Google I/O thinks outside the box
This year, Google took a different approach to its Google I/O developers conference. First of all, it was mostly outdoors, at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California. (Fun fact about Shoreline: While now it’s literally in Google’s backyard, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was an original partner in launching the concert venue with legendary promoter Bill Graham, and Woz’s name still adorns one of the boxes that the press sat in during the keynote.) And while previous Google I/O keynotes have featured moonshots like Google Glass, this year’s keynote was pretty down-to-earth. No self-driving cars or alien-looking wearables, just new versions of Android and Android Wear, plus some cross-platform apps and a voice-activated device for the home. In fact, a lot of the announcements should even be interesting to Apple fans, from new apps to a huge selection of smartwatches. Here’s what you should care about, and when you can expect it all to launch.
Even if you don’t have an Android device, a Google Home device could fit into your life—especially if Apple doesn’t roll out its own answer to the Amazon Echo anytime soon. The Google Home is a Wi-Fi and Bluetooth speaker that can stream music from cloud services like Spotify and Pandora, and send audio to other Cast-enabled speakers around your house. It also has Google Assistant for voice queries—you can perform searches, add things to your shopping list, and control smart home products like the Nest. Like the Echo, Google Home will eventually work with other services, letting you order a car or send someone flowers, but those won’t be available right away. Google Home should launch sometime this year, with the price yet to be announced.
Google’s newest chat app, Allo, will launch for iOS and Android this summer. The app will suggest replies to incoming texts, and over time adjust them to include your favorite words and emojis—“yes” could become “yeah dog” or “yas queen” or just 👍. It sounds a little like Apple’s predictive QuickType keyboard, crossed with the way autocorrect will offer to change “haha” to “HAHAHAHAHA” if that’s the way you tend to type it. Of course, points out Brian Feldman at New York Magazine, if Google can learn how we talk to our friends, it can also start serving us tailored versions of ads that sound awfully familiar.
iOS has FaceTime for video calling, but you can only call iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Google’s new Duo app will launch this summer on iOS and Android, letting you video chat more seamlessly with your green-bubble friends. Since Google knows some people hesitate to pick up video calls, Duo shows a live video preview when a call is incoming.
Android Wear 2.0
Since Android Wear smartwatches are compatible with iOS, iPhone users don’t have to settle for the two-sizes-fit-all Apple Watch. Android Wear watches come in various sizes, shapes, and with more available features like GPS and LTE. Android Wear 2.0 brings improvements like native apps, automatic exercise detection, and the ability to customize any watch face with “complications” showing data from third-party apps. For communication, users get a new keyboard (yes, a keyboard for a smartwatch, although it uses a swipe gesture rather than tapping), handwriting recognition, and predictive responses. Android Wear 2.0 is in beta now—Greenbot’s Florence Ion got hands-on time at the conference—and launches to consumers later this year.
Google is taking Cardboard up a notch—Daydream is a VR platform consisting of powerful “Daydream ready” Android phones, and a reference headset and controller. Inside the headset, users will see Daydream Home, a 3D environment that acts as an app store and home screen for VR apps and content from YouTube, HBO, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and more.
None of this will work with iOS or iPhones, but Daydream shows how seriously Google is taking mobile VR with Android N, joining the Samsung Gear VR and HTC Vibe in taking on the desktop-class VR experience of the Oculus Rift. So far, as Apple fans, we’re stuck with Google Cardboard-class experiences, but Apple has expressed interest in VR, and Daydream is a tantalizing glimpse at what Apple could be working on.
Tensor Processing Unit
The TPU isn’t an app, it’s hardware—a tensor processing unit, specially designed for Google’s data centers. TPUs powered the AlphaGo computer that beat Go champion Lee Sedol, and they are an order of magnitude better than GPUs and CPUs for machine learning. “This is roughly equivalent to fast-forwarding technology about seven years into the future (three generations of Moore’s Law),” Google said in a blog post. Don’t expect to see them appear in your smartphone or computer, but they’re already being used to power Google services like Street View—and projects like Google’s self-driving car (not to mention Apple’s) are going to need a lot of processing power too.
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