After being called off last year due to the pandemic Google I/O has once again (albeit virtually) returned to our lives.

This year I/O kicked off with a keynote covering topics such as Google Workspace, Android 12 and updates to privacy and AI applications. In this post we’re discussing some of the announcements that really grabbed our attention.

Remote Working

Working from an office is no more! Well – sort of. As vaccines start to roll out we can see “normality” at the end of the dark tunnel, but what does normality mean now that people have had a taste of working from their home?

Google’s updates to Workspace would suggest that it’s expecting a lot of people to be working on a hybrid model – some time at home, some time in the office. To replace the whiteboards and scribbling of lists during meetings, Google is introducing Smart Canvas.

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See and hear team members while collaborating, with Meet directly in Docs, Sheets, and Slides.GIF:Google/Transforming collaboration in Google Workspace

Smart Canvas provides project templates with assignable tasks for Google Docs and integrates Meet directly into Docs, Sheets and Slides – no more awkward sharing screen/tabs/”We can’t see your screen” comments. With @mentions teammates can tag each other, documents or even scheduled meetings.

Google Meet sees some welcome updates as well including Companion Mode, Live Captions and Translations. With Companion Mode, Google is offering a smooth experience when having a call between colleagues who are in the office and remote. If two people are in the office, both can use their own laptops in the same room to join the call – built-in noise cancellation will make sure that there is no audio overlap when one of the users is speaking. Live Captions should be helpful for those who find themselves in noisy environments and Live Translations should help those who would find it easier to understand a call in their native language.

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Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

new employees, new starters, new starter, employee, remote onboarding

Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

I really like what Google has announced in terms of Workspace – especially when it comes to Companion Mode and Live Captions. I can’t help but feel like they missed a trick with not providing the options to get a transcript of a call once it’s been completed – especially for people like myself who might have forgotten to note something down during a call.

It’ll also be interesting to see how well the noise cancellation works in Companion Mode – there was no live demo but my optimistic side is holding out for it being one of those incredibly cool features that just works.

Alex's take

Alex Green | Specialist Engineer, London

Alex's take

Alex Green | Specialist Engineer, London

The integration of Meet into Docs, Sheets, and Slides is certainly a welcome addition. It is a small quality-of-life improvement, but one which will come in useful on a daily basis.

Alongside that, I’m interested to see how upcoming features like smart chips, checklists, and the new timeline view in Sheets will help keep things organised and make it easier to keep track of tasks.

Updates to Android

Like most of us, it looks like Android took the quarantine time to self reflect and make some appearance changes. Android 12 has been unveiled with one of the biggest UI overhauls in years – and it’s interesting.

Material design has seen an upgrade to ‘Material You’, a theming engine that takes its lead from the user’s wallpaper. By observing the wallpaper, Material You creates a colour palette made up of colours and accents present in the picture. This palette can then be used to theme both system and third party apps.

Given iOS’s introduction of widgets, it looks like Google is giving some overdue TLC to its own by offering up new animation and UI interaction APIs for developers.

Speaking of animations, they’re going to look a lot smoother on Android 12 if we are to believe the announcements from Google I/O. Google claims under the hood improvements in Android have reduced CPU usage by up to 22%.

But Android 12 isn’t just a smoothly animated facelift – it’s getting some privacy updates too. On the latest update users get the ability to see a timeline of when permissions have been accessed and from what apps. On top of that, a new camera/mic indicator will be shown when they are respectively being used as well as shortcuts to disable them entirely for every app.

To help build better apps, Google announced some new Android API updates:

• A new Bluetooth permission means developers will no longer be required to ask for an all-encompassing Location permission when requiring Bluetooth features
• Jetpack Compose, Android’s declarative UI library, will be moving to stable in July
• A new SplashScreen API provides launch animations for apps
• App Actions for using Google Assistant to interact with your app

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Managing tasks with your watch is easier than ever with new navigation capabilities.GIF:Google/What’s new for Wear

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Animation demonstrates how to swipe to see new Tiles.GIF:Google/What’s new for Wear

The Android family doesn’t just include phones however. This year WearOS saw some welcome improvements. By partnering with Samsung, Google has updated WearOS to have longer battery life and better performance (30% faster app starts). The UX has also been upgraded to make it easier for users to navigate between apps and tiles on their wearables.

