Google announced a plethora of new products and services in the keynote address at last week’s Google I/O Developer Conference. Here are the highlights, and if you get the sense that many are aimed at solving the same problems that Apple has targeted with its recent releases and announcements, then you’re on target.
Android L -- Google announced an upcoming version of Android, codenamed “L” and due later this year, with a new, cross-platform design language called Material Design that features flat design elements, bright colors, and three-dimensional depth.
It’s hard not to compare Google’s Material Design to the Apple software design language introduced in iOS 7 and OS X Yosemite. Even the name Material Design sounds familiar — Senior Vice President of Software Engineering Craig Federighi referred to various design elements as “materials” during this year’s WWDC keynote (see “Apple Unveils iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite at WWDC,” 2 June 2014).
In other Android news, Google is launching a new initiative, called Android One, that aims to bring inexpensive phones to developing markets. The first model will be manufactured by MicroMax and cost $100. The program will start in India before moving to other markets.
Android Auto, Google Fit, and Android Wear -- At last year’s Worldwide Developer Conference, Apple introduced CarPlay (then called “iOS in the Car,” see “Apple Unveils Completely Redesigned iOS 7,” 10 June 2013), and now Google has unleashed a competitor in the form of Android Auto. Like CarPlay, Android Auto will connect to your phone, enabling you to control car-optimized apps with your vehicle’s built-in controls. Check out its promotional video.
Like Apple’s forthcoming HealthKit in iOS 8, Google Fit is a platform that promises to provide a single set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for all health-related Android apps. However, unlike Apple, with its Health app, Google won’t have a singular app that will aggregate the data. The company announced several launch partners, including Adidas, LG, Nike, and RunKeeper.
One place where Google got the jump on Apple is with Android Wear, a special version of its mobile operating system for smartwatches. Android Wear is completely voice controlled, with responses provided by Google Now, and it can also track your step count and heart rate, if the hardware supports those functions. Android Wear will connect to an Android phone running version 4.3 or later. Two devices are available for preorder: the $199.99 Samsung Gear Live and the $229 LG G Watch, both of which will ship on 7 July 2014.
Another Stab at the Living Room -- Not content to let Apple and Amazon go unchallenged, Google continues to vie for the living room with Android TV, a platform for smart TVs and set-top boxes. Like Amazon’s Fire TV, Android TV will offer an app store, voice search, and gaming. It will also be compatible with Chromecast “casts,” so you can beam content to Android TV devices.
Despite the introduction of Android TV, Google hasn’t abandoned its inexpensive Chromecast dongle (see “Testing Google’s Chromecast for Apple Users,” 30 July 2013). It’s gaining a customizable home screen, the capability to receive casts from devices not on the same Wi-Fi network, and the equivalent of AirPlay for Android devices, which will be able to mirror their displays to the Chromecast-equipped TV.
Android Crosses Over to Chrome OS -- Chrome OS, the browser-based desktop operating system most commonly see on Chromebook laptops, wasn’t left out of the party, either (see “Google’s Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop,” 24 February 2014). Google is working on running Android apps from inside Chrome OS, which could significantly extend the functionality of Chromebooks. However, the project is still in its early days, so it could be a while before it ships.
Virtual Reality on a Budget -- Perhaps Google’s strangest announcement was a new project, called Cardboard, that turns an Android phone into a virtual reality headset. The project is aptly named, since the head-mounted phone casing is constructed from cardboard, along with lenses, magnets, NFC tags, rubber bands, and Velcro. Conference attendees received Cardboard for free, but enterprising makers can build their own by following Google’s instructions. TechCrunch posted a hands-on article of what it’s like to build and use Cardboard.
Gmail API and Drive for Work -- On the cloud front, Gmail now offers an API for developers that will let third-party applications access and process your email, either to offer alternative user interfaces or service-specific features. Contrary to what the Wall Street Journal reported, the new API will not replace the IMAP standard. Google’s documentation states, “The Gmail API should not be used to replace IMAP for full-fledged email client access.”
Google is expanding its enterprise offerings with Drive for Work, which provides unlimited Google Drive storage for $10 per user per month and will accept files up to 5 TB. That’s equivalent to the individual Dropbox Pro account pricing for 100 GB of storage, but a good bit less than the $15 per user per month Dropbox for Business and Box Business accounts that also offer unlimited storage.
Not “Only Apple” -- If there’s one thing Google countered in this year’s Google I/O keynote, it’s Tim Cook’s claim that “only Apple” can provide complete integration across products and services (see “John Gruber on “The New Apple”,” 16 June 2014). Google’s announcements went a long way toward merging its disparate product lines, thanks in part to Google’s decision to put both Android and Chrome under the leadership of Sundar Pichai, a move reminiscent of Apple uniting iOS and OS X under Craig Federighi, which improved integration between Apple’s operating systems.
What remains to be seen is how well both companies execute on this promise. Apple distinctly has the lead here, due to its tight control over proprietary hardware and software, and to its laser-like focus on the individual rather than on group collaboration. Plus, features like Handoff are much closer to fruition than, say, Android apps on Chromebooks. Despite the keynote’s announcements, Google may have more trouble forging tight ties between its products because of working with numerous hardware manufacturers and its emphasis on providing public APIs and open source code.
Regardless, it’s important to avoid the trap of seeing this competition as a zero-sum game. Google and Apple are corporate behemoths and will continue to generate mind-boggling revenues whether or not these integration efforts are entirely successful. The real winners will be users, who benefit from the efforts of both companies.