attendees will experience this year's conference in a new way, at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Google's hometown of Mountain View. This outdoor arena is a major change from the Moscone West Center in San Francisco — I/O's venue in previous years, which is more of a traditional indoor conference space.
The keynote will take place on the amphitheater's main stage, with other presentations and developer sessions spaced out on the ten smaller stages in between demo areas. The change in venue guarantees a different atmosphere at this year's conference, with more attendees and wide open spaces, in contrast to the warren of corridors at Moscone West.
What we're really saying is this could be the most fun Google I/O yet.
We know a lot more about Android N going into I/O 2016 than we did about M ahead of last year's event. Google has rolled out a couple of developer preview builds so far, showing off major features like split-screen multitasking, a re-tooled notification panel and support for the Vulkan APIs for improved gaming performance.
So far it's been left up to developers and tinkerers to try and figure out what's coming next besides the stuff officially disclosed in developer docs for N. That being the case, the I/O keynote should give us a good overview of the broader thinking behind these new features. It's unlikely the Android team has deliberately left anything huge out of the earlier builds, but there's always potential for a few surprises.
We'll learn more about the broader thinking behind Android N's features — and maybe what it'll eventually be called.
One of those might be the "sweet treat" for which the next version of Android will be named. Google has already publicly hinted at a tie-in with Nutella, and if a branded partnership is coming then an earlier announcement of the name would make sense. (The announcement of Android 4.4 KitKat in 2013 came about a month earlier than usual.)
It's also possible we'll hear more about which non-Nexus devices will get N Preview builds through the new Android beta program. That process has already started with Sony; we may find out who's next at I/O.
And finally, Google appears to be holding the third "N" developer preview build back for I/O, and that could be significant. We're still a month or two away from having finalized Android N APIs, so there's plenty of time for Google to surprise us with new features or services.
Speaking of which...
We're two years removed from the first Google Cardboard headset, and the VR world has hotted up considerably, with premium PC-based experiences like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and more affordable smartphone-based headsets like Samsung Gear VR dominating the space. VR has come a long way since Google Cardboard was a "20 percent" project developed by a handful of engineers.
A standalone 'Android VR' system could be one of I/O's biggest reveals.
Earlier this year The Wall Street Journal reported that a more advanced version of Cardboard would arrive in 2016, along with a standalone VR system. It's not surprising to expect Cardboard to gradually morph into something more reminiscent of Gear VR, but a standalone headset (and software platform) could be one of the conference's most interesting reveals.
And "Android VR" might be the name to watch out for. Engadget and Gizmodo co-founder Peter Rojas tweets that a standalone (not smartphone-powered) VR experience with that name is coming to I/O, and that it'll be less powerful than Vive or Rift. That part is no huge surprise for what'll still be a portable VR system.
A standalone headset would allow Google to escape the limits of smartphone pixel density, while still tying it into its own ecosystem. And assuming the number crunching is offloaded to the headset as well, it'd give game developers a single hardware target to aim for. Presumably there'd be some phone-based manager app, similar to Android Wear, for loading content onto the standalone headset.
Such a headset, naturally, would be way more expensive than Cardboard or even Gear VR.
Project Chirp — Google's answer to Amazon Echo
This particular rumor has been swirling for some time, but it's only just started to come into focus in recent days. According to reports from Recode, Google is working on a competitor to Amazon's Echo voice control box, codenamed 'Chirp', and it'll be announced at I/O.
OK Google, order some pizza.
The device apparently looks like an OnHub router, incorporating voice search and personal assistant features similar to Amazon's box.
Other details are scarce, but it's not at all surprising to see Google bringing natural language interactions and Google Now into a standalone, home-based box. The Amazon Echo has shown huge potential thus far, and given the sheer number of services Google operates (not to mention its broad global reach), the possibilities for "Chirp" are endless.
