By Sean Kollipara
Google held its annual I/O Developer Conference last week. During the keynote, Google unveiled a preview of L—the next iteration of Android—as well as technology for a number of platforms other than the smartphone. These included watches, TVs, and automobiles. This post aims to delve into L and explore some of its features. In addition, we’ll touch on the new areas of Android exposure, as well as a few other Google tidbits.
The most noticeable change that users will see in the Android L Preview is the user interface. Google introduced a new set of design guidelines, aptly dubbed “Material Design,” to influence the user interfaces that it puts on its products across all platforms. This is not just limited to Android, but to the UIs of Google’s web services, too, such as Gmail. The idea is that it can be a single design paradigm that works responsively and intuitively across all form factors: phones, tablets, and computers. Google is encouraging Android developers to use these guidelines when designing Android apps, and even released the Polymer project for using these same principles on the web. All Google apps are currently undergoing a redesign to help introduce material design, and we were able to see a preview of the new Gmail app during the keynote.
The new “Material” theme introduces responsive graphics. When a button or table row is pressed, radial gradients appear at the location of the press and move outward from that location. The overscroll effect has been changed as well. Instead of glowing when you reach the top or bottom of a scrollable area, a semi-transparent area now reaches out toward your finger from the edge of the scrollable area. It is curved, with the apex of the curve being determined by the location of the user’s finger.
L introduces a feature that people have desired since the introduction of Google’s Chromecast: device screen casting. This allows the user to mirror the devices screen on any device that supports Google Cast. Such a feature is ideal for sharing photos or videos on a TV screen during gatherings with family or friends. Noted Android developer Koushik Dutta attempted to do this with his AllCast app—which can cast to Apple TV, Xbox, and Roku, as well—but Google removed the APIs that enabled him to do this shortly after Chromecast’s release. As of now, the screencasting feature is limited to Chromecast because it is the only Google Cast device available on the market. Android TV devices will have built-in Google Cast support when they become available to consumers. I tried screencasting using my Nexus 7 (2013) and Chromecast, but the device was not able to find the Chromecast device for screen mirroring. However, casting through an app like YouTube or Netflix works just fine.
With L, Google launched an initiative named Project Volta. This project aims to improve Android’s battery usage. The project starts with Battery Historian, which is an improved interface for viewing battery usage statistics. It is accessed from the device Settings, just like the battery stats app in KitKat and prior. Volta also introduces a job scheduling framework, which apps can use to schedule specific tasks. Developers can qualify them with categories of constraints based on how important a job is and when it needs to be executed. The Android system will then execute those tasks in a batch fashion with other apps’ tasks according to the specified constraints. The idea is to group tasks’ execution together to minimize battery consumption of background work.
L also introduces Android RunTime, or ART, as the default virtual machine. An ART preview was available on KitKat, and it had to be manually enabled. With L, Dalvik—the previous virtual machine—is no longer available. ART introduces ahead-of-time compiling and improved garbage collection. This results in apps that run almost twice as fast, according to the presentation at the I/O keynote. Best of all, with very limited exceptions, developers don’t need to do anything to take advantage of the improved virtual machine.
Some further highlights:
- The “back,” “home,” and “recent apps” icons have been replaced with simple shapes: a left pointing triangle, a circle, and a square, respectively. These remind me of the shapes that Sony uses on PlayStation controllers.
- The Settings app’s UI has been re-worked: instead of being a full-on list, it is now has two columns in an edge-to-edge, tile-like interface. It also has a new icon, which looks remarkably better than the Touchwiz-esque icon introduced in KitKat.
- The notification drawer has been redesigned for Material. It has more condensed fonts, and the toggles are now accessed by extending the notification drawer further, rather than having it perform a 3D flip or swiping down with two fingers.
- The recent apps screen now scrolls depthwise in a 3D fashion. Apps can have multiple entries in the recents list. For instance, if you have multiple tabs open in the browser, there will be an entry for each tab in the recents list. This saves the step of first having to go into the browser before choosing which tab you wish to use.
