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Google I/O 2016 Aftermath

And that’s a wrap. Google have just finished hosting their annual developer conference, Google I/O, where the tech giant unveiled several exciting new products and made some big announcements.

Let’s take a look at all the biggest news from Google I/O 2016.

1. Android N Developer Preview 3

Google I/O isn’t just about new consumer tech, it’s also about the tools that allow developers to create products based on Google’s technology, most notably Android apps.

Although the official release won’t be out until later this summer, Google took the opportunity to show off more of Android N, in the form of a new developer preview.

The previous two Android Developer Previews introduced a new Just In Time (JIT) compiler that aims to boost overall software performance, the Vulkan rendering API for high-performance, 3D graphics, and productivity improvements, most notably split-screen multitasking in the form of multi-window and picture-in-picture mode, and direct reply notifications.

Launched during the opening Google I/O keynote, Android N Developer Preview 3 is the first beta-quality candidate, meaning this release is considered stable enough to test on your primary smartphone or tablet.

The major new feature in Developer Preview 3 is native support and optimizations for virtual reality, via a VR mode. This mode will help developers provide high-quality mobile VR experiences that make use of features such as intelligent head-tracking. Head-tracking is particularly important as it aims to reduce the delay between the user’s head movements and the VR images, which is why so many people get motion sick when wearing a VR headset.

The other major new feature in Developer Preview 3, is a seamless update process. Devices running Android N will automatically download updates in the background, and the next time the user powers up their device, it’ll automatically switch to the updated system image.

Many people expected Google to unveil Android N's official name at Google I/O, but Google are trying something a bit different this time around. They are asking the Internet for suggestions, because what could possibly go wrong with that? You can send Google your ideas via the Help name Android N website.

If you’re already enrolled in the Android Beta Program then you should get an OTA (over-the-air) update soon, or you can download the factory images for supported devices, and then flash them manually.

2. A New Virtual Reality Platform

At Google I/O 2014, Google debuted a lo-fi virtual reality (VR) headset that went by the name of Google Cardboard. Two years later and Google have just announced a new VR experience, Daydream.

Daydream consists of multiple components.

Phone

As you can imagine, VR isn't something that just any Android smartphone can support. Daydream will only work on smartphones that have the required sensors, display resolutions, chipsets, and other hardware. Google are helping to define a set of specifications that a smartphone needs to meet in order to be considered Daydream-ready.

According to Google, we can expect to see Daydream-ready phones from many big brands, launching in the fall.

Android N

Android N supports Daydream via its new VR mode, although it’s worth noting that just because your device is running Android N doesn’t automatically mean it’s Daydream-ready. The device still has to have all the hardware specified by Google.

Headset and Controller

At the moment, there’s no physical Daydream hardware, just a blueprint for a standalone VR headset and controller that Google will share with third parties.

Googles Design Specification for the Daydream Headset and Controller

Google say that we can expect Daydream headsets and controllers to start appearing later this year.

Apps

Google has created special VR versions of its own suite of software offerings, including YouTube, Street View, Play Movies, Photos, and even the Google Play store.

3. Android Wear Breaks Away From the Smartphone

Google also made some exciting announcements for Android wearables and released the first developer preview of Android Wear 2.0.

The biggest change is that, as of Android Wear 2.0, wearables can function independently of a smartphone. This means that apps can now run within a wearable and will continue to function normally even if the paired smartphone is out of range or powered off. This update has the potential to make Android smartwatches a lot more powerful, and generally a lot more useful.

Other new features in Android Wear 2.0 include new input methods, support for Android N and, an API for complications, which allows app developers to pass raw data to watch faces.

For more information, check out the Android Wear 2.0 Developer Preview website. Google also issued a new Material Design for Wearables guide, which is a must-read if you’re developing for the wearable platform.

4. Run Apps With No Installation Required

Google are on a mission to make using mobile apps more like browsing the web and their new Android Instant Apps feature is a step closer to this goal.

With Instant Apps, developers can slice their apps into modular chunks, which gives Android users the option to selectively download and use only the code that’s necessary for them to perform a certain action, rather than downloading the entire app.

This is good news for users, as we all know how annoying it is to have to download an app that you know you’re only going to use once or twice. For example, if you wanted to watch a video that’s only available via a particular video-playing app, Instant Apps gives you the option to grab the parts of the app that are required to play the video, instead of having to download an entire app just because you want to watch a single video.

Instant Apps is possibly one of the most interesting Google I/O announcements for Android developers, as it has the potential to completely change the way users and developers think about mobile apps. It'll also make it much easier for new users to discover and start using your app.

Android Instant Apps will be released in the fall and will be compatible with Android JellyBean and higher.

5. Android Gets Chromebook Support

Google are finally going to be adding support for Android apps to Chromebooks. Although this won’t be happening until later this year, you can start getting your Android apps ready for Chromebooks today by following Google’s handy online guide.

6. New Mobile Analytics

After acquiring Firebase in 2014, Google have relaunched it as a developer platform. This newly-expanded Firebase platform includes tools to help developers improve the quality of their apps, attract new users, and monetize their work.

Firebase also features a mobile analytics tool, which Google rebuilt from the ground up. The Firebase Analytics tool provides similar functionality as Google Analytics, but is designed specifically to meet the needs of mobile app developers.