Google Play on Chromebooks
This one's been a long time coming. Back at I/O 2014 we got our first glimpse of Android apps running in a window on Chrome OS. Fast forward two years and it looks like Google is finally ready to open the floodgates, with the Play Store bringing "over a million" Android apps to Chromebooks and 'boxes. That's according to a splash screen which accidentally popped up on at least one Chromebook, backed up by references in code.
Such a move would significantly expand the capabilities of Chromebooks, allowing Google to keep up the pressure on Microsoft, which despite declining PC sales has an enormous lead with its desktop ecosystem. Chrome OS isn't going to catch up overnight, but in the long term the Play Store could grow into an important destination for apps that aren't convenient to use in a browser window.
Related to the company's upcoming VR products, Project Tango is Google's work-in-progress Android-based platform for augmented reality and indoor mapping, using a series of cameras to map your surroundings in 3D.
The technology at the heart of Tango is likely to power Google's other VR products.
Lenovo will show the first Project Tango-enabled consumer smartphone at its TechWorld event in early June, however if reports from Bloomberg are to be believed, Google will also show the progress it's made with Tango at I/O, which may include a sneak peek at the handset.
"The company plans a big expansion of the technology this year and ultimately wants to make it ubiquitous," the outlet reports. And with four separate developer sessions on Tango itself, there should be plenty of new stuff to get to grips with.
Other odds and ends
Android Pay has been due to launch in the UK for the past several months, but there's been no sign of any concrete timeline thus far. I/O would be as good a place as any to talk about expanding the service's reach.
Project Ara has been pretty quiet lately. The modular smartphone project, from Google's Advanced Technologies and Projects (ATAP) group, was one of the highlights of I/O 2014, but details have been hard to come by since the American Pilot Market was announced. The conference also would be a good opportunity for Google to show that ATAP is very much alive and well, post-Regina Dugan.
Might Google Play be headed to China at last?
That's not to be confused with Project Aura — the new name for the next-generation, apparently enterprise-focused version of Google Glass. The project reportedly falls under the purview of Google connected home boss Tony Fadell, and is being worked on by former Amazon employees who previously worked on the Fire phone.
Google in China. There's one pretty big gap in Google's reach right now, and that's China. Multiple sources have reported that a China-specific (and likely heavily filtered) version of Google Play would be launching in the country sometime in 2016, and AC has heard the same from people who would be in a position to know. Given that developers would have to be a huge part of this, what better place to announce a Chinese Google Play?
Updates from Alphabet and Sundar. It's the first I/O since Google was split out from new parent company Alphabet, and Sundar Pichai was appointed CEO of the new Google. It's likely the keynote will start with some reflection on the past year's changes in Mountain View.
New Android active user numbers. The most recent figure we have comes from September 2015, when the OS had 1.4 billion active users. At I/O 2015 that figure was 1 billion. We'd expect it to be rapidly approaching 2 billion at this year's conference.
What we probably won't see
A few predictions about we're not expecting from this year's show:
New Nexus devices. Whether they're phones or tablets. It's too early in the year for either, with both having historically coincided with new Android versions. What's more, the nature of Nexus means if a new phone or tablet were coming at I/O, it would have leaked well in advance.
The end of Chrome OS. There's been lots of chatter about Google supposedly folding Chrome OS into Android starting next year, with most of it originating from a report in The Wall Street Journal late 2015. With Google set to introduce Android apps on Google Play to Chrome at I/O this year, it's unlikely the firm would also showcase an entirely new desktop version of Android to replace it. But as we've discussed separately, whether Google's desktop presence is called Chrome or Android could largely become a matter of semantics.
Rick Osterloh's master plan. The former Motorola exec rejoined Google to head up hardware at the firm, in a role covering Nexus, Chromecast and Google Glass. But it's still early days, and we wouldn't expect this new role to bear fruit in time for any big reveals at I/O.
Join us from Mountain View!
We'll have a full team on the ground from Tuesday May 17th. Stay tuned for details of how to follow the show with Android Central and the Mobile Nations crew.
In the meantime, be sure to hit the comments and let us know what you'd like to see from this year's Google I/O!