Google CEO Sundar Pichai once downplayed his company’s efforts to make its own smartphones. But then he announced the Pixel last fall — a “phone by Google” — which quickly vaulted to the top of many a “best Android phones” roundup, including PCMag‘s.
In fact, the Pixel was just one of several new hardware offerings Google launched last year. You can now buy Google-branded products to automate your home, fix your spotty Wi-Fi, beam your browser window to the nearest TV and even escape to a virtual world. And since consumer electronics are relentlessly killed off and reincarnated, many of the devices Google announced last year will likely be updated onstage at this year’s Google I/O developers conference, set to begin on Wednesday near the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif.
Like any Silicon Valley giant, Google — often via its Alphabet parent company — also has its hands in a dizzying array of projects beyond hardware and the internet tools on which it originally staked its claim to fame. So Pichai and his fellow Googlers could reveal more about the company’s initiatives in artificial intelligence, cloud computing and more at this year’s conference. Here’s what to expect.
Google released the developer preview of the next version of its Android OS in late March, codenamed Android O. It has spent the two intervening months in a feedback phase, still rough around the edges (here’s what we know so far). That could change on Wednesday, when we’ll likely get more details about the new operating system’s headline features.
Some of what we expect to hear about Android O is related to artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality. The preview doesn’t have much in the way of support for VR or AR, but since Google makes its own Daydream View VR headset, that will likely change in the finished version.
As for AI, Android O will likely have deeper integration with the Google Assistant, the company’s answer to Siri and Amazon Alexa. At only a year old, the Google Assistant is relatively young as personal voice assistants go, which means there’s lots of room for standalone growth and integrations with Android. To get the Assistant into the hands of as many consumers as possible, Google will likely make it easier for OEMs to implement it on Android O. It currently works with phones running Marshmallow or Nougat, but only if they use Google Play and have 1.5GB of memory and 720p or higher screen resolution.
We also expect to hear about some back-end improvements to Android: Google has already promised improvements to get new versions of the OS onto existing devices faster, which should help solve the chronic rollout delays that are one of Android’s chief weaknesses compared to Apple’s fast-updating iOS. Watch for Google to boost Android’s security features, too, and maybe even announce a moniker (“Oreo,” perhaps?) that follows Google’s convention of naming OS versions after confectionary treats.
Pixel and Daydream
A new OS version deserves new hardware, so Google is reportedly planning to update the Pixel and the Pixel XL, as well as roll out an entirely new phone. Details on the Pixel updates are scarce, but Android Police reports they’ll stick to roughly the same screen sizes. A third handset, codenamed “Taimen,” is also in the works, according to Droid Life, and it could have a display that’s even larger than Pixel XL’s 5.5-inch screen.
As for virtual reality, I/O probably won’t bring major updates to Google’s Daydream View VR headset, which just went on sale last November. But it could offer more details on Google’s plans for a new standalone VR or AR headset, the likes of which are already in development or production at Oculus, Qualcomm and other companies. Google has been working on such a device for more than a year, according to a Wall Street Journal report in February 2016.
Google Home and the Google Assistant
Since Google is a relative latecomer to voice assistants, it has been churning out incremental updates over the past year, from selling Google Home in more countries to adding skills to the Google Assistant, including the ability to have it start your Benz and read you recipes in the kitchen. There are now more than 200 of these skills, but that still pales in comparison to the thousands available for Amazon’s Alexa.
Google will likely use I/O to announce a major update beyond additional skills, like new developer tools for building the assistant into more devices. We could even see a new Google-branded speaker or other device, such as a speaker-and-router combo, especially since Amazon now has a handful of devices powered by Alexa, like the new Echo Show and Echo Look.
I/O will also feature demos of further Assistant integration with cars, including a standalone version of Android Auto that doesn’t require you to plug in your phone to access Assistant and other features, according to Bloomberg.
Android TV and Android Wear
This one’s a gimme: we know there will be some updates to the versions of Android that power home entertainment devices, thanks to an I/O session that will cover “new APIs, features and upcoming platform enhancements” for Android TV.
There’s a similar session for developers to learn about features in the next version of Android Wear. The current version, Android Wear 2.0, hit the first smartwatches and fitness trackers in February.
Allo and other software
Google’s Allo chat app has languished somewhat since its unveiling last year, due in part to security concerns as well as the dominance of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and other more established competitors. If Google intends to revive it, I/O would be a good opportunity for some new feature announcements, but the company could just as easily abandon Allo, especially as it focuses on its other communication apps like Duo and Hangouts.
On the operating system front, Google has a few tricks up its sleeve that we could learn more about, including plans to integrate the Chrome and Android operating systems so that Android apps can run on PCs. There’s also the Fuscia OS, still in the very early planning stages — so early, in fact, that it’s unclear what sort of devices Google intends it to power.
Google’s parent Alphabet is working on a ton of technology that won’t show up for download on the web or on the shelves of your local Best Buy any time soon. From self-driving cars to algorithms that can beat the world’s best Go players, there are a ton of geeky and futuristic endeavors that could show up in the spotlight this week. PCMag will be in Mountain View this week to bring you the latest from I/O, and you can also live stream Wednesday’s keynote address.
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