With updated APIs developers will also be able to make Tiles for their own apps as well as tap into health and fitness information captured by the wearable’s sensors. Fitbit made a feature in the keynote where they announced their intentions of integrating their fitness research into WearOS while also releasing a premium WearOS smartwatch in the future.

new employees, new starters, new starter, employee, remote onboarding

Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

new employees, new starters, new starter, employee, remote onboarding

Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

I’ve been saying for a while that Android 12 needs a fresh coat of paint and with Material You it looks like it’s getting just that. It’ll be interesting to see how developers integrate this palette into their own apps when the OS update drops – or whether it even looks as good as the screenshots Google showed off.

Widgets are also getting some love. I recently switched to iOS and the widgets there are noticeably better designed – there’s a cohesiveness that I think Android was lacking, until now.

But none of these updates have excited me more than the announcements around WearOS. My recent move to iOS also involved an Apple Watch and since day 1 of owning it I have not understood how Google doesn’t have a competitor; I want to move back to Android but the Watch keeps me in iOS. With the acquisition of Fitbit and partnership with Samsung I think we might start to see WearOS landing on many more people’s wrists.

Alex's take

Alex Green | Sr. Android Engineer, London

Alex's take

Alex Green | Specialist Engineer, London

I think Matías Duarte said it best during the Material You announcement when he said “sharing control of every pixel is terrifying”. After spending countless hours painstakingly fine-tuning your app’s UI, it can be a scary prospect to hand so much control over to the user; but it marks a bold move away from the “one-size fits all” approach to design, and it will be interesting to see how users take advantage of this.

On the watch front, I have high hopes for the Google/Samsung collaboration and the possibility of finally having a viable competitor to the Apple Watch. Samsung has produced some impressive watch hardware in the past, but the lack of access to the Play Store has always been a dealbreaker for me. Conversely, on the WearOS side the hardware up until now has often been lacking, along with typically mediocre battery life. Hopefully this collaboration will bring us something that combines the best of both worlds.

Updates to AI/ML

AI is the backbone for the majority of Google’s product offerings and 2021 saw no changes to that. At I/O we were introduced to a research project called LaMDA, a conversational AI that user’s will be able to chat to in order to find out information. Google demoed LaMDA taking the form of Pluto and a paper airplane – with both instances being capable of maintaining a contextually aware conversation with a user.

Multimodal models were also shown off for Google Search, giving users the ability to search for information with a combination of text, sound, image and video. Maps received updates for finding eco-friendly routes, area business and indoor navigation. And for developers, Tensorflow Lite introduced On-Device Machine Learning.

Google acknowledged that users also search for health-related information and showed off two technologies they’ve been working on. The first was a partnership with researchers at North Western Medicine to better detect cancer cells in mammograms. By analysing the mammograms, the AI was able to flag potentially critical patients for doctors to prioritise. The second was a tool to discover information about dermatological conditions through Google Search. Users will be able to take three pictures of the skin condition they are concerned about and Google will be able to check it against 288 known skin conditions.

new employees, new starters, new starter, employee, remote onboarding

Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

new employees, new starters, new starter, employee, remote onboarding

Andrew's take

Andrew Cunningham | Android Engineer, London

I never thought I wanted to talk to a planet (or dwarf planet) before, but after seeing LaMDA I’d definitely like to give it a go. Jokes aside, I think this could potentially change education – I’ve always learnt better through conversation than reading paragraphs upon paragraphs. The question is how far can they ethically go with this? Should Google create instances of highly controversial characters, historical and present day? And if the answer is yes, what are the personality limits?

Alex's take

Alex Green | Sr. Android Engineer, London

Alex's take

Alex Green | Specialist Engineer, London

LaMDA was definitely a very impressive display of technology, and shows once more that Google is at the forefront of conversational AI, but it remains to be seen just how exactly this will be applied in Google’s product suite. As users, I feel we have been conditioned by the current limitations of AI to interact with them in a very unnatural way, purposefully avoiding open-ended requests in order to remove ambiguity. Hopefully the improvements which Google have showcased can lead to more free-flowing and natural interactions.

Outro

To the average consumer, a developer conference doesn’t seem very exciting – there is nothing they can immediately use and play with. But for the developer community, these announcements are a foundation of what’s next to arrive in consumers’ hands.

As the dust settles on the announcements it’s time to take these new tools and updates and integrate them into our own product and service offerings. We’re looking forward to trying them out.