There was a cool navy layer hanging in the air above the Shoreline Amphitheater, but the dancing beats were rocking nonetheless. Dan Deacon was playing a set that had something to do with AI, followed by someone dressed as a duck dancing on stage. Not the kind of scene you’d normally expect before you grab your second cup of coffee, but this is Google I/O, baby.
I/O is, of course, the company’s annual developer conference, and it officially kicked off Wednesday morning when CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage, headlining a two-hour presentation focused almost entirely on AI. We got a preview of what’s to come on Google search, Gmail, and images, along with an unappetizing, realistic photo of a pizza fondue. Everything was artificial intelligence, from top to bottom. We’ve been assured, time and time again, that Google is responsible for implementing AI and that the company is taking steps to ensure the technology doesn’t end life on the planet as we know it.
But what we don’t hear much about — in fact, he barely gets a mention on stage — is I/O’s regular guest star: Android. Namely, Android 14, which is in beta now and expected in the fall. There’s a lot of information out there about the apps and services that work alongside Google’s mobile operating system, but the platform itself gets very little time in the spotlight.
This is a huge shift from previous years. As recently as 2019, Next Android (at the time, it was running as Q) commanded a dedicated 10-minute-plus segment in its keynote highlighting new features. In 2023? Android 14 was mentioned about an hour and a half later in the keynote where the new lock screen customization options are highlighted. Earlier in the program, we got updates on item tracking and alerts on unknown tracker alerts that will work with Apple’s AirTags. But these things are framed as updates coming to Android environmental systemnot as Android 14 features.
This is no accident. I asked Samir Samat, VP of Android Ecosystem, why Android 14 specifically gets so little airtime. He said that since Google has implemented ways for Android devices to receive updates outside of a once-a-year platform upgrade, such as Play System and app updates, it becomes necessary to frame things a little differently. So this year we thought it was important to show people what’s new in Android from a user experience standpoint, regardless of the OS version. While some of the features we announced will launch with Android 14, a lot more will get into people’s hands through these constant updates. he says.
Rather than bundle a lot of new features into an OS upgrade that will roll out slowly (or not at all) to specific devices, the company rolls out features throughout the year as updates to Google Photos or Gmail. That’s fine, and it’s a side effect of Google’s efforts to solve the familiar problems of Android fragmentation. Google has more levers to pull now to get feature updates and security fixes to Android phones faster. It just means that fewer of these features are integrated into higher-numbered versions of the operating system.
It also means that the rest isn’t terribly exciting. Android 14 has been in beta for a while now, and so far, notable features include updates that I would classify as nice: a different look for the back navigation arrow, support for a new backwards-compatible HDR image standard, and lossless audio over a USB headset. Not bad, but not the kind that gets people excited during the keynote.
Google has more levers to pull now to get feature updates to Android phones faster
There’s also the fact that the smartphone market has achieved a kind of maturity which means annual upgrades are less exciting than they used to be. See also: Basically every device announced in the past year. Device makers, including Google, are shifting focus to the earphones, watches, and tablets they sell and how they all work together to make our lives easier — that’s how the sales pitch goes. Phones aren’t the stars of the show anymore, and so is the software that runs on them.
That’s how we got to the keynote at this year’s I/O conference, which was as much a hardware launch and AI gathering as it was a software showcase. After the main keynote was over and Pichai walked off the stage, we were encouraged to remain in our seats for the next session: the developer keynote. Small tubs of snacks were handed out as a bribe to keep us seated.
However, the majority of the crowd headed for the exits. We were there for the Fold announcement or to see how Google responds to pressure from Microsoft’s AI developments. Smaller sessions later in the day covered Android in depth, but on the company’s biggest stage, it only played a supporting role.
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