It's good to set expectations before a show, but it's also okay to dream a little bit.
Google I/O is nearly here. Just days away. And while it's important to remember that I/O is, first and foremost, a developer event, those of us who don't code for a living have a few thoughts on what we'd like to see come out of this year's conference.
There's a lot to cover in three days. Android. Chrome. Chrome on Android. And, of course, virtual reality, maybe some stuff on connected homes, automotive, wearables — and who knows, maybe Google will surprise us with something nobody thought of.
There's going to be a world of stuff to absorb over three days in in Mountain View. We've already heard about what you want to see. Now it's our turn. This is just a smattering of what we're hoping to find at Google I/O, as told by the Mobile Nations folks who will be there this year.
1. First, some background
Give us your Google I/O background. Are you a total noob? Or a veteran?
Phil Nickinson: I remember being pretty new at this Android thing still and hearing about Google's annual developer conference. It was definitely still a spectacle back in 2010, but I was in way over my head. I have few pictures from that event — and fewer that are good. But it served as the basis for what we do now — covering the heck out of one of the most awesome developer conferences there is. It's so great to meet some of the folks who make the apps and devices and services we use every day.
Jerry Hildenbrand: I went to Google I/O in 2009 through a prior employer (we were interested in the Google App Engine) and have been every year since I started working for Mobile Nations in late 2010. It's one of the highlights of my year.
Alex Dobie: This will be the second Google I/O for me, my first being way back in 2012 in the days of Jelly Beans, Google Glasses, Nexus 7s, blimps and Vic Gundotra
It was the first Google dev conference since Android really started to take off, and that was reflected in the OS's prominence at I/O 2012 — and by the level of pomp and pageantry at the conference. Glass-equipped skydivers parachuted into the keynote. A giant robotic Nexus Q stalked the halls outside. Hell, the real, actual Nexus Q was crazy enough — a Chromecast trapped inside a bowling ball that Google planned to sell for $300.
This year's I/O is going to be a bit different, with a new and upgraded venue — and a different Google along with it. I'm expecting the atmosphere at Shoreline Amphitheater to be quite unlike anything we've seen at Moscone.
Michael Fisher: For years I've experienced Google I/O from across the continent, consigned to watch the live stream from rainy Boston while friends and colleagues cavorted with life-sized Androids and super-scale confections in the bright California sun. Well NOT THIS YEAR, Universe! There might not be a new Nexus in sight and MrMobile might not even be halfway through his soft launch, but I'm going to I/O for the first time ever and dammit, I'm gonna find me a walking Nutella and I'ma hug it. Hard.
Daniel Bader: My first I/O was in 2012, when Sergey Brin fell from the sky like a peregrine falcon to drop Nexus 7s on our laps like an ultra-fit Santa Claus (I'm remembering that correctly, right?), and I've been every year since. It's my favorite conference (and I attend a lot of them), with content considerably more accessible to the average person than Microsoft Build, and less manicured pomp than Apple's WWDC. Google always makes it interesting, and there is a palpable sense of whimsy that only it can achieve.
Andrew Martonik: I'm happy to say this will be my first in-person experience of Google I/O, as the past few years have been spent steering the ship from back at home and watching all of the shenanigans unfold over the internet. Google is really great about live streaming the big keynotes and sessions, which has made it super easy to follow along remotely, but after going to plenty of other conferences I know there's nothing like actually being there in person.
2. On Android
What are you looking forward to in terms of Android at the conference?
Phil: It's important to keep Google I/O in perspective, I think. We're going to see a lot of great platform-level stuff. And that's super important. But that's not the same as consumer-level. The little details we've see in the Android N preview might or might not look the same by the time they hit the Samsung Galaxy S8, for example. Nexus is awesome, but still niche. (Which is a shame.) Hopefully we'll see N do more to change that.
Jerry: I'm looking forward to hearing about what's in store for the long term. Android N is going to be nice, but I really dig it when the people building Android start talking about their ideas for the next version, and the version after that. You can see the excitement when someone is telling you about things that can be done to improve the user experience with their part of a giant piece of software, and how it will fit together with all the other ideas to make things better, more efficient and easier. What we're using in Marshmallow is based on ideas we first started hearing about in 2012. Watching Android morph over time and seeing how it all takes shape is a big part of how I get my nerd on.
