Following Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) earlier in the month and all the iOS news that came with it, June 25th marked Google’s turn to showcase everything new in Android and announce exciting new form factors and products.
Whereas Apple’s event focused more on new APIs and features in iOS8, a large portion of Google I/O was dedicated to expanding Android’s reach beyond the smartphone and tablet, and instead introduce a new, consistent design language to be used across mobile and web.
The Next Billion
Google began their keynote by reeling off some impressive stats about the current state of Android; 1 billion active users sending 20 billion texts and capturing 93 million selfies every single day. Last year, Android 4.4 (KitKat) was announced with a focus on “the next billion”, with lower hardware requirements aimed at running on cheaper smartphones for the developing world. This goal has been given a renewed focus with “Android One”, a set of rules for manufacturers to follow to make it easier to create low cost devices. Google have done a lot of the hard work in figuring out material costs and finding the perfect balance between low cost and decent performance. Google will also control the software on these devices for the first time, providing a “stock” Android experience with no unnecessary additions, automatic updates and access to all of Google’s services.
Android is already gaining significant market share in emerging markets, and with the addition of Android One, this is set to continue and possibly increase in momentum. This will open up enormous new potential for app developers.
As well as the prospect of “the next billion”, app developers can also revel in the fact that Android app installs have increased by 236%, Google paid out $5 billion to developers from Play Store sales over the last year, and Android now holds 62% tablet market share, up from 46% last year.
Back in March Google announced Android Wear, a new extension of Android specifically designed for wearables (namely smartwatches). At I/O, they took the opportunity to showcase Android Wear a little more, showing off third party apps and demoing just a few of its key capabilities. One of the engineers working on Wear showed off the Eat24 app, which allowed him to order a pizza right from his wrist; probably not one of the best uses of a smartwatch we have seen so far, but impressive nonetheless. The important takeaways from this announcement were the availability of two watches sporting Android Wear, the LG G Watch and the Samsung Gear Live (available to pre-order now through Google’s Play Store) and the release of a full SDK for developers to start making apps that run directly on the watch.
With the battle to own your wrist developing quickly, the battle to own your dashboard is also on the horizon, with Google’s answer to Apple’s CarPlay, Android Auto. Like CarPlay, Auto requires you to connect your smartphone to the car via USB; apps that support it can then show custom interfaces on the car’s touchscreen and use any buttons and knobs for input, along with voice control. Relying on your phone to provide the processing power and apps means that you won’t have to buy a new car or update its software to get new features; all you have to do is update or upgrade your phone.
Both platforms provide similar functionality right now, covering the basics of navigation, music and voice actions. Android Auto has the welcome addition of Google Now, which provides contextual, preemptive information without you having to ask for it, and also has more third party apps and car makers on board at launch.
Android on the big screen
Perhaps more important than the battle for your dashboard and even your wrist is the brewing battle for the biggest and often most important screen in your home, the TV. There are a myriad of smart TVs and add ons on the market today, some bad, and some good… but not great. Google aims to solve this with Android TV, its third foray into the living room, following the ill fated Google TV and much more successful Chromecast.
At Google I/O, we were told that Chromecast has been a big success for Google, selling millions of units and generating a significant amount of traffic to YouTube. Chromecast is a simple device, that does what it was created to do very well, stream video via WiFi, controlled by your smartphone or tablet. Its success is in the simplicity and limits.
Android TV is intended for those who want more than this, those wanting to browse content on the big screen, play games and have it all integrated with the TV’s core functionality. Video streaming apps on Android TV will be able to showcase new content and recommendations on the home screen, provide second screen experiences on your phone or tablet, and voice control will allow you to search them all for movies with your favourite actor or Oscar winners from a specific year. Built in gamepad support will allow you to play your favourite Android games the same way you play them on a dedicated games console. Of course yes, you will still be able to “cast” content from your phone or tablet in the same way as Chromecast, as well as being able to use it as a TV remote.
Google may finally carve its way into the living room with Sony, Sharp and Philips all dedicated to producing smart TVs running Android TV next year, but the make or break factor in its success will be third party app support, and convincing more manufacturers to drop their own TV platforms in favour of Android.
Tying all of this together is Android L, the next major release of Android for phones and tablets. Google previewed several new features including notifications on the lockscreen, new “heads-up” notifications that appear over the top of apps, allowing important notifications to be seen without ruining your high score in a game and a revamped “recent apps” menu that now includes all of your open Chrome tabs. However, the biggest updates come in the form of new tools and APIs for developers, and a new design language for apps running on L.
Android L includes over 5000 new APIs for developers to bring new capabilities to their apps, including new APIs to allow more fine tuned control of the camera, methods to allow apps to schedule intensive tasks to run when a device is charging or connected to WiFi, and a new graphics framework for creating advanced, console level graphics.
Also part of the update will be the ART runtime, an underlying revamp of the way that Android opens and runs applications that will bring greatly increased speed and better battery life.
Google’s new design guidelines are based around “materials”, surfaces that are grounded in real world physics, but that can also take on “magical” properties only possible in the digital world. It’s about layering views to provide depth and bold colours and typography that is more pleasing to the eye. Another key aspect is “meaningful motion”; providing transitions between views to give the user a context of where they are and where they are going.
All of this combines to create a visual design that is consistent and scales across all screen sizes and it is definitely worth considering updating current apps to fit in with this design.
Other areas of interest
We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of everything announced at Google I/O. “Google Fit” is a new platform similar to Apple’s “HealthKit”, providing integration between health and fitness apps, device sensors and more. Google also announced the acquisition of “Appurify”, a company that provides app testing on real devices through the cloud and “Android for Work”, with the ability to have specific apps and data on your device managed by your workplace.
Another interesting development is the ability to run Android apps on Chrome OS, Google’s browser based desktop operating system, with limited support coming later this year.
As with Apple’s iOS 8, Google’s new update is going to be one of the most important updates in the operating system’s history, and provides a lot of food for thought in the app development arena.
The Distance team is looking forward to taking advantage of many of the new opportunities coming our way soon, and we hope that you share in this excitement in updating your apps, or indeed creating new apps to take full advantage of them. New form factors provide massive new potential and we’d love to hear your ideas for apps for these devices.
If you would like an App appraisal to ensure your App is ready for the switch to Android L or our advice on how your App could take advantage of the new technologies discussed here, please get in touch now.