Google I/O 2017

So, yeah, Google I/O again. Are you as thrilled as I am? You’re not? But they’ve announced such exciting things!

Well, OK, when you come right down to it, they really only announced one thing: Google’s focus is changing from “Mobile first to AI first”. And let’s be honest here: that’s pretty much what they said last year, too.

But what does AI first look like?

For starters, Gmail will start doing “Smart Reply”. This is the same idea as in last year’s Allo text messaging app: pre-written, context-sensitive messages. I haven’t used Allo–anyone want to comment on whether the smart replies are any more accurate than the word suggestions when you’re typing?

Potentially more exciting is their application of image recognition technology. Their example is being able to take a picture of a flower and have your phone tell you what kind it is and whether it’s going to trigger your hay fever. Since I’m sitting here sniffling despite massive doses of anti-histamines, I have to admit that actually sounds like a good use of technology. Presumably over time, the tech will learn about non-botanical parts of the world.

Yes, I’m kidding. It can also recognize restaurants and show Yelp reviews. That’s nice, but not nearly as useful. Ooh, and it can translate signs. (Their demo showed Japanese-to-English translation. I want to know if it can handle Corporate-to-English.) If there are dates on the sign–for example, an ad for a concert–it can add the event to your calendar. It can even ask if you want it to buy tickets.

Basically, it’s playing catchup with Alexa–including adding third-party programmable actions and voice calling–with a few little steps ahead of Amazon.

Case in point: Google Assistant, the brains behind “OK, Google” is getting more smarts and the ability to hold a typed conversation. So you’ll get a running record of your interaction, so when you realize you’ve been following one association after another, you can scroll back and check the answer to your original question. Could be handy, especially if you get stuck on TV Tropes.

Moving on.

AI first also means Google Photos is getting added smarts, starting with something Google calls “Suggested sharing”. Yup. It’ll nag you to share your photos with the people in them. 95% of the pictures I take seem to be of the cats. Is it going to create Google accounts for them so I can share the photos? Or do they already have accounts?

More seriously, if Google knows who the people are, but they’re not in my address book, will it still urge me to share the photos? Sounds like that’s an invasion of privacy just waiting to happen.

Moving on.

Android O (no name announced yet, naturally. They’ll undoubtedly wait until release time for that) is getting the usual slew of features and tweaks. Picture-in-picture, notifications on Home screen icons, improved copy/paste. That last will not only let you select an entire address with a single tap, but offer to show it in Maps. I’d rather it offered to add it to my contacts for future reference, but maybe that’s just me.

Google also made a point of stressing that all of these new “AI first” features happen on your device, without any communication back to Google. That’s actually reassuring. I’m sure the results are reported back–your phone will tell Google you were checking on the hay fever potential of that weird flower that appeared in your back yard, but at least the actual picture won’t wind up in Google’s archives waiting for a hacker to drop by.

There’s also going to be an Android O lite. Called Android Go, it’ll be stripped down to work on cheap phones with limited memory. I wonder if that means they’ll start offering it for popular but abandoned devices that can’t handle recent Android versions. Nexus 7, anyone? Nexus 9, for that matter?

Moving again.

Yes, the rumors are true: Google is working with third-parties to launch a VR headset that doesn’t need a separate phone. Hey, anyone remember how big 3D was a few years ago? How long before VR is as critical to the entertainment experience as 3D?

And one last move.

Ever used Google to find out what movies are playing nearby? Soon you’ll be able to use it to find out what jobs are available nearby. Searching by title, date, and commute time. Why do I think the popularity of that last filter is going to be very strongly geographically linked?

Honestly, I’m not seeing anything here that gives me a major “gosh-wow” feeling. Some interesting possibilities and appeals to niche markets, yes, but most of what they’ve announced are obvious extensions of last year’s announcements. We can give them points for consistency, I suppose.

Google I/O 2016

We’re in Google I/O week, so I suppose I should do my annual summation of the keynote and highlight what we can expect to see heading our way.

Google is very excited about “the Google Assistant”. It’s a collection of technologies–natural language processing, voice recognition, geographic awareness, and on and on–intended to provide context-aware help and advice.

From what I can see, a large part of it is the next stage in the evolution of “Google Now” and “Now on Tap”. Ask the assistant about movies, and it’ll give recommendations tailored to your local theaters, what you tell* it (or what it already knows!) about your family and your tastes, and let you buy tickets. All from within the search app.

