A lot has changed since a few years ago, when skydivers dropped into the annual Google I/O developers conference with Google Glass on their heads.
Even if Glass wasn’t on hiatus today, Google seems to have outgrown such flashy stunts, and overall seems to have buttoned down. The keynote at Google I/O 2015 hopped from demo to demo with businesslike efficiency, rarely stopping to dwell on the bigger picture or ponder the future. We didn’t even get Larry Page on stage to talk about his fantasy island of technological experimentation.
That’s all a bit disappointing on some level–Google’s occasional craziness is as much a virtue as it is a pitfall–but there are worse things than the company spending less time in fantasyland and more time setting things right in the present day. It’s hard to get giddy about most of the things Google talked about at this year’s show, but unlike Glass, there’s a good chance you’ll end up using a lot of these products in the not-too-distant future.
Here’s a rundown of the big announcements from the show:
Google Photos: Finally free from Google+, the new service lets users store unlimited photos and videos from iPhones, Android phones, computers, and cameras (capped at 16 megapixel images and 1080p videos, unless you pay for Google Drive space). Google showed off some impressive algorithms that can recognize specific people, places, and things, so you don’t have to obsessively categorize every shot on your own.
Android M: The next version of Google’s operating system is largely about refinement. Users will get better control over permissions, so they can decide whether an app can access things like the camera, contacts, and SMS. A new “Doze” sleep mode is designed to help preserve idle battery life, especially for tablets. The system will also have a bunch of minor improvements, such as simplified volume controls and a sharing function that remembers your favorite contacts and apps. It’ll also support USB-C, the new reversible cable standard for charging and data transfer.
Android Pay: Google is taking yet another stab at mobile payments, but this attempt looks far more credible than Google Wallet. Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile will offer Android Pay on their phones, and Google has the support of all the major credit card companies. More than 700,000 stores will let you pay by tapping your Android phone, including Whole Foods, Macy’s, Walgreens, and Best Buy, and some apps will allow paying with your fingerprint. (Google is building fingerprint scanning into Android M.)
Google Now on Tap: In Android M, users can conjure Google’s virtual assistant from within other apps. That means you can look up movie times or restaurants while your friend’s text messages stay open in the background. Google Now can even respond to certain queries based on what’s happening in the app–for instance, identifying the lead singer in a song that’s on from Spotify.
HBO Now: Apple has an exclusive on HBO’s stand-alone streaming service until July, but it’ll be coming to Android phones, tablets, and TV devices, along with Chromecast, after that.
Project Brillo and Weave: With Brillo, Google wants to build an operating system for smart lightbulbs, door locks, and other Internet of Things gizmos. The company also announced Weave, a way for these products to communicate with other devices and the web, and for users to control them by voice. There’s plenty of competition in this area, but it should at least be more successful than Android@Home.
Offline Maps Improvements: Google Maps already lets you store maps offline, but an update will let users view business information and get turn-by-turn directions without an Internet connection. It sounds like the killer app for overseas travel.
More Uses for VR: Google has improved the Cardboard virtual reality headset that it first launched at last year’s I/O, with simpler assembly and support for smartphones with up to 6-inch screens. A program called Expeditions will let teachers order a box of Cardboard and control virtual field trips with a tablet, and Jump will help video makers create immersive 360-degree scenes for viewing on YouTube. Google is also releasing software tools for bringing Cardboard apps to the iPhone.
There are a lot of disparate parts here, but one thing they have in common is that they’re all building on something. They aren’t wildly ambitious attempts to create something entirely new, like Google Glass was, but instead are practical improvements to existing products, or reasonable rethinks of past failures. Not exactly the stuff you’d celebrate with stunts, but things to look forward to nonetheless.