Expect new Android version, Glass overload at Google I/O
When the doors open for the Google I/O keynote on Wednesday, we’re not expecting a team of Glass-wearing skydivers—that’s so last year—but rather something equally stunning to remind us that Google is a hotbed of innovation. The stakes are high, and Google must announce a new or vastly upgraded product to keep users coming back for more.
And whatever Google shows off, it can't disappear as fast as the Nexus Q media streamer did in 2012.
Here’s what our in-house Google experts expect to see (or, at least, would like to see) at this year's product unveiling. Join us for our live blog of the Wednesday morning keynote, and watch for our follow-up stories as we cover the three-day conference.
Glass is great, but what makes it useful?
Google’s Glass presentation at last year’s I/O was the most exciting keynote stunt in consumer-tech history. But now that independent developers have had a chance to play with the headset, it’s time for Google to focus less on theatrics and more on Glass’s practical uses.
Apps are the lifeblood of mobile devices, and we think there's an outside chance that Google will announce some kind of Glass-specific app store to convince consumers of the long-term viability of the hardware. And even if a marketplace isn't announced, Google will likely announce partnerships with app developers and organizations to prove Glass will be supported by killer apps once it goes on sale sometime next year.
Or, at least, that's what Apple would do.
If you’re hoping for Google to announce a solid price or release date, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. There are still a number of Glass Explorers who have yet to receive their Glass units, and Google will want the device on the faces of as many developers as possible before charging ahead with a consumer release. Right now, it appears that the only way to get your hands on Glass is to work for Google or shell out $1500 for an early version of the headwear.
Regardless, expect an avalanche of user-generated Glass content to flow from Moscone Center next week. The venue will be Glass Nerd Central, and even if we have to dodge a few Glassholes, we hope to join in the fun.
Android OS and tablet upgrades
Last year’s Google I/O keynote was a goldmine for Android fans. Google introduced several new Android devices, most of which shipped running the then-brand-new Android 4.1 Jelly Bean operating system. This year’s I/O will undoubtedly bring a new version of the OS—though it’s still up for debate whether this update will be a major one (and be called 5.0) or just another version tweak to Jelly Bean.
Regardless of its name, it's likely the refreshed OS will offer some type of unified chat client (currently codenamed Babel). What's more, new evidence makes it all but certain that Google will announce a platform called Play Games that supercharges the Android gaming experience with achievements, leaderboards, in-game chat, and tools to invite and find people to play games.
A new 11-inch Nexus tablet is also expected to make an appearance, as well as a more affordably priced version of the Nexus 7 (think $100). There are also murmurs of a Motorola-made Nexus phone, but it’s far more likely that we’ll see an LTE-compatible version of the Nexus 4 handset.
Circling back to Google+
Google continues to drive hard at Google+, desperately trying to make it the most popular social network around. Most of the developer sessions about Google+ revolve around integrating the service with apps and websites—using Google+ sign-in and +1 buttons, for example.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Google keynote without some sort of announcement about Google+. We expect Google will trumpet its suspiciously high user count, and also announce enhancements to the most popular and differentiating features, like Hangouts. Google just added a remote-desktop option, so what else could the company go with? Perhaps a feature that lets you use your phone remotely? Better, more-expansive live broadcasting services? That would dovetail nicely with Google Glass, which is tied neatly with the Google+ service.
Polishing up Chrome
When Google debuted the Chromebook Pixel earlier this year, it gave the Chrome ecosystem a glossy spokesmodel that helped you forget all the other dowdy, netbook-size nobodies skulking backstage. Because the Pixel is so expensive, however, there aren’t enough of them out and about to get people thinking they’d like one, too. So giving a Pixel to every I/O attendee would be an outrageous but very effective way to empower an army of Chrome OS evangelists. And if anyone can afford to buy that many Pixels, Google can.
Still, odds of a mass Pixel giveaway? Slim.
For this reason, we think Google needs to announce a big improvement in either the apps experience or the browser. The company has two app platforms in development (NaCl and packaged apps), but while they're promising, it’s too early for either to deliver products. So to evangelize Chrome at I/O, it's much more likely that Google will announce some fixes to current Chrome bugaboos, such as offline app functionality.
There’s a map for that
Google might also use the I/O keynote to turn up the volume on the work it’s quietly been doing in Mountain View on indoor mapping. Two major players—Google and Nokia—have amassed giant databases that associate physical indoor locations with network locations derived from the triangulation of Wi-Fi, cellular and GPS radio signals. The combination of these data points lets a mobile device recognize its indoor location and surroundings within a five-foot margin of error.
These databases and their capabilities have yet be clearly explained to developers, press and consumers, however. Google I/O, then, may be the coming-out party for a branded service that will help people find their ways through the deepest twists and turns of the London Underground or Tokyo’s Narita International airport. A new app leveraging this technology would provide detailed indoor maps on a mobile device, as well as verbal, step-by-step directions and landmark notifications. The app (for Android and iOS) would rely on both on-device and server-sourced mapping data.
Or so we conjecture.
Waiting to be wowed
Google is second only to Apple in its ability to create buzz and cachet around its products. And Google’s constantly trying new things, so who knows what those crazy and insanely smart engineers will dream up next. Whatever happens at the Google I/O keynote, you’ll hear it firsthand on our live blog, and you can stay tuned for more news, hands-on reviews, and trend coverage as the conference continues.