* Yes, “tell” as in “speak aloud”. Voice recognition, you dig?

Nothing new and earthshaking, but definitely keeping the pressure on Apple and Amazon. Especially Amazon–there’s going to be a “Google Home” device later this year that’s built around the Google Assistant technology. Like Amazon’s Echo–but since it’s from Google, of course it’ll be zillions of times better.

Google Assistant will also be part of two new apps: “Allo” and “Duo”. Allo is the next generation of text messaging, replacing “Hangouts”. The GA will listen in on your exchange of messages, allowing it to pre-write replies for you (presumably going beyond simple “yes” and “no” answers) and letting you to ask it for context-sensitive help. Their example of the latter is giving you restaurant recommendations based on your current location (or an area you’ve been discussing) and food preferences. Oh, and it’s got emoticons and variable font sizes. Yay.

Duo is video chat. Call screening, performs well when bandwidth is tight, switches between wi-fi and cellular as appropriate. What can you say about video chat? Oh, it’s cross-platform, Android and iOS. I doubt any Apple-only conversations will move off of Facetime, but it ought to be nice for integrated families and businesses. (Maybe it doesn’t have GA. If not, look for that at next year’s I/O.)

Moving on.

Google can’t decide what to call Android N. They’re taking suggestions from the Internet. If you’ve got any ideas, go to https://android.com/n/ And no, they’re not offering any prizes. I’d suggest “Nutmeg,” but how would you turn that into a statue for the front lawn? There’s still the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Nerds,” anybody?

We already know a lot about what’s new in N–new graphics APIs, split screen/multitasking, compiler improvements (and a partial return of the Just-in-Time compiler that was removed in Lollipop. The idea seems to be to provide faster installs by letting apps run with the JIT compiler at first, then compile them in the background, presumably while you’re not using the device for anything else. The user messaging for background compilation failures will be interesting. “Why does it say I need to delete some pictures to install Duo? It’s already installed and working fine!”

Other changes: Encryption will be done at the file level instead of the disk level. Other than developers and the NSA, nobody will notice. Background OS updates: assuming your carrier actually approves an update, your phone will install it in the background, then make it live with a simple reboot. No more half-hour waits for the monthly security patches to install. Assuming you get the patches, of course.

Virtual reality. Yep, as expected, Google is joining the VR craze with support for it baked into Android–on capable devices, naturally. Even some current Nexus phones fall short–Nexus 5X, I’m looking at you.

Android Wear 2.0. Hey, your watch can do more stuff without talking to your phone. Sigh

Instant Apps. It’s not strictly correct in a technical sense, but think of a bundle of web pages packaged as an app that runs on your device without installation. Seems useful, especially if you’ve got limited bandwidth, but unless you’re a developer, you probably won’t even notice when you transition from the Web to an Instant App.

So, some interesting stuff, and–as usual–a lot of “meh”.

The Decline of Civilization–And Google I/O, too.

Today is the first day of Google I/O, the Big G’s annual excuse to shut down a couple of blocks around San Francisco’s Moscone Center. As always, I’ll be giving you my first reactions to their plans for the coming year–at least those plans that they warn us about.

While we’re waiting for the keynote address, though, I wanted to vent about a couple of signs of the encroaching End of Civilization As We Know It. If you’re not in the mood for my curmudgeonly rantings, feel free to skip ahead.

Still here? Good.

According to today’s SF Chronicle, Ross Dress for Less stores has settled a lawsuit brought by 2,400 of their janitors. The suit alleged that Ross and their janitorial contractor, USM Inc., failed to pay the janitors minimum wages and overtime between 2009 and earlier this year.

The settlement? $1 million. That’s right. Each of the janitors will receive a smidgen over $400 to compensate them for as much as five years of missing wages. Rubbing salt in the wound, Ross is also paying $1.3 million to the lawyers who negotiated the settlement.

Two questions: Are Ross and USM facing a criminal investigation into whether they did in fact conspire to cheat their janitors? (The newspaper article doesn’t say anything one way or the other; my guess is no.) And, has anyone checked with the janitors at the lawyers’ offices to see if they’re getting minimum wage and overtime? (Again, my guess is no.)

