Google I/O tips: Android 5, Fit and Quantum Paper?

Event expected to refocus on its developer roots with programs to expand Android's reach further into wearables and across platforms

By Caroline Gabriel

Google's annual I/O developers' conference kicks off tomorrow, and is expected to echo Apple's WWDC in more than one respect. For a start, insiders say there will be fewer glitzy consumer product launches and more focus on the actual developers, a pattern that was seen at the Apple event too - indicating that, as smartphones start to look uniform, mobile players need to compete by pushing the boundaries of their software platforms and user experiences. And that means getting developers excited.

The next release of Android is likely to make an appearance, following a firm I/O tradition, and no doubt named after a sweet starting with the letter 'L' (to follow the current KitKat, or 4.4, iteration). It is actually more important whether it is called Android 4.5 or 5.0, since Google is under pressure to deliver a major upgrade this time, as Apple achieved with iOS. For both companies, it will be essential to reshape their smartphone-focused platforms to support completely different experiences - embedded and wearable devices, video-intensive user interfaces, new intuitive search mechanisms powered by deep learning, and so on.

These technologies are starting to take shape in the labs and even in some high profile gadgets like the Nest thermostats, but they need a rich unifying base of apps and web services, something Google will try to encourage with Android Wear, Glassworks and other efforts to extend its software in all directions. Its developer community, and those which have previously been loyal to iOS or Windows, will be looking for some clear and inspiring directions this week.

Some more fundamental changes programmers want include replacing the ageing Dalvik compiler and making 'Android RunTime' (ART) the default in order to help software run more efficiently and prolong battery life. And there may also be an update to OpenGL ES, the 3D programming interface for Android. Efficient graphics languages are vital to modern platforms, to support gaming and other multimedia apps, and adapt mobile platforms for TV, so many will be looking for a new Android to introduce a convincing response to Microsoft's DirectX 12 and Apple's Metal.

There will almost certainly be comprehensive support for 64-bit processors and the ARMv8 architecture this time, pushing Android towards higher end products. This will rob Intel of a headstart it has made in 64-bit Android, but make such capabilities more available and standardized.

The other important tactic for mobile and web players is to expand their platforms into new devices and user bases, notably the internet of things (IoT). Apple was surprisingly low key about its HomeKit and HealthKit services for embedded devices when it launched them earlier this month. Google is likely to be far more flamboyant about its response, Google Fit, which is expected to make its debut at its annual developer conference, I/O, next week.

The search giant has already showed its hand in the smart home with its expensive acquisition of the Nest connected devices firm, but of course its real interest is in the data such gadgets generate, and the services it can layer on top of those. It is expected to add to its home platform at I/O, but also to move into health and fitness monitoring.

According to report, this service will collect data from a wide range of fitness-related trackers, monitors and applications, including smart watches. The platform will aggregate biometric and performance data and feed it into analytics software, and Google is likely to surround its system with a range of wearables manufacturers (and perhaps even buy one, given its recent love affair with making devices).

On that front, Google Fit is likely to integrate closely with devices which are announced or planned for the existing wearables platform, Android Wear. One of the reported products, the Moto 360 smart watch, is still Google's own, at least until Motorola is sold to Lenovo, while LG is expected to be preparing a G Watch, with inbuilt pedometer and touch sensor.

Apple will not be sitting still either. Its history says that it succeeds best when it has platforms and devices in tandem, as with the iPod and iTunes a decade ago. It is widely expected to release the long expected iWatch in the fourth quarter and to tie it closely to HealthKit and to health monitoring applications.

As well as Fit, there will be wearables action in extensions to Android Wear as well as new gadgets from partners, and many are expecting the full release of the Wear software developers' kit (SDK).

Other predictions for the I/O keynote on Wednesday? Yet another attempt to succeed in TV, renaming the disastrous Google TV experiment as Android TV, though sources are divided on whether there will be an actual box, perhaps Nexus-branded, or an open platform. And extensions to the in-car offering, with support and announcements from Google's partners in the Open Automotive Alliance, the equivalent of Android's Open Handset Alliance.

Some pundits think there may be preview handsets based on the Project Ara modular concept, but it's probably too early for real devices, and Google has already outlined the developer aspects in detail. There may be Google devices on the Nexus front though, probably with details of the much-rumored Android Silver program, a new generation of smartphones sporting the 'pure' Google Android experience and co-developed with partners such as LG. Showcasing that user experience, and convincing the faithful that it remains ahead of the game, will be essential to stop developers' (and the media's) eyes straying disloyally towards alternative Android-based platforms like Amazon's new Fire Phone or Samsung's recently enhanced UI.

As the Android Police blog reports, another interesting development which could make its debut this week is Quantum Paper, which one one level is the latest in a series of Google attempts to unify the Android experience, this time with a set of tools and guidelines spanning all kinds of consumer devices.

However, some reports indicate it will go further and that the search giant will seek to assert its influence over the whole mobile world just as the next wave of user experiences - based around HMTL5 and cloud services - is evolving. "Quantum Paper is a hugely ambitious project, looking to unify and codify paradigms for visual, motion, and interaction design across all platforms, including web, Android and iOS," wrote Android Police.

Of course, if it emerges, Paper will hit the same problems as every other attempt to impose uniformity on a mobile world which is by its nature diverse. Makers of products will continue to want to differentiate themselves and promote their brand; developers will chafe at any limits on their freedom to innovate; consumers are always looking for choice and the next big thing. That will remain true in wearables as in handsets - though in the real internet 'things, embedded workaday items for the smart home or factory, there may be a greater logic to having a harmonized platform and interface. It is just not clear that Google and Android will be the optimal choice.

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