Skydiving Google Glass-wearers, giant phone giveaways, and major hardware announcements no longer rule Google’s biggest annual conference. Instead, the company has settled into a pattern of releasing information about what it’s doing (and what it wants to do) for developers at I/O, instead of trying to wow consumers or the press.
You might call that boring, but that’s also a misguided notion, because there was much to glean from Pichai and the rest of the Googlers who presented onstage. So here are the 10 most important takeaways from today’s I/O keynote.
ANDROID SURPASSES 2 BILLION MONTHLY ACTIVE DEVICES
Android’s mobile dominance hasn’t stopped growing. CEO Sundar Pichai revealed at the keynote’s start that the tally of monthly active Android devices now exceeds 2 billion. That includes smartphones, tablets, Android Wear devices, Android TVs, and any other number of other gadgets that are based on the operating system.
GOOGLE ASSISTANT CAN SEE AND UNDERSTAND THE WORLD AROUND YOU
Google Assistant can now analyze the world around you with the help of your smartphone camera. Using a technology the company calls Google Lens, the Assistant will analyze your surroundings and display relevant content on your screen. You’ll see a restaurant’s rating when pointing your phone at the storefront, you can aim it at a flower and it will identify the species, and you can even pull up a band’s music or videos by pointing Lens at a concert poster. But the most useful example might be this: if you point Lens at Wi-Fi login credentials, your Android phone will be able to use that info to log on to that network. (Thank you, Google.)
Google’s not the first company to try to add artificial intelligence to a smartphone’s camera. Samsung recently launched “Bixby Vision” on the Galaxy S8, a sight-based version of its own Bixby digital assistant, for example. And Snapchat (and now Instagram) are using low-level AI to apply goofy filters to your face. But Google’s offering much more with Lens than just image recognition, shopping, or face filters. And while Facebook is exploring similar computer vision efforts, Google is trying to do it sooner than later with Lens.
GOOGLE ASSISTANT COMES TO IPHONE
Assistant is expanding beyond Android to iOS. Google Assistant will be a standalone app on iPhone and iPad, offering many of the same functions as what we’ve seen it do on Google’s own operating system. You don’t have to wait long to try it, either; it’s available starting today.
GOOGLE HOME TURNS INTO A PHONE
Like Amazon, Google is turning its smart speaker into a phone. Over the coming months, all Home owners will be able to place free calls to the United States and Canada. By default, Google uses a private number for this feature — but you’ve got the option of tying it to your own mobile phone number. The same goes for everyone else in your house, as phone calls support Home’s multi-user setup. Only outgoing calls will be available at launch, as Google is taking a cautious approach to avoid privacy headaches.
HOME GETS WAY MORE USEFUL
Google’s smart speaker was already one of the best ones on the market, but the company announced a suite of other new features and updates beyond calling to Home that make it much more powerful. Home is now going to be able to control HBO Now, Hulu, SoundCloud, Deezer, and more. Even better, Google is opening up access to Home’s Bluetooth radio, meaning you can treat it just like any other Bluetooth speaker.
Home is also becoming more useful away from the device itself. Google showed off what it’s calling “visual responses.” Using Google Assistant, Home will now be more capable of directing the right information to the right connected screen. Say something like: “OK Google, show my calendar for today” and Home can instantly display your day’s events on a Chromecast-connected TV. Ask Home for directions to a place or event, and it will send the directions right to the Google Maps app on your phone.
More than ever, this requires extreme commitment to Google’s products and services, but that’s sort of the point — Google is betting it can bring all this stuff together in such an attractive way that you won’t think twice about buying (or ditching) your Amazon Echo.
GOOGLE PHOTOS ADDS BOOKS AND EFFORTLESS SHARING
Google Photos is getting a slew of great additions. The app will now recommend that you share photos you’ve taken with people that it recognizes as being in the shot. Google calls this Suggested Sharing. It’s also introducing Shared Libraries, which allow families to collectively add images to a central collection more easily. But Google is emphasizing control, here: you can share your entire photo library, share only from a certain date, or share photos that include certain things like your kids.
Digital backups are great, but what if you want physical memories? Google now offers printed photo books. Books can be created directly on your smartphone. Google will even recommend books to you when it thinks a particular collection makes sense. Books are available beginning today for prices that start at only $9.99.
And in the future, Google said that Photos will be able to automatically remove unwanted items in your shots
STANDALONE VIRTUAL REALITY HEADSETS ARE COMING
Google’s VR ambitions are expanding beyond Daydream’s current form, which involves strapping your smartphone to your face. The company announced that upcoming headsets from partners including HTC and Lenovo won’t require a smartphone or PC to power the user’s VR experience. You just put it on and it works. The headsets track virtual space with something Google calls “WorldSense,” powered by technology from its Tango augmented reality system. Unfortunately, we didn’t hear exactly when this standalone vision will become reality. Google just offers a vague “coming soon.”
THE FIRST ANDROID O BETA IS AVAILABLE TODAY
Google is launching its preview program for Android O, and the first beta is being released today. We’re still in the pretty early days of Android O’s development, so you shouldn’t install this preview on your everyday smartphone. But if you’re dying to check out the big new features — improved notifications, picture-in-picture, and more — you can enroll a compatible Pixel or Nexus device and begin testing out Android O.
ANDROID GO IS HOW GOOGLE WILL REACH THE “NEXT BILLION” USERS
Bringing the “next billion” users online with smartphone technology has been a major focus for Pichai since he took over as Google CEO in 2015. Today, the company announced one way it’s going to try to reach that goal: Android Go, a version of the mobile operating system built for entry-level devices that’s optimized for being used in data-restricted environments.
Android Go, which is built on Android O, comes with a “rebuilt” set of Google apps that require less memory, storage, and data to run. Android Go also has its own version of the Google Play Store, which features apps that are best suited for the developing world (like YouTube Go). The OS is able to run on cheap smartphones with as little as 512GB of RAM or less, and Google also built in a way for carriers to show users exactly how much data they’re using. Android Go is still an internal project, but Google sounded confident about it’s ability to take over where 2014’s Android One initiative left off.
GOOGLE’S NEW AI CHIP COULD TURN THE CLOUD INTO ITS NEXT ANDROID
Pichai was quick to hammer home the point that his company’s future depends on artificial intelligence, specifically the machine learning techniques that let algorithms learn on their own and improve over time. This technology underpins everything from its Assistant and search to Google Photos and the AlphaGo system. During the opening remarks of the I/O keynote today, Pichai announced Google’s next-generation Tensor Processing Unit, a specially designed chip for machine learning that works on the company’s TensorFlow platform.
This new TPU chip effectively makes building AI on Google’s platform incredibly fast and efficient, more so than with hardware and machine learning platforms used by competitors. With TPU and TensorFlow being optimized to work together, Google is effectively transforming its cloud computing platform into the Android for AI. This is a big deal for Google’s future. If the company can own the hardware and software used by the most cutting-edge AI researchers, it can stay at the forefront of the field and have its hand in every exciting advancement that machine learning, and every other AI breakthrough, yields in the future.
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