L and the Enterprise
It’s no secret that Android has struggled to gain traction in the enterprise. Apple has been dominating the enterprise, mostly because iOS has a far superior set of enterprise smartphone features. Technologies like single-sign-on and per-app VPN are important to the enterprise environment, and Android has thus far been lacking in these areas. However, with more and more companies switching to a bring-your-own-device (“BYOD”) model, it is imperative that any serious mobile platform have a rich feature set for the enterprise market.
With L, Google aims to put an end to Apple’s enterprise dominance. Google has teamed up with Samsung to integrate the latter’s Knox technology directly into the Android operating system. Knox is a platform for sandboxing the personal aspects of your phone from the work-related aspects. The inclusion of this framework will allow enterprises to deploy and manage apps to Android devices while keeping their data and management separate from the rest of the data and apps on the user’s phone.
Google announced the Wear initiative in March, making clear that it intended to take Android into the wearable market. Currently, the term wearable is most often associated with smartwatches, which aren’t anything new. Samsung has already released two generations of smartwatches, and a number of other vendors have models on the market. However, all of these offerings have been with limitations. For instance, the Samsung models only work if you have one of a few select Samsung smartphones. These types of restrictions have kept wearables to a niche market.
With the Android Wear program, Google intends to take smartwatches—and whatever other wearables are yet to arrive—into the mainstream by introducing a set of standardized APIs for the OS to integrate with wearables. Two watches are already available for pre-order: the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live. The highly-anticipated, round-faced Motorola Moto 360 will be available later this summer.
This is Google’s third foray into working on the biggest screen in the home. After Google TV failed miserably, the next venture was the Chromecast HDMI dongle. The Chromecast has been relatively successful, and now Google wants to bring a full-on operating system directly to the TV. It will of course be Google Cast compatible, but it will also have a media selection interface that will allow the streaming of music or movies from the corresponding services in the Google Play Store.
The extension of mobile operating systems to the automobile seems like a natural progression, but one can’t help but think that Android Auto is a direct response to Apple’s CarPlay, announced at last year’s WWDC. Android Auto will allow steering wheel controls and a touchscreen to control the phone. It will provide shortcuts to commonly-used smartphone functions in the car, such as the dialer and navigation. Most importantly, however, it will be heavily voice-centric, which is intended to reduce the risky behavior of texting while driving.
Glass was noticeably absent from the I/O keynote this year. This could have something to do with the rounds of negative publicity that it has been receiving in recent months. Privacy concerns have caused many people to frown upon “glassholes,” or people who use Glass in public. In November of last year, a Glass user was kicked out of a restaurant in Seattle for wearing Glass during his visit. A month prior to that, a woman in California was ticketed for driving with Glass, though that charge was dismissed this January. People have also been detained and questioned by the Department of Homeland Security for wearing Glass in movie theaters, as they have been suspected of attempted piracy. Most recently, Glass has been banned from movie theaters in the UK. Glass has also become a symbol of the tech industry’s presence in San Francisco. Well-paid tech workers are bringing wealth to San Francisco, causing housing prices to rise and many non-tech folks to lose their homes.
Despite all of this, Google has been pressing forward with Glass. In May of this year, it opened sales of the device to the US public. It also recently became available outside of the US. And the day before I/O, it announced that new models will be shipping with 2 GB of RAM instead of 1 GB.
At the end of the keynote, Sundar Pichai informed every developer that they would receive a mysterious-looking cardboard box. Given the dimensions of the box, some thought a new Nexus tablet would be inside. As it turns out, the cardboard is a pre-cut box to create an virtual reality experience using the phone screen. The goal is keeping it inexpensive. It comes with an SDK and developer tools to help create apps that work in this experience. There are also instructions online to build your own Cardboard VR set from extra cardboard that you have laying around the house.
Google introduced a lot of new things at I/O, but they made it very clear that their approach to mobile was phone-first. The core of the Android experience still relies on the smartphone, but it is augmented by an increasing number of other smart devices with which the phone can communicate to provide a fresh, new experience in familiar settings such as the car and the living room.