This year’s Google I/O developer conference once again gave developers plenty to be excited about. As expected, we heard about the next release of the Android operating system, Android Wear smart watches, and updated development tools. Rumored products and services such as Android TV, Android Auto, and Google Fit were also announced. Perhaps the most exciting and far-reaching announcement was the new Material Design language, which replaces the now dated looking Holo with a consistent look for all platforms. Enterprise users can now securely separate work and personal data with the Android Work suite of services. Finally, Android Cardboard showed us how to make a DIY version of an Oculus Rift style VR headset.
Keeping with the alphabetic naming tradition, the next Android version name will start with an “L”. Unlike past I/O conferences, Google surprised us all by not telling us what that “L” word is. Will it be “Lollipop” like most of us expect? Will it be something other than the traditional dessert? Or will they change to a completely different naming convention for the official release?
Another change is the release of Android L as a preview rather than a finished release. Developers can start building apps to leverage the latest features, but we can expect to see some changes and improvements before the release this fall.
Android Wear was announced earlier this year as an emulator-only developer preview. At I/O, Google released the official Wear SDK and gave us a lot more guidance on how to build apps for the platform. In addition to the automatic bridging of notifications from an Android phone, we can now build apps that run on the phone itself. New APIs supporting two way communication between the phone and watch enable all sorts of new use cases. The first Android Wear watches from LG and Samsung are now available for purchase, with the circular Motorola 360 coming next month.
Despite being available since last year’s I/O conference, Android Studio finally graduated from alpha to beta status. I’ve been using Android Studio as my primary IDE since its initial announcement and each update seems to add something I didn’t know I needed yet can’t live without. An improved layout designer, tighter Gradle integration, and various other updates continue to improve the Android development experience.
Android TV and Android Auto
Android TV and Android Auto are bringing the platform into our cars and living rooms. Developers can now build apps for these using the same tools used for mobile apps. Of course, TVs and cars require different modes of interaction than a more personal device such as a phone or tablet. On the TV, voice or a remote control are used to browse and select content. In the car, the driver’s attention should be on the road, so voice, touch screen, or steering wheel input are used to control music, navigation, etc.
Much like Apple’s HealthKit, Google Fit is a set of services for building health and fitness apps. The SDK will be available this fall, so we can expect to hear a lot more about this in the next few months.
Holo’s electric blue laced design language served it well over the past couple of years, but I was thrilled to see Material Design unveiled. From the handful of talks I watched, it was clear that Google’s design team put a lot of effort into the new design language. Lighting and shadow studies, 3D paper models, and user research were just a few of the tools used in their process. The result is a clean, modern design that fits in among current design trends without borrowing too heavily from any of them. Elevated/floating action buttons, layered views with shadows, and animated transitions are just a few of the hallmarks of the new design.
Android Work delivers a new suite of must-have enterprise features such as separate work and personal accounts, IT administration of profiles and polices, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) support, and internally hosted app distribution. Much of this comes from the incorporation of features from Samsung’s Knox platform. In addition to fine-grained control of security and apps, native rendering of MS Office documents was also added, bolstering Android’s position in the enterprise space.
To wrap up the keynote, Sundar Pichai launched into the typical Oprah style gift giving session. Attendees were given their choice of Android Wear watch from Samsung or LG and will also receive the Motorola 360 when it becomes available. They were also given a mysterious piece of cardboard that wasn’t explained in the keynote itself. Thankfully, news spreads instantly via the internet and we quickly learned that “cardboard” is a do-it-yourself kit for building a set of smartphone powered virtual reality glasses. Visit https://developers.google.com/cardboard to see what the assembled kit looks like and to download plans for building your own.
As in previous years, Google I/O 2014 revealed a dizzying array of products and services, tools, and developer content. The forthcoming Android L release and its Material Design are a nice update to the world’s most popular mobile operating system. Android Wear, Auto, and TV extend the platform’s reach beyond phones and tablets. Android Work makes it even easier to use the same devices at work while keeping enterprise data secure. And clearly, Facebook paid way too much for Oculus Rift.