7. Android Studio 2.2 Preview

Google also released a preview of Android Studio 2.2. Android Studio 2.2 Preview 1 includes a new layout editor to help you visually design your layouts, plus a blueprint mode that's handy for inspecting the spacing and arrangement of your app's various user interface elements.

The New Layout Editor in Android Studio 22 Preview 1

Android Studio 2.2 Preview 1 also introduces a new layout manager, ConstraintLayout, that should help you maintain a flat view hierarchy by expressing complex user interfaces without having to resort to nesting multiple layouts. Whenever you drag-and-drop a view into ConstraintLayout, you define how that view should be positioned relative to other on-screen elements, by adding constraints.

ConstraintLayout is distributed as a support library that’s compatible with Android version 2.3 and higher.

To help you reduce the size of your project, Android Studio 2.2 Preview 1 introduces a new APK analyzer that helps you understand the contents and size of your APK components.

Developers can also look forward to adding Firebase services to their projects via a Firebase plugin for Android Studio. To access the Firebase features, select Tools > Firebase from Android Studio's menu.

You can download Android Studio 2.2 Preview 1 now. If you’re using a previous version, then you can check for updates on the Canary channel by selecting Android Studio > Check for Updates from the menu.

8. Google Play Services 9.0

Even though we can expect some overlap between Google Play Services and Firebase, Google clarified that they’ll continue to update Google Play Services and the company actually launched a new version during Google I/O.

Google Play Services 9.0 includes updates to the Player Stats API, a new video recording API that helps users record and share their gameplay experiences, and a new native ads format, called Native Ads Express, which allows publishers to define various formatting information in CSS templates.

9. A New Virtual Assistant

With Google Assistant, the tech giant is trying to open up a more two-way dialogue between you and Google by designing a virtual assistant that’s designed more like a chat app, particularly when compared to something like Google Now.

Google Assistant will not only provide you with relevant search results, but will also be able to answer follow up questions. For example, if you ask Google Assistant to find you some reviews of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, the conversation doesn’t need to end there. You can go on and ask “Who was the director?” or “Who is the lead actor?”. Google Assistant will continue the conversation without skipping a beat.

Google Assistant will also provide answers based on your current context. For example, if location services are enabled and you stand in front of a theatre, you can ask “so, who designed this?” and Google Assistant will come back with an answer.

According to Google, the assistant software will learn your preferences based on your interactions with Google services and text conversations you have with friends and family. It will take a proactive approach to recommending movies and restaurants it thinks you might enjoy. And since Google Assistant learns your preferences, you’ll also be able to ask it questions like “Did my team win?”

To demonstrate how all these capabilities link together, Google CEO Sundar Pichai used Google Assistant to book tickets to a family-friendly movie on his smartphone. Typically this might involve opening a web browser app, finding your nearest cinema, opening their website, and then spending some time scrolling through their Currently Showing page, being sure to check each movie’s blurb and rating to see whether it’s suitable for children. Instead, he simply asked Google Assistant what movies were playing tonight and specified that he was bringing some children along. Google Assistant then came back with some family-friendly options currently showing at the local cinema and booked him four tickets. Much easier.

Google Assistant won’t just be built into your Android smartphone or tablet. It’ll feature in a couple of other Google products too, namely the Google Home speaker and Google's new messaging app Allo.

10. Google Takes on Amazon Echo

Amazon’s voice-controlled Echo has been positively received by consumers, so it’s no surprise that Google has decided to get in on the action. Meet Google Home.

The Google Home Device

Google Home is a small speaker that's powered entirely by voice, thanks to its always-listening microphones. It's also the first hardware to host Google's new assistant bot, Google Assistant.

This Assistant-powered device promises to integrate with a wide range of services and perform all sorts of tasks, including streaming music and videos, answering your questions, managing your task lists, setting alarms, and adding events to your calendar.

You can link Google Home with other Wi-Fi connected devices, including Nest devices and Chromecast-compatible speakers and screens. And if you purchase multiple Google Home devices, you’ll be able to link them together to provide this functionality all over your home.

Further down the line, Google want to give you the ability to control things outside of your home too, for example, ordering flowers or telling Google Home to open and close your garage door. Google Home will also integrate with third-party services, so you’ll be able to do things like call an Uber or use OpenTable to book a table at your favorite restaurant.

Google hasn’t opened Home’s APIs to developers yet, so at the moment Google Home can’t communicate with as many third-party services as Amazon’s Echo. But Google say these integrations will become possible as the platform develops.

Google Home will be released later this year, but you can register your interest now. The price has yet to be confirmed.

Conclusion

Google I/O is always an interesting mix of up-and-coming consumer gadgets and new developer tools, and this year was no exception. Particular highlights for Android developers included the Instant Apps feature, upcoming Chromebooks support and, of course, more details about Android N.

The prospect of Android N’s built-in support for VR is also interesting, although currently it’s difficult to get a clear picture of just how Daydream will work as a whole. It would have been nice to see a prototype of the headset and controller rather than just a specification. It’ll be interesting to see how Google’s latest virtual reality project shapes up over the next few months, along with all the other products and tools announced at Google I/O.

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