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Google Puts the Phone at the Center of Its Multiscreen Universe

Cars, watches and TVs working in concert. Everything but the Android phone is optional.

In Google’s perfect world, people have Android tablets in their bags, Android Wear watches strapped to their wrists, Android TV in their living rooms and Android Auto in their cars. In their pockets: An Android phone that ties them all together in a unified experience built on Google services.

Android began as a mobile device platform. But now Google is transforming it into an environment that spans the multiple screens in our lives. Pulling this off will be a complicated exercise of juggling hundreds of Android partners, thousands of developers and billions of users.

Presenting to a crowd of loyal Android developers at Google’s annual I/O conference, Sundar Pichai, head of Google’s Android and Chrome platforms, laid out a vision of how Google’s connected universe would surpass any one company’s strategy, just weeks after Apple articulated its vision of a connected but enclosed world.

“We aren’t building a vertically integrated product,” Pichai said. “What we are doing is building an open platform at scale. We work with hundreds of partners globally to bring a product and a platform that touches billions of people.”

That Android has been so tremendously successful is the reason this interdependency pitch doesn’t sound entirely ludicrous. There were more than one billion Android phones used actively within the last month, Google said today. Android owners check those devices 100 billion times per day. Google paid out $5 billion to developers since the last Google I/O, 13 months ago. And to better encircle the globe, Google is now working to bring sub-$100 Android smartphones to the developing world, starting with the Android One program in India.

Pichai described the four pillars of Google’s new multiscreen world: Experiences that are 1) contextually aware, 2) voice enabled, 3) seamless and 4) mobile first.

The last point — mobile first — is key. Google envisions the Android handset as the brains behind the broader Android ecosystem. It’s portable, powerful and always with you, so your information and settings can be applied across a range of devices and situations. Paired with less robust Android devices — a watch, for example — it allows those devices to deliver an enhanced Android experience.

It’s quite possible that the handset will become a stepping stone, and eventually Google will ask people to log into their Google accounts to connect their information and preferences from the cloud. That could come when more devices have their own connectivity and don’t have to tether to a phone to get online. But for today, the phone is the bridge.

In an Android Auto-equipped car, connecting your Android phone through a USB cable will bring up your safety-first Android apps directly on the car’s dashboard display. In newer cars, you’ll be able to use the steering wheel voice button to give commands and the arrows to navigate the screen.

That means voice-enabled Google Maps, complete with local search and live traffic, also appear on the car screen. The driver will be able to send texts via voice while driving, without losing the next turn in maps. Some 25 automakers have signed up to support this experience, with some of the first cars available before the end of the year.

The Android Gear watch strapped to your wrist (Samsung’s and LG’s can be ordered today; Motorola’s will be coming later this summer) and connected to your phone via Bluetooth will automatically unlock your phone if it is nearby.

The wrist display is viewed as a miniature phone interface that helps you get things done quickly. Android engineering director David Singleton demonstrated how you can order a pizza in less than 20 seconds using the Eat24 app for his Android smartwatch.

“When it comes to takeout, I’m a creature of habit,” Singleton said. “At the same time I ordered last week, it posts a notification suggesting I order again. I can quickly swipe to see my last order, just one more tap to pay, and the pizza’s on its way.”

In your living room, your Android phone will serve as an extension to your Android TV set-top box or upcoming Android-equipped televisions from Sony and Sharp next year. You will be able to say “Breaking Bad” and be shown a menu where the latest episode will be available or go deeper and seek out other related videos and interviews of the cast. Too lazy to speak? Change the channel with your Android Wear watch.

None of this is particularly novel. Voice search is a marquee feature of Amazon’s new Fire TV set-top box. Apple’s CarPlay is designed for the same driving scenarios Google hopes to address with Android Auto and has many of the same partners.

But novelty isn’t Google’s ambition. The ubiquity of its services is. And to achieve that goal, it needs to deliver the “open platform at scale” that Pichai described. Whether that is a recipe for success or a new challenge to untangle is unclear. But it is a sketch of where Google is headed next.

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