Since 2008, I’ve been attending the annual Google I/O developer’s conference, which until the pandemic, was held in-person, first at Moscone Center in San Francisco and in recent years at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View. In past years, most developers paid more than $1,000 to attend, in addition to travel costs. This year’s online-only
event was free and open to the public.
Google I/O has lots of technical workshops for software and hardware developers, but it opens with a keynote hosted by CEO Sundar Pichai, similar to Apple’s developer conference, which always opens with a keynote hosted by its CEO. The keynote is when attendees get a peek of what’s to come in both the distant and near future, ranging from the unveiling of soon-to-be-released products and services to long-term research projects which may or may not ever see the light of day.
Just as Apple typically highlights its upcoming iOS operating system, Google uses I/O to show off the next version of Android, which this year is Android 12. Google also released a public beta of Android 12. I’m not quite adventurous enough to install the beta version on the phone I use every day, but I am testing it on a backup Pixel phone.
Some of the biggest changes to Android are cosmetic, but to many, the look and feel of an operating system is a big deal, especially when competing with Apple, which is legendary when it comes to design. The new Google design is called “Material You,” with the “You” referring to how the operating system’s look changes depending on how you use your phone. But, for everyone, there will be bigger buttons and smoother animations as well as changes in the on-screen colors in the operating system and apps. To me, the biggest improvement is a bolder and larger clock on the lock-screen, which I’m hoping will be legible if I wake up in the middle of the night and want to know the time if I’m not wearing my glasses.
I also like the bigger buttons, especially considering the aging population that can benefit from larger and easier-to-access phone options. Another nice feature is the ability to launch Google Assistant (which can respond to your voice) by pressing the power button, a feature seemingly inspired by the way an iPhone launches SIRI. Google is also giving users more control over their location, camera, and microphone with the ability to easily turn them off for specific apps or the phone, in general, and quickly turn them back on again if needed. You can also choose to grant either “approximate” or “precise” location, which could enable an app to, for example, show you local weather or a nearby store without having to reveal exactly where you are. They are also launching a “privacy dashboard” to show you when apps have accessed your camera, microphone or location.
The new operating system will come first to Google’s own Pixel phones and will roll out to other Android phone makers, such as Samsung, over time. Unlike Apple, which controls both iOS and the iPhones it runs on, Google just relies on its hardware partners to provide customers access to a new version of Android, and many are very slow to roll out new versions and don’t always offer all the features or the Google recommended user interface when they finally do release a new Android version.
In addition to Android, Google announced changes to its popular Maps app for iOS, Android and the web. Its Live View feature will offer more information about restaurants and other businesses and will improve walking directions with more images that show you how to get from place to place. I love Google Maps when driving but find it frustrating when walking because I can’t always figure out which direction to walk, based on what it shows. Google Maps already helps you predict if a business is busy when you want to visit but will now give that information for neighborhoods, which could be useful if you want to take a stroll or find a parking spot without having to fight (or be exposed to) crowds.
If you’ve looked at Google Maps, you might have noticed that it displays nearby businesses. But, the next version will be more contextual. You’ll see more coffee shops in the morning and more dinner places in the evening.
Google is also integrating its Docs feature with Google Meet. Docs is Google’s answer to Microsoft Office with a web-based word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator, and more. The big advantage to Docs is that it’s cloud-based and allows more than one person to access the same document either at the same or different times. It’s a great way to collaborate.
Meet is Google’s version of Zoom, which lets you conduct video conferences. By integrating the two, teams of co-workers or even friends planning a party can more easily collaborate on documents while conducting a video conference.
In the midst of last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Band-Aid announced it was launching bandages “in light, medium and deep shades of Brown and Black skin tones that embrace the beauty of diverse skin.” And now Google is changing the algorithms of camera and imaging products to do a better job at capturing dark skin tones. We tend not to think of cameras as having a bias, but — like a lot of technologies — they were developed without a lot of thought to diversity issues. I have noticed that photographs of dark-skinned people are sometimes a bit off. The new technology, said Google, will do a better job with color, lighting and even the way hair is depicted in photos.
And speaking of skin, have you ever wondered whether a mole or blemish on your skin might need a medical evaluation? Google is launching a tool that will ask you to take pictures of the suspicious spot from different angles and answer questions so that its artificial intelligence engine can analyze the data. As with all medical diagnostics, it’s important to follow up with a doctor to make sure it got it right and, if so, get treatment.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from both Google and Facebook.