Alex: Google set the ball rolling a lot earlier in the year with Android N compared to previous cycles. So while I'm expecting interesting announcements around the future of VR in Android, and the Android runtime in Chrome OS, I'm not holding out for any big product reveals. Those will come later in the summer when N is ready to ship.
Split-screen multitasking has been taking shape in the first couple of N Preview builds, and I'm curious to see how Google sells this to devs as a complete idea. What's more, rumors have swirled about pressure-sensitive screen support in the next version of the OS (something that's actually been around at a low level for years if you go digging in the code). And while I can definitely see that being A Thing in future Android versions, if 3D Touch on the iPhone is any indicator, it's going to take a while to grow beyond a neat piece of technology looking for its killer app.
Michael: I seldom run beta or preview builds on my devices, so I'll be using Android N for the very first time at I/O. On the smartphone side I can't say I'm terribly excited – I'm quite happy with Marshmallow in its current state – but as the (sorta) proud owner of a Pixel C, I'm dying to see what split-screen implementation Google has come up with to make the most of tablet displays. Also, it sure would be nice to see improvement in areas like background memory management and audio handling, small but still unfortunate pain points in my Android experience thus far.
Daniel: I think we can all agree that the proliferation of exciting, whiz-bang achievements within the Android operating system itself has slowed. As we near the middle of the alphabet, there is a middle-aged maturity in each new version, a logical progression that, to my eyes, is more about refinement than revolution. Still, with Android growing up, it begins to enable everything, like cars, VR, and everything in between, that were traditionally marginalized while Google got the smartphone experience just right.
While I'm excited to see what Google does with split-screen multitasking, I'm more interested in how developers will respond to the new APIs built into Android N, since apps make Android what it is.
Andrew: Google let the cat out of the bag early again this year with the Android N Developer Preview, which is a great thing for enthusiasts but most importantly developers. All of the smart people who make the devices and apps we all use can go into I/O with early versions of the code already in their hands, and that makes a huge difference when you only have three days to collaborate in person.
Having the basic features of Android N out in the wild already also means that Google doesn't have to spend time re-hashing it, and can move on to announcing truly new features and getting into the specifics of the operating system. We also haven't heard much about how Android N is going to work with non-phone platforms, including the ultimate vision for tablets, wearables, embedded systems and more that all run on or interact with Android.
3. On virtual reality
Google took us by surprise with Cardboard, but it's time for something new. What are your expectations for VR?
Phil: I'm all about 360-degree cameras these days. That's not quite the same as virtual reality, but it's definitely in the same ballpark. The ability to have a small, handheld camera capture still and video of the entire world around me at any given time is huge. And Google is basically turning us all into Street View photographers in the process. I really want to see some improvements from Google in sharing. YouTube is great (and easy) for video, but still images definitely need some work.
Jerry: We need an inexpensive, stand alone VR headset. Google is the right company to do this, and I have no doubt that someone is thinking about it. There's a huge gap between Google Cardboard and something like the HTC Vive, and while Samsung is filling it their way with the Gear VR, a unit that doesn't need specific hardware but can provide a similar experience would be awesome.
Alex: I think we can all agree that Cardboard needs to grow beyond Cardboard. Google can't necessarily manufacture a more premium plastic, gasket-fitted headset that'll fit all Android phones. But it can build an ecosystem around VR content and common hardware characteristics to make it easier for Android to offer a Gear VR-class experience across a wide range of handsets and headsets. That, I think, will be the focus of Google's VR efforts at I/O.
Google Play VR, anyone?
Michael: I recently introduced a family friend to Gear VR, which had him so convinced he was about to be eaten by a Great White that his panicked flailing knocked a table lamp to the floor (along with his drink). I also recently bought an HTC Vive, whose VR experience has utterly flabbergasted every friend who's come over during the past week. Google Cardboard is impressive and important mainly thanks to its accessibility (it doesn't get much easier or cheaper than folding some card stock into a visor and sticking your phone into it) but I've never seen it evoke the kind of visceral awe that its higher-end competitors do. It's going to be fun to see what Google does to take Cardboard to the next level; while it's execution hasn't always wowed, the company's vision has never been wanting.
