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Google I/O tips: Android 5, Fit and Quantum Paper? June 24 2014

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.

WWDC: a quiet revolution underway at Apple June 03 2014

No hardware, but significant moves to open up the walled garden and embrace the cloud; now great devices must follow

By Caroline Gabriel

No new devices, again ... Our immediate reaction to Apple's WWDC keynote was to wonder how many times CEO Tim Cook can get away with vague promises of "amazing" products to come, and not deliver them. No big-screened iPhone, no iWatch - it seems that, with Apple, it is always jam tomorrow, never jam today.

But that is to fall into the thinking that often grips Apple watchers, of over-focusing on the hardware alone, odd as that may be when studying the pioneer of the hardware/software 'user experience'. Looking at the software side, there were clear signs of an Apple which is on the defensive, but is putting its pieces in place to fight back against Google. Most importantly, there are clear chinks in the iOS walled garden, as well as the start of a unified PC/mobile experience.

This is a grown-up, sober Apple, and not just because Cook has a less charismatic style than his predecessor Steve Jobs. This is a company which knows it can only rely on the power of its brand and design so far - underneath that famous logo, it needs to adapt its whole platform to the needs of changing world, one in which devices are very cheap and power lies in big data and cloud services.

Apple, for our money, is still moving too slowly in the cloud, but it is making progress in modernizing its platform. The new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, is far more radical than its low key design changes would suggest. While iOS 7 made significant changes to the visual impact, iOS 8 is important for opening up new areas to third party developers - notably the keyboard and TouchID. So while Apple's old desire to control all aspects of its experience was there in a much enhanced native keyboard, featuring contextual word prediction, it also opened up to third party keyboards for the first time, something Android has allowed for a long time.

This may not quite amount to Apple's claim that this is "the biggest release since the launch of the App Store", but it does indicate that the firm is gearing up for a world when that famous store may be less powerful, and it will need a fully open web apps platform to stay competitive with Google (the purchase of Beats and its music streaming service is another symptom of this reluctant long goodbye to the downloads model).

Not that Apple is letting go of its preference for native apps and content. One of the features of iOS 8 is to introduce web-like capabilities which will appeal to Android users, but take place in native apps. An example is Extensibility, which lets apps communicate and share data, but in a sandboxed way which maintains secure walls between them. For instance, a user could take a photo with iPhone Camera and add filters from another application, but without actually leaving Camera. That mimics the extensions which browser-based software uses to add features, but remains native.

Another area where Apple has removed an Android advantage of iOS is allowing developers to add new sharing options - sharing images and web pages to any service the programmer chooses, as with Android's 'intents' system, rather than just to Apple-designated apps such as Facebook.

And an important and radical (for Apple) departure was to break down some of the boundaries between iOS and OS X, in a way that Microsoft and Google have already been pursuing. This will be important as the differences between a PC and a mobile device also break down, and the 'post-PC' environment looks for a unified user experience to run across huge numbers of different form factors.

Apple demonstrated widgets running on both its operating systems - in iOS 8, as part of the pulldown Notification Center. And users can now work across the two platforms far more seamlessly, an area where Apple has leapt ahead of Google - for instance, a user could start a document on a Mac and edit it on an iPhone, helped by integrated storage in the updated iCloud Drive.

In addition to the OS changes, Apple unveiled its expected first step into the smart home with HomeKit. This also bears the stamp of the 'new Apple' in relying mainly on third party developers rather than high profile Apple hardware, and making increased use of the cloud. There is no Apple-branded home hub, but instead the system aims to replace that dedicated hub with an iPhone or iPad. iOS-based HomeKit will integrate control for home automation functions such as lighting control, allowing third party apps and devices to work together regardless of their network protocol, and can be voice-controlled using Siri.

A similarly underplayed app was HealthKit, which supports functions such as heart and fitness monitoring and fuelled further speculation that an iWatch is on its way, to respond to Samsung's recent pushes into this area.

As with the revamped iCloud - more open and more like Dropbox - HomeKit and HealthKit show that Apple is embracing the cloud at last, especially as it looks beyond the smartphone and towards the opportunities of the internet of things. However, these launches were given little airtime compared to the core iOS changes, and suggest the firm remains cautious and slightly uncomfortable around the cloud. That will have to change if Apple really is to stay as Google's key challenger in the new mobile world and the IoT.

A more unexpected, but significant, announcement was that of Swift, a new programming language which promises a slimmed-down alternative to Objective-C, the complex if powerful language on which Apple has relied for decades. It aims to attract new developers by making it easier and quicker to write stable, secure apps, billing itself as "Objective-C without the C". It is promising the world to coders - greater power and performance than scripting languages like Python, but with the simplicity of those technologies. Apple claims it has run benchmarks which show Swift code executes more quickly than Python and even Objective-C.

The iOS 8 and Yosemite upgrades combined with Swift and new cloud features all show Apple getting some of its priorities straight and making a bold attempt to retain its control of its platform, while modernizing it and opening it up. Not an easy balance, but it can rely on the huge loyalty of its established developer and user base to help it transition to a fully open web world.

That is, if it comes up with the devices to run the new software, and with sufficient pzazz to placate those loyal gadget buyers, some of whom are getting bored with the same old screen size. Cook was teasing about new product categories, while SVP of software and services, Eddy Cue, said the firm has "the best product pipeline in 25 years".

Apple has made such promises before, and for the past couple of years, has not delivered on them. With iOS 8 commercial availability in the fall, that is presumably when the next iPhone will appear. It had better pack a punch, or the significant innovations in the software platform will not be enough to boost growth again.

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