Google I/O 2014: Android Takes the L

Google I/O 2014: Android Takes the L

And no, it doesn't stand for "loser"

In a painfully long keynote address at Google I/O on Wednesday, Google executives laid out their strategy for broadly expanding the Android ecosystem on devices both new and familiar. Key to this strategy is a coming major update to Android, codenamed "L," which features a Windows Phone-like user experience.

There was so much going on during the keynote, I'm not even sure where to begin. But here's my attempt at a rundown.

Size of the Android ecosystem. Android is quickly closing in on Windows as the biggest and most-often-used personal computing platform on earth. As of this week, there are over 1 billion people actively using Android every day, compared to about 1.5 billion for Windows. But Android use is skyrocketing: There were 538 million active Android users at this time last year.

Android on smart phones. Total smart phone shipments in Q4 2013 were 315 million units, and well over one billion for the year. And while Google didn't discuss this explicitly, about 80 percent of those were Android phones.

Android on tablets. As of today, Android accounts for 62 percent of all tablets sold, up from 46 percent a year ago (and 39 percent two years ago). (And to be clear, that's "real" Android, and does not include AOSP devices like Amazon's Kindle Fire line.) According to Google, it's a bit harder to track tablet usage, but based on usage on services like YouTube, tablet usage is indeed tracking along with sales. Android is number one by far.

Other Android numbers. Android users send over 20 billion text messages every day. They take 93 million selfies each day. Android users take an estimated 1.5 trillion steps each day, but given the move to motion sensors, I suspect that figure will be firmed up (and increased) by next year. Android handset users check their phones over 100 million times a day. (An individual user supposedly does so 125 times a day.)

Android One. While Google is obviously very happy with the success of Android, it is also looking at expanding the platform to "the next billion users," or those in emerging markets that Microsoft is targeting with its AOSP-based Nokia X phones as well as entry-level Windows Phone handsets. Android One is a set of hardware reference platforms that hardware makers can adopt to deliver inexpensive ($100 and up, no contract) smart phones in these markets. The software is of course Nexus-class—stock Android, Play apps and services, and automatic updates across the board—but device makers can also add locally relevant software as needed. This is a serious competitive threat to any company that competes with Android, including Amazon and Microsoft.

Android L. The next version of Android is a major one, and its codename "L," instead of something lame like "KitKat" or "Ice Cream Sandwich." (L was the next letter in its codename scheme, and is also the Roman number for 50, which makes sense since this will no doubt really be called Android 5.0.) Android L is a big deal on a number of levels, but it will ship with a grid-based, Windows Phone/Metro-inspired user interface (just as Apple did with iOS 7 last year) called Material (see below) that targets not just phones and tablets but also new form factors, including wearables. I'll need to write about this release separately, as it's a big topic.

L Developer Preview. Google is making Android L available as a developer preview to users with Google Nexus 5 smart phones and Nexus 7 tablets later this week. There are over 5000 new APIs (compared to over 4,000 in Apple's iOS 8), leading some credence to the claim that this is "the biggest release in the history of Android."

Material Design. This new design language targets Android, Chrome and "all of Google," with "one consistent vision for mobile, desktop and beyond." As noted, it's very similar to the Metro design language that debuted in Windows Phone, but it also includes the formal notion of layer positions, taking something flat and making it a bit more 3D. Animations, transitions, bold colors and typography are a big deal here, as they are in Windows Phone and iOS 7+. This design language will be exposed in Android via a new theme called, obviously, Material.

Gmail for Android, before it's Material re-do (left) and after (right)

Security. Personal Unlocking is one of the more troubling Android L features Google discussed Wednesday. This feature uses "signals"—locations you designate as safe, certain Bluetooth devices, and so on—to determine if it's in a safe place like the owner's hand or next to the owner on a table. In an on-stage example, the presenter was able to skip the normal Android PIN lock screen because he was wearing a known-safe Bluetooth-based smart watch. This seems incredibly unsafe to me. Better is integration with Samsung Knox, which will become part of the base Android platform.

Work and home separation. This functionality didn't get a name but is one of the more intriguing things Google discussed about Android L: It will have built-in controls for separating personal and corporate data and apps, so that you never need to worry about mixing the two or losing your personal data if your work needs to wipe the phone. This one was vague but looks promising.

Gaming. A feature of Android L called Android Extension Pack will provide mobile devices with "desktop DirectX 11-class" CPU performance, dramatically improving the gaming experience on compatible high-end hardware that will start appearing this fall. "Quite literally PC gaming graphics in your pocket."

Battery life. Like Windows Phone, Android L will include a Battery Saver mode and other improvements that help improve battery life by up to 90 minutes in a day of use.

Google Play services. Google's digital media ecosystem is updated every six weeks and in sharp contrast to Android OS update adoption, the most recent version of this system is in use on 93 percent of all Android devices in the world. Google is adding factory reset protection so that when a phone is stolen the user can disable it remotely.

Android is not just for smart phones and tablets. Google previously announced its Google Wear initiative, and of course the firm also makes such platforms as Chromecast, Chrome OS, Google TV and the like. Android L will be a platform for multiple device types that are contextually aware, voice enabled, seamless and work with the smart phone you already own. (Chrome devices will also share these traits.)

Wearables. Google is building Google Wear—its platform for wearables based on Android—with support for both square and circular screens, sensors for context-sensitive monitoring, and the same kind of "at a glance" info that Microsoft's SPOT watches provided 12 years ago. They have always-on displays, notifications with vibrations, cards for apps on the device, on the user's phone and from Google Now, voice reply support, Google Maps navigation and more. Today, Google announced a full Android Wear SDK for writing code that runs directly on wearable devices. Google Play services is also being updated to support mobile to wearable data interchange. I'm not sold on wearables, and it's not clear that Google has extended beyond what Microsoft did so long ago.

Google Fit. Not surprisingly, Google is getting into the fitness game with an open platform, currently in developer preview, that manages fitness data across wearables and cross-platform (read: iOS, Android) mobile devices. Adidas and Nike (Fuel devices) are on board, as are many third party apps.

Android Auto. Google's automobile platform relies on the user having an Android-based smart phone, while the screen you'll use in the car—which support both voice and touch—is really just a dumb terminal of sorts for the apps running on the phone. It's not a horrible idea, with the phone "casting" the always-updatable auto experience to the car's screen. The user interface is about what you'd expect, offering navigation, phone and messaging communications, and music (and other media) playback. There's no grid of icons, just tailored at-a-glance UIs that make sense in a car. An SDK will help developers create third party apps for the platform, and many automakers are on board. This looks solid.

Android TV. This is Google's smart TV platform. Obviously, it's based on Android and requires only a hardware d-pad (remote control, game controller, and more, plus virtual control via an Android device-based app) with voice input. For live TV, Android TV provides various input types and an overlay-based UI that looks attractive enough. The home interface looks a lot like Netflix, and voice-powered Search is not surprisingly core to the experience. It supports games, and casting apps and games from Android devices. Give Google's living room floundering over the past several years, this offering looks fine to me, and I'd be surprised if they didn't see broad TV maker support. So far, Sony and Sharp are on board.

Chromecast. Google's low-end living room solution is being repositioned as an entry-level version of Android TV, sort of, one that works with any modern screen. It features the same cast-based capabilities as Google TV, but relies on an Android device for remote control functionality. There's not much new with Chromecast per se, but there are a number of new Google Cast- (and thus Chromecast-) compatible apps available at And you will be able to allow your friends to cast content from their devices to your TV without needing to connect to your Wi-Fi network. That's coming later this year and is opt-in. There's also a new feature called backdrop that turns your TV into a photo gallery. Nothing special.

Chromebook. Google's low-end laptop initiative has proven more popular than many are comfortable admitting, and today 15 of the world's biggest PC makers now sell Chromebooks. The platform is evolving to include interesting Android integration capabilities: There's automatic login when in proximity to your Android device, Android phone call and text message notifications on Chromebook. But then Google went nuts and did a Windows 8: It will be bringing Android apps and games to Chromebook. Mobile apps that work with keyboard and mouse: How innovative.

Documents and collaboration. Google's web- and mobile-based Google Docs apps (docs, sheets and slides) are correctly described as rudimentary, but with Quick Office integration over the past year, they've gotten more sophisticated and now offer better compatibility with real Microsoft Office documents. Google now claims that these apps now support "native [Microsoft] Office editing," meaning that when you view or edit such a document in the Google ecosystem, it's not converted to a Google document format first. The apps do finally support Office track changes functionality, so you can add and edit comments in documents. Given how this has gone in the past, don't expect 100 percent compatibility on any of this.

Google Drive. Google's cloud storage service now has 190 million active users. A Google Drive for Work offering picks up more storage (1 TB for $10 per month in small businesses or unlimited for those with over 5 employees) and previously-promised, NSA-busting encryption capabilities.

Business and education adoption. New security features in Android, and the document and storage initiatives noted above are driving Google's push to get businesses to move past a traditional Windows infrastructure. Among startups, Google is seeing 67 percent of the top 100 startups on its platforms, and 58 of the Fortune 100 are using Google in some way. For Microsoft, those are fighting words. But I think the biggest issue is with tomorrow's workforce: 72 of the top 100 universities have "gone Google." Not good, and even Chromebook does well with this audience.

Developer story. A huge part of Google's presentation was aimed at developers. This makes sense, given the conference target audience, but I don't feel much need to focus on that here. Suffice to say that the popularity of most of Google's platforms ensure strong developer support and that the firm has strong offerings in the cloud especially.

And yeah. That's a lot of stuff. And I suspect I'll be following up on a lot of this in the days and weeks to come.

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