Daniel: I am so, so excited about what Google does with VR this year. I remember the profound confusion spreading through the crowd of media and developers as they were handed the first version of Cardboard upon exiting the keynote in 2014. Unwrapping the plastic, figuring out how to insert my phone, watching the few pieces of content available for it (on my Nexus 5, no less!). It was a fun ride. Since then, VR has become more mainstream (though, in retrospect, not that much more), but it is the perfect time to introduce a standalone VR headset a la Gear VR — just better! With projects like Tango and Ara already in the works, it wouldn't be surprising to see Google take the standalone VR headset game to the next level — whatever that is.
Andrew: It'd be hard to say that the Cardboard initiative hasn't been a huge success for Google, and it's been a huge driver in the general understanding of virtual reality and immersive video. Now, it's time for the industry to go beyond $15 Cardboard viewers and onto something more substantial.
I would be extremely surprised to see Google unveil its own next-generation higher-end VR experience to compete with the likes of the Gear VR, as that doesn't really seem like a business it needs to be involved in. But I do think it's very much in Google's interest to foster development of such devices — whether that's by offering reference hardware on an open design platform, or just further fostering VR content development in Google Play and YouTube.
4. On wearables
Android Wear has kind of stagnated — what's next for Google in wearables?
Phil: I can't help but have the feeling that I'm only using about 2% of what my Android Wear watch is capable of. I archive email on the go. That's about it. Is that my fault? Is that Android Wear's fault? Both? What I'd really love to see is proper NFC payment support. The only thing easier than whipping out your phone to make a purchase is to just tap your watch, right?
Jerry: There has to be more that can be done in this space. Android Wear is handy, but mostly as a second-screen experience. I'm not really sure how wearables can be improved and made indispensable, or even if they can, but I know Google isn't afraid to throw money and ideas at anything. There are some smart people working at Google who aren't going to give up on wearables.
Alex: Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Wear 2100 — its new chip for wearables — back at Mobile World Congress in February, but we've yet to see any actual watches using the new chip. Android Wear has always more-or-less been on a different software track to other device types, so it's possible we may see new hardware teased at I/O.
Put it this way: Almost every Android Wear device ever released so far has used the now ancient Snapdragon 400 SoC. This will be the first major silicon upgrade the platform has seen. So it's to be expected that new software of some sort might go along with it. Whether it'll make Android Wear any more useful (or popular) remains to be seen.
Michael: I still think there's a lot of potential in Google's smartwatch platform, but the major updates thus far have done little more than plug functionality gaps (and introduce gestures that make you look like you're trying to flick a fly off your forearm). Which is a shame, because while it's not the best interface I still much prefer Android Wear to nearly all of its competitors; the hardware selection is diverse and often quite beautiful, and even running on outdated silicon the software is usually zippy enough for the brief interactions the platform was designed for. This year I'm hoping Google applies that "zip" at a more fundamental level, by trimming and tightening the UX. In 2016, there's really no reason it should take me seven swipes and taps to activate something as simple as a countdown timer.
Daniel: I'm not holding out my wrist for much news from the Android Wear space. I've never particularly warmed to Android Wear: the card-based interface still feels clumsy, and even with the recently-added gesture-based navigation I don't feel like Google has done much to improve it. What I'd love to hear is an acquisition of Pebble by Google, combining the ruthless e-paper efficiency of the Pebble Time Steel with the power of Google Now. A man can dream!
Andrew: I've really lost faith in the power of Android Wear at this point, but I'd love to be proven wrong by seeing Google come out with some substantial updates to the platform. It's so clear that Android Wear has potential, but it needs a lot more focus and especially an improvement in hardware. Obviously these wheels are going to turn a bit slower when Google has to work so tightly with manufacturing partners to get the platform moving together, but any sort of improvement would be welcomed here.