Moving on.

As I’ve said before, I don’t much care for basketball. Living in the Bay Area, though, it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in the current excitement over the Warriors*. So I watched about fifteen minutes of last night’s game while I was exercising. Mind you, that was about five minutes of actual game time.

* For those of you who don’t have the excuse of headlines screaming “40 YEARS IN THE MAKING” to clue you in, the Warriors are the local professional basketball team. They just made it to the finals, the NBA’s equivalent of the World Series, for the first time since James Naismith crossed the Delaware and brought a burning bush to the basketball-impoverished masses. Or something like that.

The game has changed a lot since I watched it in my misspent youth. Back then, when a team put up a shot, most of the players from both teams converged on the basket to go after a rebound. Today, the offensive team mostly heads for their own basket to play defense, conceding the rebound.

And that’s the other thing that’s changed. Back in my day (Damn kids!), after scoring, the smart teams put pressure on their opponents, making it difficult for them to move the ball into shooting range. Today, they just foul the worst freethrow shooter on the court.

According to the commentators, this is the height of strategy. And why not? It’s the same kind of thinking that figures it’s cheaper to settle a lawsuit than to pay the legally-mandated minimum wage.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. If the rules of the game are structured so that you’re better off breaking the rules than actually playing the game, then your sport needs to be fixed.

It’s an easy fix, too. All you have to do is award five points for a successful free throw. When it’s more expensive to commit a foul than to play the game, teams will stop committing strategic fouls.

Until that happens, though, I won’t be watching any more basketball.

Enough. On to Google I/O.

  • Android M – Lots of bug fixes. Oh, and a few improvements. A couple of them are even interesting.

    Apps will now request permission when they try to do stuff instead of getting blanket permissions when you install them. That means you can block some actions but allow others. Don’t want to let that new game have access to your address book? On the whole, that’s a win for users, but it’ll be interesting to see how developers handle the brave new world where users can block apps’ access to the ad network.

    Apps can “claim” web pages, so if you try to go to a particular website, you’ll get the equivalent app instead. From a user perspective, I think this one’s a step backward. I have the WordPress app installed on my tablet and use it occasionally for managing this blog. That doesn’t mean I want the app to open every time I try to access a WordPress blog–or even my blog.

    Android Pay is getting a facelift. You won’t need to open the app anymore. Whoopie. I hope they’re also improving the reliability. I got so many failures to connect with the terminal that I’ve given up on Android Pay.

    Doze sounds promising: if the tablet doesn’t move for an extended period, it’ll go into a power-saving deep sleep mode. If users can control the timeout, it’ll be big win. And an even bigger one if we can control what happens when it wakes up and all the suspended apps try to grab updates at once…

    Interestingly, the preview of Android M is only available for the Nexus 5, 6, 9, and Player. No Nexus 7. Apparently that “might” come later. Combined with the outrageous delay in bringing Android 5.1 to the Nexus 9, it does suggest that Google’s Android team may be a bit overextended, and that the Nexus 7 is going to be completely unsupported soon.

    I haven’t seen any hints of what the dessert name for M will be. I’d love it to be Marshmallow, if only because I want to see the statue they put on the Google lawn. I suspect we’ll get some hints once people start poking at the developer preview.

  • Brillo & Weave – A slimmed down Android for connected devices and a protocol to tie them together. We’ve talked about the security risks in “Internet of Things” devices before. I’m not sure I really want Google making it easier to create app-enabled locks.
  • Machine Learning/Context Sensitivity – They made a big deal out of this across all their products. Searches that understand pronouns and references to the data you’re looking at. Enhancements to Google Now to be more aware of where you are and what you’re doing–they’re calling it “Now on Tap”. (The example was recognizing that you’ve just landed at the airport and offering a Google Now card to “order an uber”. Given Uber’s recent bad press–quite the antithesis of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” mantra–is that really a company Google wants users to associate them with?)

    The new Google Photo sounds potentially useful, though. Every picture you store will be automatically tagged so you can search for things like “Photos of my nephew at Folklife last year.” If the recognition works well, the advantages are obvious. If it doesn’t work well, then we’ve got a repeat of Flickr’s recent image tagging fiasco. The fast, simple sharing functions sound good too. As always, the gotchas are in the implementation details (security, security, security!)

