Brian Willis

The World’s Slowest Live Blogger Reviews the Google I/O 2014 Keynote

So I watched the video of Google’s I/O keynote, which has been sanitised to exclude protestors and failing demos.

It opens with some sort of incredible machine inspired contraption that had very little to do with Google, developers, or the keynote itself. I’m kind of baffled as to why they thought this would be a good idea. While I’m at it, I’ll also throw the techno-backed intro video into the cute-but-pointless pile. When you make a video that’s supposed to highlight how awesome Android is, it’s probably not a good idea to give significant screen time to Monument Valley and Flappy Bird, two games that got their start as iOS exclusives.

Thankfully, the presentation gets a lot better from there.

It’s cool to see Google highlighting the number of women in attendance. After last week’s publication of Yahoo’s diversity stats, I’m sure we’ll see more tech companies showing off these kind of numbers.

Material design looks beautiful, and I’m glad to see Google actually settle on a single set of design standards. The demos look clear and futuristic, if a little Windows Phone like. Animated touch feedback on standard UI controls really does look awesome. You’d think it’d be gimicky, but having buttons ripple and checkboxes light up when tapped really does look good. iOS’s super-flat borderless buttons look sterile and joyless by comparison.

I enjoyed the demo of personal unlocking, where a phone can automatically unlock without a passcode when it detects the presence of a paired bluetooth watch nearby. My big concern here: how does the device determine if it’s in a trusted environment? and will users understand the difference between the times their phones ask for passcodes, and the times that they don’t? The presenters made reference to detection using locations, bluetooth devices, and voice prints. I’m curious to see how that’ll work in practice.

The demo of Chrome tabs displayed in the recents view as if they were individual apps looks great. This is yet another example of Google embracing the web while Apple begrudgingly puts up with it. On iOS the web gets it’s own little sandboxed corner, whereas on Android (at least from a UI perspective) web apps look to be first class citizens.

There’s a demo of the Unreal engine running on Android, but they made no reference to what hardware the demo was running on - it could have been an x86-based supercomputer for all we know. In comparison to Apple’s demo of Metal at WWDC, this all seemed a bit suspicious. Having advanced gaming engines run on your platform is great, but it’s all for nothing if the hardware support isn’t there.

There were a few shots across the bow at Apple, aimed squarely at Tim Cook’s remarks about Android at WWDC. “Custom keyboards and widgets—those things happened in Android four to five years ago!”, cue rapturous applause from the crowd. Though “we take security very seriously”, followed by “less than a half a percent of users ever run into any malware issues” seemed a bit defensive.

They announced an SDK for Android Wear, and a few watches to go with it. Twenty bucks says that Apple has no third party developer support for the first year of the iWatch (assuming that they announce one, which many people seem to be treating as fact). The LG G and the Samsung Gear Live watches are a mixture of banal and ugly. The Moto 360 doesn’t look terrible, but it doesn’t look great either.

From here it was demos of Android Auto and Android TV. While all of this looks lovely and vaguely useful, I want to highlight one thing here that represents the biggest difference between developing for Android and developing for Apple platforms. When you’re developing for Apple devices, you make a Mac app, an iPhone app, and an iPad app; and there’s an expectation that you’ll charge for all three (or at least charge separately for Mac/iOS versions). On Android, Google is asking developers to make a single app that works on watches, phones, tablets, chromebook laptops, cars, and TVs. All for one price. That’s a big ask, and I’d argue that it’s the central reason why the third party app ecosystem on Android tablets is so lacklustre. If developers don’t have a financial incentive to make great apps for every form-factor, you’ll find that the only apps that do get made are ones by companies that have alternative financial incentives (Facebook, Yelp, et al.). In order for Android to have a worthwhile app ecosystem, Android users will have to start accepting higher prices for apps that run in all places (not likely), or Google has got to start providing tools to dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of targeting different form factors. Material design goes a small way toward this, but it’s not enough.

Congratulations on making it this far. The presentation wraps up with some new tools available for Google’s cloud infrastructure, and some incredibly uninteresting stuff about big data. The last half hour of the video can be comfortably skipped.

So will I be switching to Android? Probably not, but for the first time Android is a platform that looks like something I could use and love, rather than use and tolerate. In particular when it comes to TVs and phones, Google is really giving Apple a run for their money.