On another note, a funny thing happened this week: I took out my Google Glass and powered it up for the first time in over a year. Wearing it around the house for a few hours, I was reminded of how many great ideas were built into Google Glass that still amaze me today. We clearly see some tidbits of that experience in Android Wear, and I hope many of the innovations from Glass aren't completely lost inside of Google.
5. On the connected home
What about Google's connected home initiatives?
Phil: Google has to have something to compete with Amazon Echo. Alexa's great, but she's not as smart as Google Now. Sonos is killer for easy setup, but it's pretty stagnant. Same goes for Nest. I've got some huge hopes for (former Motorola CEO) Rick Osterloh taking over hardware for Google. We might not see a lot on that front at I/O, but it's a huge re-hire.
Jerry: OnHub 2. Don't let Amazon have this space as their own!
Google Now on my router, which is also a smart hub and gateway between IoT devices and my phone would be sick. OK Google, what's the weather? Oh, and please start my car and turn on the kitchen lights while you're looking. Thanks.
In 2020, I want Google to be cutting my grass.
Alex: The rumor mill seems to have collectively decided we'll get some kind of Amazon Echo competitor from Google, which could be a very big deal. Google's international reach — in terms of its own hardware and services, at least — is far greater than Amazon's. And the same goes for the range of services it offers. The possibilities of such a device connected to Google Now, Play Music, Inbox, Calendar, Android Pay and Google Maps, to name just a few, are phenomenal. It's entirely possible it'll be a continuation of the OnHub project, which could mean not just one device, but several from a wide range of partners. It'd be a very Google approach to that problem.
But if Google is serious about effectively putting its voice search engine in a box and selling it, it'll need more than just routers. Maybe a series of mic/speaker boxes could be offered for multi-room support, or it could simultaneously hook into the audio hardware of your Android phones. In any case, given the privacy concerns already swirling in some parts of the world, selling consumers on an always-listening Google box in your living room could be another challenge altogether.
Michael: MrMobile is all about staying on the road, so he doesn't spend much time thinking about technology to use on the homefront. Still, an Alexa competitor from Google would be compelling; despite its excellent reviews I've managed to avoid adopting Alexa because I just don't spend enough time in Amazon's ecosystem to make it worthwhile. Google, on the other hand, knows every step I've taken (and every move I've made/bond I've broken/game I've played) since 2006, and it knows me pretty well as a result. Having that kind of familiarity at my beck and call when I'm fiddling around the house could be very interesting indeed.
Daniel: Google's parent company, Alphabet, already owns Nest, so let's see that side of the business step up. Sure, Nest is an executive tire fire with a bevy of internal problems, but that doesn't discount Tony Fadell's theory of the unified home needed a central platform — such as a thermostat or router — to excel. Like Jerry, I'm a fan of the OnHub, and hope Google does more than just attach IFTTT support and call it a day.
Andrew: Connected home products just haven't caught my interest up to this point, and Google has had a limited set of successes in this arena so far. Products like OnHub and Chromecast are great in their own respects, but Google's attempt at unifying all of your connected home products hasn't really gone anywhere.
I want to hear Google talk more about Brillo and Weave if only to reassure partners and independent companies working with the technologies that Google is still invested in them … at this point we haven't heard enough to make that case.
6. On Chrome and Chrome OS
One of the most-hyped areas is Chrome and Chrome OS — what are you expecting?
Phil: More Chromebooks. And better, cheaper Chromebooks. At this point I can't think of anything else I'd ever have my kids use. No applications to install. Easily managed by my Google Apps account. It's an underrated product, for sure.
Jerry: Android runtime. Merging Android and Chrome is a silly idea and I'm glad that everyone addressing it is saying it's not going to happen. Chrome is a better and stronger platform than Android and used for different purposes. We need to remember that the idea behind Android wasn't to kill the mobile market and take it over, but to build a platform for applications that anyone can use. Let's take that application layer (and its 1,000,000+ apps) and get them on Google's other consumer product.
