Google revealed plans at its Google I/O conference Wednesday to ensure that Android devices work together more easily. It also delivered on what it said was a big investment in the design and user experience of the Android mobile interface. The unstated goal: make it more competitive with products from Apple.
As a whole, the 2014 event running this week in San Francisco had less flash and more hard work evident beneath the covers than some of its previous developer conferences. There was no sky diver with Google Glasses landing on the Moscone Center roof. If anything, the critiques of Google Glass have brought an elevated concern for the quality of design in Google products. Google this year showed a quiet determination to leave no stone unturned in competing for mobile users.
Google announced, for example, several additions to the user interface in Android L, the unnamed next release of the Android system, with Nexus tablet versions available immediately. With a new approach called Material Design, pixels in the user interface will not only indicate form and color but also depth. Shadows will give objects a three-dimensional air. Shading and lighting highlights will give a real time sense of objects moving through a field of light.
Simple, bold type will be used to label pages, and additional effects, such as a spreading ripple from a touched letter or symbol, will visually reinforce the touch action.
[Want to learn more about how Android Auto will help you drive? See Google I/O: A to Z.]
A series of cards on a screen, representing information sources, can be lighter or darker, depending on whether they are in use, most recently used, or unused. Google is offering "a unified set of guidelines to build a more beautiful, consistent user experience," said Google VP of Design Matias Duarte, sounding more like Apple's Jonathan Ive every minute. His only challenge will be in getting the diverse and sometimes fractious universe of Android developers to adopt them the same way.
The new user interface will also provide for the smooth flow of animations from one Android device to another, such as from smartphone to tablet to laptop.
The user interface is also being updated for smoother device interconnection. Google wants developers to gain the benefit of developing a mobile application once and having its presentation work across many Android devices, from smart watches to phones, tablets, and Chrome laptops, and soon, TV screens. With Material Design, "you will be able to take the same design to different screens," with Android recognizing how a design must change to fit different screen sizes, Duarte said during the 2.5- hour keynote address.
Android-compatible set top boxes or smart TVs are coming from manufacturers this fall, and Google said the availability of the TV's big screen will change certain Android computing experiences. It's one thing to inspect a destination on Google Earth using a smartphone. It's another to show the route to a planned vacation destination on a big-screen TV, with the high-level view zooming over the ocean to a bunch of islands, then down to a particular resort on Maui.
The new user interface will include 5,000 new APIs that will connect Android devices to a broad set of services on the Internet and other devices. One of the new APIs can take a user from a Google search subject to a Google Earth application that offers a visual tour of the search object.
Android L version -- a name like Lollipop will be given to it -- is immediately available to developers for the Nexus 5 and Nexus 7 tablets.
Thursday also marks the release of the Android Wear SDK for developers who will use it to build applications for wearable computing, such as the three versions of an Android watch expected this fall or an existing LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live, available in the Play Store. The main function of wrist computers will be to supply relevant bits of information forwarded from an Android phone, including notifications of calls, messages, news, or social network updates.
But another aspect of Wear will be to use sensors in the device that can be context aware, sending that information to the phone and linking to sources on the Internet that are relevant to the context. With smaller devices, the L user interface is also going to make it easier to move from a local application directly into a Web-based source of information.
During the keynote, Avni Shad, director of product management for Chrome, said, "We make it really easy to move to the Web from applications," illustrating the point by moving from OpenTable to the website
of a restaurant where a reservation had just been made. The handoff occurred without opening a new browser window.
Another use for Wear is to equip the watch with a Bluetooth signal that tells your phone you are present, which obviates the need to enter a PIN number when the phone's owner picks it up to use. If the owner were separated from the signal, the phone would lock itself against outside use.
Urs Hoelzle, senior VP of engineering and chief cloud architect, said Google has a new big data service that makes somewhat obsolete its MapReduce system, which has found popular use at such places as Amazon Web Services' Elastic MapReduce. In its place, Hoelzle recommends using Cloud Dataflow, a big data system capable of handling large streams of data or events in parallel pipes. It's designed to be easy to set up the management of complex data flows, since it can deal with both batch jobs and streaming data. At Amazon, MapReduce or Hadoop would handle the batch job, while Amazon Kinesis, introduced last November, would handle streaming data.
Hoelzle called Google cloud solutions architect Eric Schmidt 2nd (not Eric Schmidt, Google's executive chairman) to the stage as the Dataflow demonstrator. Schmidt used it to process data streaming out of a World Cup soccer match, looking for athlete performance anomalies, then alerting and reporting them to Dataflow managers.
Hoelzle also introduced four new developer tools for use in building applications to run on the Google Compute Engine or App Engine.
-- Cloud Save is a simple API for saving user preferences or application use information drawn from each user visit to Google Cloud Data Store, its storage service for unstructured data. Once there, it can be analyzed by Big Query or other analytics engine and the results used in connection with the operation of the application.
-- Cloud Debugging lets a developer who sees something malfunctioning in the application to inspect source code, insert a watch point when a suspected trouble area is executed, and then highlights the suspect code when the suspect activity occurs again. Greg DeMichellie, director of Cloud Platform product management, illustrated stray emoticons being inserted in the display of his WalkShare application, then discovered a regular expression error in the source. With the application running, the correction was inserted into a new build and incorporated into the production system.
-- Cloud Tracing is a performance oriented tool that allows a developer to inspect requests to an application and see which ones are running up clock time, affecting performance. A request taking 200 milliseconds to get a response is shown to be caused by a code loop, which DeMichellie corrected on stage. He then used Cloud Tracing to check the before and after latency of the application to make sure the app as a whole was running faster. It was.
-- Cloud Monitoring is a tool for gaining visibility into the operation of CPU, disk, and memory of a workload on Compute or App Engine, as most monitoring systems do. In addition, the tool can also monitor a running service and respond with alerts if service levels decrease below certain thresholds. The tool, for example, can monitor a running Reddis system and detect when its exceeded its memory threshold for longer than an allowed period.
Senior VP for Chrome and Android, Sundar Pichai, recently described by BusinessWeek as "the most powerful man in mobile," cited stats on how far Android has advanced over the course of the last year. Twenty-eight percent of the access to YouTube was from Android devices in 2013; 42% so far in 2014. Android's share of the smartphone market was 39% in 2012; 46% in 2013; and 62% so far in 2014, he said.
Handset manufacturers Micromax, Karbonn, and Spice have been working with Google to offer Android smartphones in India for under $100. Pichai said he has been using a Micromax model and "it's really good."
A protester interrupted Urs Holzle as he spoke, shouting, "You work for a company that builds machines that kill people," a reference most attendees appeared to be dumbfounded by. He was escorted from the Moscone West by security. Seconds later, the next speaker, Michellie, began his talk on WalkShare: "This is the most peaceful application that I know how to build," and got an appreciative round of applause.
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