Google I/O: Android updates promise a consistent experience from wearables to TV

25 Jun 2014

LG's G Watch running Android L

To an audience of 6,000 developers (and at least two protesters), Google’s I/O keynote introduced a range of updates focused on the Android platform, as well as some news for Chromecast and Chromebooks.

The 7th annual developer conference didn’t exactly go off without a hitch, as protesters twice interrupted proceedings for two separate causes. However, fast-acting security ensured that millions live-streaming the event around the world would have hardly noticed the interjections.

First to take the stage was Sundar Pichai, Google’s SVP of Android, Chrome and Apps – all of which were addressed in the hours-long presentation at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, California.

Android L

Pichai revealed that Android now has 1bn active monthly users, many of whom would be interested to know about this platform’s newest iteration: Android L. I’m not sure if ‘L’ is just the working title for the mobile OS we all expected to be called Lollipop, but just look at how wrong speculation was for Key Lime Pie.

Either way, this software update is Google’s most ambitious Android release yet, with more than 5,000 new APIs. The most striking change for users, though, is a new design language called material design.

Material design brings a tactile quality to the Android OS, but not with textures (which have already been retired from iOS). It does this by adding dimension with dynamic shadows that reflect the position of the phone, and 60fps animations to denote interactions. Web app developers will also be able to make use of material design through Polymer, thus bringing to light one of Google’s key themes of today’s keynote: consistency across all devices.


Android L will also come with enterprise-level security provided by Knox from Samsung, 64-bit support, and Project Volta to help apps run efficiently and conserve power.

Android Wear

Moving on, I/O also provided a more in-depth look at Android Wear, which was first revealed in March this year. Today, we got a real look at this wearable platform in action.

Bringing Android to the most common wearable screen, the wristwatch, Android Wear focuses on glance-able notifications and voice control. Funnily enough, the Google team member presenting the product – David Singleton, director of engineering at Android – didn’t demonstrate any live voice-control action himself, instead using a bodiless voice dubbed ‘Jeff’ to walk the audience through the functionality.

For me, who has had widely varied degrees of success in using voice control, an alarm bell was very nearly drowning out Jeff’s commands. Apparently, Singleton’s Northern-Irish Californian is not the tone to take with Android Wear.

Two Android Wear devices – the LG G Watch and Samsung’s Gear Live – are already available for pre-order to ship from 7 July, while Google’s own Moto 360 won’t arrive for another few months.

Samsung Gear Live Android Wear watch

Samsung Gear Live

Android Auto

Android Auto is Google’s attempt at solving a dangerous issue: drivers who insist on using their phones while in the car. Unfortunately, its solution is to divert said drivers’ attention away from a smartphone screen and towards a dashboard screen. While voice control makes the process safer, that’s hardly a fresh idea. In fact, something about the Android Auto presentation seemed a little half-baked and, unsurprisingly, this platform is not yet ready for third-party development.

Android Auto is enabled by connecting a compatible smartphone with a compatible car, which you should see on the road later this year. It can offer turn-by-turn navigation from Google Maps, access to playlists and radio through Play Music, voice search and reminders from Google Now. Again, none of this is groundbreaking, it has just moved to the in-car display of a connected vehicle.


Android TV

Reminding us of Google’s innovative side was an update to Chromecast – the ingenious little device introduced by Google last year. New features coming to the clever media-streaming dongle include the ability to cast to a Chromecast-connected TV from a mobile device even without connecting to the same Wi-Fi network. This works by proximity, verifying that the user is in the same room and, thus, allowing them to connect.

Screen mirroring has also been introduced in the Chromecast update, as well as a customisable homescreen called Backdrop, which can cycle through pretty pictures selected by Google or your own photo collection, turning your TV into an ever-changing photo frame whenever it’s not in use.

Android TV

Android TV

In addition to the Chromecast update, Google also revealed Android TV, a new platform to bring Android apps into the living room. Google promised this technology will ship with products from a range of consumer electronics companies later this year, including Sony, Asus and Razer, making it available across a wide range of devices, from TVs to set-top boxes to games consoles.

Again, Google pivoted its pitch for Android TV around voice search – another theme throughout the presentation – though, at least in this case, Dave Burke was able to produce the goods with a live demo.

Search on Android TV – whether voice-activated or not – is comprehensive, drawing on information from Google’s Knowledge Graph in order to answer your every query. Android TV can be controlled through a mobile device, smartwatch or a gamepad, which also allows for improved Android gaming.

Just like the Chromecast, Android TV supports Google’s Cast technology, so a dongle-free Android TV set will let you shoot video from your mobile device to a larger screen.

Android One

The first big reveal made at Google I/O, and one that has been largely overshadowed by the others that followed, was Android One. Google wants to connect with the people who don’t yet have access to smartphone technology – such as more than 90pc of the population of India, Pichai’s home country – and has partnered with OEMs and telecommunications companies to help make that happen.

Android One was billed as a comprehensive solution that includes a hardware reference platform that will enable the manufacture of high-quality phones with a sub-$100 price tag – which still sounds pricey for an emerging market.

The first Android One smartphones will be launched along with what Google deems ‘reasonable data plans’ in India this autumn, with more countries to follow.

And the rest

As expected, Google Fit was introduced during the keynote, but not a whole lot was revealed. This open platform for keeping all your fitness data in one place will be built into Android L, maintaining the platform’s competitiveness with iOS 8 and HealthKit. A number of key partners have already signed up, including Adidas, Nike and RunKeeper.

The presentation also revealed how Android apps can be used on Chromebooks. Google’s new Gmail API intends to turn the service into a platform for third-party web apps, and a new Google Drive service, Drive for Work, offers unlimited cloud storage for US$10 per month.

For developers eager to start working with these new platforms, the Android L Developer Preview, Google Play Services 5.0, Android TV SDK and Google Cast SDK have all been introduced to the wild, while the Android Auto SDK and Google Fit SDK will follow soon.


Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.