Alex: I've said it before and I'll say it again here: Android apps on Chrome OS could be huge, if Google handles it right. As Android apps grow ever feature-rich, and the platform expands to incorporate resizeable apps, the Google Play Store could become an important destination for things that just aren't convenient to do in a browser window. It's also an important insurance policy against any long-term move away from the open web from rivals like Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. And that could all start at I/O 2016.
Even more tantalizing: if Android apps on Google Play come not just to Chromebooks but Windows and Mac machines running the Chrome browser, well that's just an even bigger audience for Android developers — and more eyeballs for the Google ecosystem.
Michael: I've never laid hands on Chrome OS, and I've never felt a compelling urge to do so. Given how well Android works for my needs on most screen sizes (remember, I'm a Pixel C weirdo), I don't see how exciting Chrome OS could possibly be – even with the much-ballyhooed Android app compatibility speculation. Being able to run Android apps in Bluestacks on a Windows machine didn't make it any less cumbersome to do so, nor did it save BlackBerry or Sailfish from the rubbish bin. More to the point: these days, when I want a notebook experience and don't have a notebook handy, I throw a keyboard on a tablet and nine times out of ten I can get work done pretty comfortably. When I'm done, I can toss the keyboard and have a tablet again – something I can't do with Chrome OS. So while I'm interested to see what's new for the platform, I can't say I'm expecting wonders from Google in this regard.
Daniel: Chrome is in an interesting spot. As we've learned from Microsoft's considerable Universal App Platform growing pains, it takes more than correct scaling to bring a smartphone application to the laptop form factor (and vice versa), so merely offering a universal Android runtime for Chrome OS is not a catch-all solution. As Jerry pointed out, Chrome is an incredibly powerful and robust operating system, and I'd like to see more done with it than pawn it off to Windows OEMs to sell at bargain-basement prices for the purposes of education or low-friction home use.
Andrew: This could perhaps be the most important year for Chromebooks, as their widespread appeal is creating a market that demands higher quality and a more diverse set of computer options. The benefits of Chrome OS are as clear today as they were at the start, but now we need better hardware and performance on the average Chromebook so they can appeal to even more people.
That's especially true if Google decides to go all-in with bringing Android apps (and the Play Store) to Chromebooks, as the demands for resources will just keep going up. Google can only do so much when it's the manufacturers who ultimately decide to make the devices, but as the platform leader it can do a lot to push them in the right direction.
7. On anything else you'd like to see
Any other outliers you want to see covered this year?
Phil: I'd really like to see more on Android Auto. Getting folks to put down their phones while driving may be one of the most important things the mobile industry can do. And Android Auto is a killer product. But it's still a little rough around the edges.
Jerry: Google Codsworth, please.
Alex: It's basically an open secret that Google is working on bringing a subset of its services, including the Play Store, to China, a country from which it's currently all but excluded. The major challenges there are likely political, not technological. Nevertheless, a developer conference would be the ideal location to announce a major new market for Android apps.
Michael: Project Ara — and really, the concept of a modular phone in general– has always seemed like kind of a long shot, at least in terms of widespread adoption. Nevertheless, I hope Google hasn't given up on making it a reality, even on a small scale. The concept of a smartphone that can be repaired or upgraded piecemeal is exactly the kind of sci-fi stuff that flips my pancake, so I'm really hoping to hear that Google hasn't left it to evaporate down at the far end of the Alphabet.
Daniel: Methinks it's more than just population management why Google relocated this year's I/O to its home campus of Mountain View. Self-driving cars are, of course, a big deal right now, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Google spend a lot of time talking up its leadership in this area, especially as Tesla is slowing encroaching on that space with continued updates to its Model S.
I'd also love to hear more about Project Ara, which I hope has not been shelved as was rumoured earlier this year.
Andrew: Over the few days of Google I/O we're always expecting a few oddball announcements, but one of the big things I'd like to see is a better explanation of where Google's hardware efforts are headed under Rick Osterloh. The former Motorola exec certainly knows a thing or two about all of this, and I'd love to see what his vision is for Nexus, Chromecast, Pixel and more.
Google I/O 2016 kicks off on May 18th, and you can follow all of the Android Central coverage from the show right here!