Another Google I/O keynote has happened and, again, we have mixed feelings about what we saw. Apparently, the search giant is shifting from being mobile-first to being AI-first. What does that mean? Who the hell knows.
What we do know is that Google is releasing some software updates. Some of them are pretty damn neat. Some of them are confusing as hell. Some of them look just plain shitty. Let’s dig in.
Best: Google Lens
Google’s been tinkering with visual search and augmented reality for years. Now, it looks like the Mountain View dudes are replacing an old app called Google Goggles with a flashy new feature called Google Lens. Google Lens looks very similar to Google Goggles, but now, Google Assistant joins in on the fun. That essentially amounts to a smarter visual search engine.
You can point your phone at a restaurant, for instance, and Google Lens will serve up the name of the restaurant as well as any relevant information from Google Places. Point your phone at a flower, and Google Lens will tell you what kind of flower it is. What’s more exciting than the handful of examples shown during the keynote is what developers will one day able to do with Google’s super-powerful visual AI. But for starters, since it works across Google products, we’ll surely reap some real benefits from the new tricks soon.
Worst: Google Assistant comes to iOS
Okay, Google. So what?
Best: Google Home hands-free calling
Google Home is getting a really cool feature, hands-free phone calls over wi-fi, in the coming months. (Have you noticed that Google loves this term “in the coming months?”) That means you might finally be able to ditch your house’s landline—if you’re one of those weird people who still has a landline.
That said, the feature seems sort of half-baked since we don’t know if it will be able to take very not-private speakerphone calls to much more private smartphone calls. Guess we’ll see “in the coming months.”
Worst: Android O
Hold on to your butts, folks, because Android O is getting some new feature. Oh wait, they’re lame as hell.
We’re talking new features like improved copy-paste and picture-in-picture, a feature that’s been awkward and confusing on screens since 1998. The only thing that seems genuinely neat and useful is improved security in Android apps. God knows we need that.
Best: This one little part of Android O
Google Play Protect is a new suite of security features that Android’s desperately needed, well, the entire time it existed. Because Android is so fragmented, it’s so far been close to impossible for Google to offer Apple-style protection from malware. But now, it looks like the company is trying.
Included in Play Protect is a regular malware scan of all the apps installed on your phone. This happens “around the clock,” according to Google, so you don’t actually have to do anything. Play Protect also does this scan on everything in the Play Store, so it should be less likely that you download a malicious app. And finally, a new “Find My Device” feature finally brings “Find My iPhone” functionality to Android.
Play Protect will ship with all Android O devices. Let’s hope Google decides to offer it for older versions as well in the near future.
Very best: Android Instant Apps are finally available to all developers
The world’s been waiting a year for Google to release an obscenely convenient new Android feature: Instant Apps. You tap a link on a webpage, and BOOM, the app is on your phone. There’s no need to go to the Google Play Store and wait an extra four seconds to start downloading it. It’s just there.
Sure, four seconds isn’t that long to wait for an app. But seriously, who likes navigating the Play Store and putting in your credentials or scanning your fingerprint or whatever other annoying crap you have to do to get an app. App developers should be especially happy because Instant Apps should lead to a lot more downloads. There are already a few Android Instant Apps out there in the wild. Soon, there should be a lot more.
Absolute worst: YouTube Super Chat
If you watched the Google keynote, you’ll probably remember Super Chat because of the presentation by its very enthusiastic product manager. The feature has actually been out in the wild since January and is most useful for YouTube content creators, because it basically gives them a new revenue stream. How? It lets commenters pay to comment on livestreams.
Okay, sure, the paid comments are a bright color, and yes, ostensibly the person doing the livestream will see it pop up and react to it. So, ostensibly, you could spend $10 and tell the host to take off their pants. This is exactly how cam girls make money on sleazy webcam sites, and yes, YouTube apparently wants to give this option to innocent-seeming teens on its massive platform.
Best: Kotlin Support
I don’t really know what Kotlin is besides the fact that it’s a programming language, but the developers in the Google I/O crowd seemed STOKED that it will soon be supported on Android. The developer reaction alone was worth the announcement.
Worst: Smart Reply for Gmail on Android and iOS
This one’s just boring. If you’re one of the nine people in the world that uses Smart Reply, you’ll like it. If you like to respond to emails with your brain like a normal human, keep reading.
Best: Android Go
Even if the Android O announcements were boring, the Android Go announcement was dope. Okay technically Android Go was part of the Android O announcement, but hear me out.
Google described Android Go as a streamlined version of Android for phones with less than 1GB of memory. This might not mean a lot to Samsung Galaxy S8 owners, but it might mean the world to anyone from Tracphone users to people in developing countries.
The light new Android software will eventually work on all versions of Android and includes useful stuff like easy data usage monitoring and free (read: does not use up your data) previews of YouTube videos. You can even download YouTube videos when you’re on wi-fi and watch them on the go so you don’t waste your precious megabytes. Again, it’s maybe not changing your life, but Android O will be huge for a huge number of people around the world.
Worst: Standalone VR
This sounds great! But all Google offered about the new standalone virtual reality hardware it’s developing with HTC and Lenovo is the fact that Google is developing some new standalone virtual reality hardware with HTC and Lenovo.
HTC teased the new headset right after Google’s announcement. HTC also failed to provide additional details. So this could be cool. But we honestly have no idea what it is, and not knowing is the worst.
Best: VPS (Visual Positioning System)
Do you get lost in stores or in the subway or even in your own home? Then you’re going to love Google’s new VPS (Visual Positioning System). As Google describes it, the feature works with Project Tango technology and a camera to map out interiors. Essentially, VPS lays down visual markers while you’re wandering around with your smartphone camera. Those markers then merge with the markers of other users to create an indoor map.
It’s unclear exactly when and how VPS will be released. Google says it will become one of the core capabilities of Google Lens. When? In the coming months, I’m sure.