The official theme of Google IO last week was Design, Develop and Distribute — but the unofficial one was Android Everywhere, as the mobile OS mounted new and renewed assaults on families of consumer devices.
In embarking on this expedition to new (or at least revisited) territory, Google is coming prepared. The company set up the spread of its forthcoming Android “L” update by talking about how it had made the platform prettier, faster and smarter.
Google has polished the user interface with its new “Material Design” model of animated surfaces existing in different layers. It’s improved performance with a new, backward-compatible runtime that’s more battery-efficient. And Google has added features such as contextual unlocking that can take advantage of, for example, nearby Bluetooth products to know if it’s in a trusted zone.
And Google has claimed its targets for this quiver of new features with Android Wear, Android Auto and Android TV — a progression of devices from the smallest screen to the largest ones in consumers’ lives. Android seems poised to waltz from its dominance in smartphones to virtually every intelligent device.
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Compared to its chief rivals Apple and Microsoft (the latter of whose existence was hardly acknowledged at Google IO), Google has built the most comprehensive licensable platform for major intelligent consumer devices. The company has been first to release a full wearables SDK and the first to put the full power of its ecosystem behind the TV and retail set-top boxes. Microsoft, in contrast, has had success in the living room (or at least the den) with Xbox, which it has opened up to select Windows apps in the similar way that Google seems to be dancing around putting Android apps on Chrome OS.
And then there’s the question of implementation and adoption. Unlike when Apple reveals a vertically integrated product, the ultimate experience of these Android extensions will depend in part upon the devices that support them. Here, Android had only a handful of companies supporting its fullest Android implementations:
The market for wearables seems promising since the watch is now primed to evolve from a device that just offers the time, to one that serves as a host of contextual information. Google has done a great job anticipating these kinds of interactions particularly as it implements more intelligence in the kinds of notifications Android surfaces to users’ attention.
However, many details still remain regarding Motorola’s Moto 360, the product most seen as best representing the category. LG is also an Android Wear launch partner with its G Watch, and Samsung announced its Android War device, the Gear Live, at I/O. But while having Samsung on board is a great endorsement, the company is clearly hedging its bets in wearables with its Tizen operating system.
Android Auto is Android in the car, but not of the car. The initiative, which mirrors Apple’s CarPlay, simply allows dashboard displays to display and provide input to Android phones. This no-brainer will see broad support by car makers and the aftermarket, but it hardly represents a strong commitment to Android. Google originally announced its intentions to bring Android to cars back in January at CES, where it kicked off the Open Automotive Alliance with dozens of partners.
The second coming of Google TV is now embraced by the Android team since it has a more sensible, if less ambitious, message. But it’s also starting out with fewer supporters than its predecessor that burned the likes of Logitech and Vizio. Sony and Sharp have been among the only high-volume TV companies to sign up, and it’s doubtful that even the support of Google Play will turn around the small presence of microconsoles such as the Kindle FireTV and Ouya.
In short, the response to Android’s new initiatives has been broad where the commitment is low and shallow where the commitment is high. In all cases, Google has shown that it can provide a well thought-out platform that delivers the right functionality in the right context, but progress will be slow and uneven in the wide road it seeks to pave.