  • I’m going to skip most of the rest of the goodies. Many of them are around ease of use. Good to know, but not all that interesting in detail. I did find the announcement that the enhancements to the developers’ tools will include the “Cloud Test Lab”. Google will perform some level of automated tests on your app across multiple devices with different hardware and software configurations. This kind of testing is, IMNSHO, not hugely useful for large, complicated apps, and there are definitely potential security concerns when the app needs to connect back to your corporate network for test data. But it can be useful. If any of my former cow-orkers use the Cloud Test Lab, I’d be interested in hearing how you like it.
  • Of course, Google is also working on a number of other projects: driverless cars, wireless Internet access via balloons, and so on. All part of this nutritious breakfastusing “technology to solve problems for everyone in the world”. That includes a new version of last year’s favorite Google I/O gizmo: Cardboard, the low-cost virtual reality device. The new version supports larger phones and is easier to construct. The software is also supposedly significantly improved. Last year, it took a few days for templates to show up online. If the same holds true this year, all of you with those lovely phablets will have a chance to check out VR on a budget.

Bottom line from my perspective: Google’s making some useful moves, playing some catch-up to Apple, and really only making one dumb move. If Brillo and Weave meet a quick death or get stuck in an endless pre-development stage, I’ll consider this the most worthwhile Google I/O yet.

Google I/O 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I hit the high points of Apple’s WWDC keynote. In the interest of fairness and equal time, here’s a look at the early announcements from Google I/O.

If there’s a unifying theme of Google’s announcements this year, it’s “unification.” A platform for wearable devices (currently a codeword for “watches”) that ties the watch to a phone with shared notifications and alerts; a platform for cars that essentially allows your phone to display information and apps on a dashboard screen; a single card-based design* across all platforms; an “Android TV”; the ability to use a watch as a security fob for a phone or tablet; Android apps running in Chrome OS; cross-platform cloud APIs allowing status to be seamlessly moved among Android, iOS, and desktop applications; mirror any (recent) Android device to Chromecast; health APIs to integrate health data across apps; everything is voice activated and context-aware. I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the idea.

* Does anyone else remember Palm’s card-based UI for PalmOS (later WebOS)? Everything old is new again…

We did see previews of the next version of Android, and we’ll see many more over the next few months. Google is releasing a developers’ preview of the so-called “L release” today, ahead of the public release this fall. We still don’t know the most important piece of information about the release: the food name. Speculation is rampant, with “Lollipop” the leading candidate, but Google remains quiet on the subject, fueling speculation about the possibility of another corporate tie-in. “Laffy Taffy,” anyone? (I hope Google does do a few more corporate tie-ins. I’d love to see Android 7 hit the market in 2016 under the name “Nerds”.)

So everything Google touches can talk to everything else Google touches. They look the same, they talk the same language. For good or bad, this sounds like Apple’s tightly integrated, similar-appearance infrastructure. Google’s variation on the theme relies on third parties for most of the hardware, but the core is the same: once you buy one Google device, it’s much easier for your next device to also be Google.

As with Apple, WWDC announcements, Google has a lot of evolution going on, but nothing truly revolutionary.

The revolution is happening outside of Moscone Center. As it happens, I was in San Francisco yesterday, and happened to go past Moscone shortly before the keynote. Here’s what was happening:
gio

That’s right. You know it’s a serious protest when there’s a brass band! (Ars is reporting that a couple of protesters even managed to briefly interrupt the keynote.)

Apparently Google is solely responsible for San Francisco’s apartment evictions and the world-wide inability of non-tech workers to earn a living wage. According to a flier* the protesters were handing out, and to the bits of the loudspeaker-delivered speech I heard, Google has an obligation to increase wages for employees of other companies, support tenant rights, and (my favorite) “End all tax avoidance schemes.”

* The flier is a bit of a WQTS moment, by the way. The illustration is poorly centered, and three of the five sentences include grammatical errors. My favorite: “Do you have an idea for an app that would alleviate the imbalances in Silicon Valley or have other thoughts to share?” Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody could write an app that would have thoughts to share?

Guys, Google may be big, but they aren’t that big, and they really have no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to solve all of the world’s problems.

Even if they did, do you really want to live in a world where Google is responsible for setting fare wages and policing housing markets? I don’t, and I’d be surprised if the protesters would either.