Google wants to be in your car, on your TV and on your wrist. What it really wants, though, is to know what’s going on with you.
The Google I/O keynote was sweeping statement about the way in which it wants to create a platform that can put the powers of Google at your fingertips at all times. Underlying the whole 2.5 hour-long presentation was this new Android operating system, L.
L will reach out from your smartphone, onto your watch, your car’s instrument control panel, your tablet, your Chromebook and onto your TV. It’s all built into L. As Senior Vice President at Google, Sundar Pichai, put it, “We aren’t building a vertically integrated product. We are building an open platform. At scale.” The critical element to understanding this new build of Google’s mobile operating system is that it wants to change with context.
Google wants to add a layer over your whole life. Again and again, speakers in the keynote addressed the importance of using their devices so that you can get more out the real world, but the company wants to help you understand and make sense of that world in a Google way.
Android’s New Look: Material Design
That’s why, on some levels, what undergirds L and what might have also been the most interesting facet of the whole presentation, was the first person Pichai brought to the stage, Matias Duarte, now Google’s VP of Design. Duarte previously helped Palm create its WebOS, and subsequently Duarte took his talents to Mountain View.
There’s a lot you can say about Material Design, but the most important user interface point is this: it’s layered. Each pixel has a virtual elevation value. That means as objects move across each other on the screen, some are “higher” and “lower” than others. You’ll be able to tell what’s in the air, too, because virtual shadows are cast on the objects below. In fact, when the team first started building prototypes, they actually built them with real paper, so they could see the shadows.
Google hopes that all these shifting, hovering, well palletted animations will deploy across the web rather than simply on Google products, so loads of sites will have the Google look. With Polymer, devs will be able to make their own sites and apps adopt Google style. As Wired pointed out, this is big because Google has historically been so decentralized. It’s appropriate that as Google makes its bid to reach every single part of your life, it also finally deploys a consistent look and methodology across its products.
But Duarte also said something at the beginning of his presentation that made me wonder if this new design strategy isn’t also hinting that Google might not be first into using an even more radical design element. He said, “What if pixels didn’t just have color but depth? What if there was an intelligent material that was as simple as paper but could transform and change shape in response to touch?”
Followers of news from CES may already know that, in fact, there is such a material. Tactus Technology has developed a keyboard that magically rises up from a touchscreen. It makes what feels like buttons on the screen. When I heard Duarte say that quote, it made me wonder if that was where he was heading. It wasn’t. Yet. It’s hard to imagine that with virtual layers built into the design that they aren’t wondering about ways to make that even more real.
Google will be aware, everywhere
So can Google effectively be everywhere? From a user experience perspective, this is the much bigger idea that Duarte is working on. Ubiquity is one thing, but smart ubiquity is another. Android L wants to lead with showing users what they need to know before they realize they need to know. So for example, if you take the commuter train home every night around the same time, your Android wristwatch might learn to give you an alert at that time as to whether the train you always take is on time or not, before you think to check. The buzzword here is “contextual.”
Sounds great, but the company is famous for rolling out big new ideas only to flake when public gets quizzical. See: Buzz, Wave and Orkut. Have you ever even heard of Orkut? It was big in Brazil, once upon a time. In fact, one topic that led to a lot of buzz across the Internet following the I/O was two topics that didn’t come up at all in the keynotes: Google Plus and Glass. Is Google in the middle of unloading two of its most hyped creations?
Which raises the larger point, can you trust Google to take the navigator job in your car and manage your TV media for you if it turns out that the public starts to pan their efforts and they once again skulk out of a vertical, refusing to suffer through what Seth Godin calls “The Dip”? It’s a question that two Fortune editors raised in their weekly Tech Debate.
Google’s new watch
Google made much ado of its new line of watches, which also serve to deliver cards with needed information and notifications, by way of bluetooth connections to your phone. Two of them became available at I/O and a round face one is coming soon from Motorola. You can look at these watches, touch them and interact with them. It could be that they’ve realized that this is how they should have done Glass all along. That said, the watch is lower stakes than the other ventures.
In your car
We know that Google is making voice a much more important of its means of navigation. In fact, the namesake of that project is a fictional television car that could drive itself at high speeds. That doesn’t seem accidental, does it?
Before Google actually does the driving for us, though, it’s simply going to help us drive ourselves. Internet access will come by way of the phone, but it’s still going to be an experience that makes the automotive context paramount. Soon, you’ll be able to experience this stripped down UI as AndroidAuto.
On your TV
And TV seems like an inevitable progression. Google has already colonized every other possible kind of screen, it had to get to the flatscreen one day. Dave Burke, engineering head on the Android team, described TV operating systems today as comparable to those in the mobile space in 2006. Every manufacturer has their own idea how to do it. Google, of course, has its own idea. Burke said, of AndroidTV, “This isn’t a new platform, and that’s kind of the point. We’re simply giving TVs the same level of attention as phones and tablets have traditionally enjoyed.”
But don’t expect TVs to be like computers on your walls. Google is all about contextual user experiences now. When Android shows up on your television, it knows its play time and entertainment will be front and center.
And for those who can’t wait for Google to fight its way into sets, there’s always Chromecast. Rishi Chandra, Google’s head of product for Chromecast, reported that the device outsells all other streaming devices and its useage is up 40%.
It’s hard to believe that Google would make any headway in markets as huge and influential as cars and televisions and not stick with them.
Mountain View is watching
If you’re wondering how much Google knows about you, one of the facts Pichai revealed at the top of his presentation was one of the most telling. He was just rattling off a bunch of basic stats that showed how well the company is doing and how much people are using their products. One of them, though, felt somewhat unsettling.
He said Android users are taking 93 Million selfies per day, and one-third of them are duck faces. The second part could have been a joke, but he didn’t say it that way. The first part is intriguing enough. Think about it. How do they know that? By the way, he also seemed to suggest they know how often you check your phone and even how many steps you’re taking.
Another new feature that Burke presented actually sounds really useful. Have you ever done that thing where you remember that you’ve visited a web page but you can’t quite remember where it was or what it was, but you want to find it again. So you start Googling and you’re confronted with all kinds of results.
Soon, Google will start recognizing when you’re looking for something you’ve seen before and indicate for you which of the search results its delivers are ones you’ve visited in the past. It already does this a little, but it’s going to make it a bigger emphasis, more boldly and clearly.
Can it work?
Google wants to solve your problems for you before you have and then take care of all your menial thinking so you’re free to be brilliant more often. That said, it’s also creating a Google bubble around that’s necessarily going to affect the way you think.
As the Internet of Things continues to tick up the demand on our built for Internet of People network, you have to wonder where the leadership is going to come from to actually deliver the sort of Internet speeds and reliability that will make it possible for Google to really be everywhere. Material Design may represent a brilliant face lift for the company, but as it extends onto millions more screens that face could still be one that makes incomprehensible stutters and succumbs to bouts of net access depressions, just as the public comes to rely on it more and more.
Here’s the whole keynote:
One last thing. You really need to see this cardboard hack they made which turns out to be a little bit of a dig at the Oculus Rift, but also intriguing in and of itself: