Google I/O 2016: What to expect from Google's epic developer's conference

Android N and virtual reality will surely be hot topics of discussion, but how much will Google's new conference venue influence the company's biggest event of the year?

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Rob Schultz

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There’s big change on the horizon for Google I/O. The venue for this year’s annual developer’s conference, Shoreline Amphitheater, is not only bigger than past event spaces, it’s also located smack-dab in the middle of the Silicon Valley, wedged right in between NASA Ames and Google’s own headquarters in Mountain View.

But it’s not just the venue that’s changed. At this year’s I/O, Google will present itself as a branch of its parent company, Alphabet, rather than its own all-encompassing entity. And while there may be plenty of sessions devoted to Android development across phones, the living room, and auto, they’ll sit alongside other workshops covering Google’s peripheral projects. Indeed, the focus on virtual reality looks to be intense.

So, what can you expect from this year’s massive developers conference? Let’s explore.

Android N: Tell us more

androidn Google

Android N will definitely be a star of the keynote, but it’s doubtful we’ll hear anything about what its official name name is until its launch.

What we already know: In years past, Google has waited until hours after the Google I/O keynote to release the first version of Android’s newest preview build. This year, however, Google launched an alpha preview version of Android N before attendees had even secured their badges for the conference. 

We know that Android N features a split-screen mode for productivity scenarios, and that there’s code for a floating window mode, along with mouse support. Android N will also introduce minor tweaks, such as an updated notification panel and a “night mode” that dims the screen when it’s dark.

And with last month’s update, we learned that Android N will have built-in support for virtual reality and the Vulkan graphics API, which will be significant for gamers once developers start taking advantage of that code. Google will continue to seed updates to those who have opted into the Android N preview program every month until the system’s official release in Q3 2016.

What Google could reveal: There’s got to be more to Android than just a few minor feature updates and the inclusion of gamer-friendly APIs and software tweaks, right? So this year we expect Google’s Android announcements will be more focused on offering a glimpse into the future. What we see at I/O next week may not be baked into Android N, but we still hope to be dazzled.

A report from the Wall Street Journal suggests that there’s a Chrome OS and Android merger on the horizon. It sounds far-fetched, but with Android N’s secret floating window mode, and the Pixel C’s mere existence, Google may attempt to make a major play for productivity-focused users by merging its desktop and mobile OSes.

There’s also code inside Chrome OS that suggests that system will eventually hook into the Google Play Store—lending more support to the prospect that Google’s desktop users will eventually tap into the Android app ecosystem. This fits within Google’s vision to have Android installed on every conceivable piece of technology with a display, from your phone to your tablet to your TV to your dashboard, and, yes, even your PC. It’s the perfect cross-device synergy that Google is looking for, and we expect to learn more about this next week.

Unlikely, but awesome: It is extremely unlikely that Android N will be a full-fledged desktop OS by the time it’s released this fall. Just consider the interface changes Google would have to implement—Android isn’t even close to Windows, after all. But perhaps Google could offer demos of an Android desktop concept. Now that would be awesome. Just thinking out loud.

Android Auto and autonomous driving

google to collaborate with fca to integrate self driving technology Fiat Chrysler Automotives

There’s no doubt we’ll hear more about this curious-looking autonomous minivan at the I/O keynote.

What we already know: Google’s pod-like self-driving cars have been cruising the streets of Mountain View since last summer—and getting into accidents. Recently, the company signed a deal with Fiat Chrysler to produce Pacifica minivans built on the self-driving technology. Soccer Moms everywhere cheered in unison.

Separately, and specifically on the Android side of things, Google has added more partners to the Open Automotive Alliance since Android Auto’s official launch last spring, including luxury car makers like Mercedes-Benz and BMW.

What Google could reveal: Nothing on the I/O calendar supports this, but we have to imagine that one of the reasons Google is schlepping developers down to Silicon Valley is that there’s plenty of room at Shoreline Amphitheater (and the surrounding streets of Mountain View) to demo its fleet of self-driving pods. So, hopefully I/O will reveal more about Google’s trajectory for the self-driving car program, and whether the company remains optimistic about putting its fleet on the streets by 2020.

We should also hear more about Android Auto, Google’s bid to put the mobile OS on car dashboards. Despite announcing new partnerships, Google’s been rather quiet regarding the in-car software. It’s about time for a system update, and we also want more information on how many Android apps have actually been formatted to work in the car.

Unlikely, but awesome: If Google really wants to amaze us, it will announce that it’s foregoing self-driving cars and jumping straight ahead into personal people-drones. Because where we’re going, we don’t need roads.

Virtual Reality

google cardboard gettingstarted lead

This year, Google’s VR efforts will likely expand beyond this little cardboard box with eyes.

What we already know: The virtual reality train at Google headquarters appears to be an unstoppable force. As we already mentioned, the Android N alpha preview offers expanded support for VR, hinting at a future of virtual-reality-ready applications. But there’s more coming. With seven different sessions on the docket devoted to virtual reality, including a session on developing for Project Tango, Google I/O could quickly turn into a VR show.

What Google could reveal: Clay Bavor, vice president of Google’s VR division, has said in the past that the company’s virtual reality story won’t stop at Cardboard. And a sly tweet from Peter Rojas suggests we’ll likely see the extent of that at Google I/O.

Apparently, the Android VR platform will officially make its debut at I/O, alongside the reveal of both a standalone VR headset and a smartphone-driven one. Note that this particular virtual reality platform is not Project Tango, which uses motion tracking and advanced cameras to deliver augmented reality. We’ll also hear more on the Project Tango smartphone that Google and Lenovo are launching this summer (though rumors point to Lenovo leading the fanfare on that one).

Unlikely, but awesome: Google will give everyone in attendance a pair of virtual-reality headsets to take home.

Change of venue

shoreline Daily Republic

We would have never guessed Google would host I/O at this outdoor concert venue. 

What we already know: Google has always hosted Google I/O’s 5,000 attendees at the Moscone Convention Center in downtown San Francisco. But this year, Google chose to host the developer’s conference at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View—about 42 miles away.

What Google could reveal: Moving I/O to the much larger Shoreline Amphitheater may simply be a matter of practicality, especially if big, showy product demos are in store. At Shoreline, there would be ample space for Android Auto demos, real-time VR demos, and, yes, the aforementioned self-driving car demos. Indeed, since the self-driving fleet is likely somewhat tethered to Mountain View, Google may be motivated to keep the cars local instead of hauling them up to San Francisco.

But this may also be less less about expansive outdoor demos, and more about increasing attendance. Shoreline is a much bigger space than Moscone, so expect a bigger conference with more attendees. We also have to imagine that Google I/O will become Alphabet I/O, especially if Shoreline becomes a permanent venue. And who wouldn’t want a glimpse at what the company is making behind the scenes in its secret laboratories. 

Unlikely, but awesome: Google turns I/O into its own Coachella knockoff. We can’t wait for next year’s developer’s conference: Devchella!

Google Play Awards


Come one, come all to the first annual Google Play Awards.

What we already know: Developers are the linchpin of the entire Android story, so Google is honoring its developer community with the first annual Google Play Awards. The awards pit five different app makers against each other in 10 different categories. There’s even an award for the Best App. Google will reveal the winners at a special awards ceremony on the evening of May 19.

What Google could reveal: Just as winning a Game Developers Choice Award has become a coveted prize for game developers attending GDC, the Google Play Awards will become the prize that regular-old app developers hope to win. Suddenly, you have more than just an app—you have a category standard. The Google Play Awards will help raise the bar for all the apps that appear in the Play Store, as well as show developers that those who follow standards will have a better chance at success.

Unlikely, but awesome: Google enlists a few celebrities to pass out the awards. So who’s the appiest celeb? Let’s not forget that Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry and even Tom Hanks all have their own Android apps.

Stay tuned for all of our comprehensive coverage of the annual developer’s conference from May 18 to 20. We’ll be at the Shoreline covering everything from the opening day keynote to smaller demos. 

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