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At Google I/O, Spotlight Will Be on Spruced-Up Android, Virtual Reality

The company is expected to introduce updates that fine-tune its connected platforms while attempting to make the case that they’ve had a solid inaugural year.


At I/O last year, Google showed off the next frontiers of Android, announcing versions of the software for cars, wearables, TV and cheap phones in emerging markets. Don’t anticipate anything that seismic this year, however.

Instead, at its annual developer conference, which begins on Thursday, Google is expected to introduce updates that fine-tune these connected platforms while attempting to make the case that they’ve had a solid inaugural year.

It’s a tough case. Sales of Android Wear devices are sluggish while the Apple Watch has captured the lion’s share of buzz. Android Auto is moving slowly too — last year, Google predicted 2015 model cars would be on the road with Android Auto support but very few have yet to hit the road.

Meanwhile, Google has seen its position at the forefront of virtual and augmented reality with Glass take a hit while Facebook and even Microsoft made noteworthy strides. In the past year, Google copped to the lackluster performance of its first big bet, Glass. It can’t afford to stay out of the arms race for much longer.

It’s unlikely Google will unveil a new version of Glass. But it may reveal more on the future of another tarnished product: Google+. A new photo-sharing service will premiere at I/O, according to Bloomberg, which would decouple it from Google+ and further call into question the future of the beleaguered social network.

Google is also likely to talk about where it is heading with its constant — and constantly evolving — Android TV effort.

Still, the theme of the conference will be mobile and how much Google claims to be the gravitational center and chief innovator there. And the centerpiece, like every year, will likely be the debut of a new version of Android. Expect new features to entice developers and delight users. Also, expect it to have a stronger Google footprint, the next steps in a process — started last year — to tighten the company’s control over the OS and the data and dollars that pump through it.

Of course, I/O, like Google, is multi-faceted and will dip into many areas. Here are a few to watch.

A more alluring Android

While the sexiest things at Google I/O are the big updates to Android and cool demo hardware (and giveaways), a lot of the nuts and bolts are about making life easier for developers, especially those writing for Android. Expect Google to show off a bunch of things designed to make it easier not just to write apps, but also to make money. And within that, a big focus will be on using Google’s own services for as many steps as possible.

That includes ads. Apple’s universe remains more lucrative terrain for mobile developers, although that has begun to shift thanks to the sheer number of Android devices shipping around the world. Google certainly wants developers to stick with Android, and being able to offer an easier way to earn more money is the strongest motivation for developers. Google is feeling heat from another source, too; Facebook, its biggest rival for mobile money, centered much of its own developer conference on its formidable ad technology.

But Google’s mobile strategy isn’t limited to its own efforts with Android. While Google certainly likes people to write for Android, it also makes a lot of money from Google services used on the iPhone (many believe it is more per user than for Android), so expect Google to devote some time to iOS developers as well. Also, Twitter’s new developer platform, Fabric, is on hand at I/O, a sign of yet another partnership between the two companies.

Reviving payments

Back in March, Android chief Sundar Pichai teased Google’s new payments product, called Android Pay. Google has said little about the feature since, or how it sits with its fledgling Google Wallet. It probably will during I/O. Also, expect Google to shed a bit more light on its deal, inked in February, with three of the big carriers — AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile — for their (even more fledgling) wallet, Softcard, and pre-installation on smartphones.

Despite being the earliest entrant in mobile payments, Google has struggled to gain consumer traction. Now it faces pressure from Apple as well as its biggest hardware partner, Samsung, which is rolling out its own payments product this summer.

Android for everything

After cars, wrists and TVs, the next target for Android could be the so-called smart home. According to the Information, Google and Nest Labs are cooking up open source software that can connect to the panoply of devices soon to connect to the Internet. Nest, whose executive, Tony Fadell, also oversees Glass 2.0, has delivered scant news since its acquisition of Dropcam last June. A few sessions are scheduled at I/O for Nest and the Internet of Things.

Next chapter of “epic shit”

With I/O, the biggest challenge is often meeting the expectation set in recent years that it will have something truly mind-blowing and unexpected. Google will certainly have plenty of chances to do so. Astro Teller, the head of Google X lab, will lead a session. Another is devoted to Project Loon, Google’s audacious global connectivity program. Last year, Google launched Cardboard, a simple VR apparatus, that Google is positioning as the technology’s first mainstream product. Keep an eye for some new advancements and partnerships.

There’s also ATAP, Google’s other secretive research lab designed to “do epic shit,” in the words of its director, Regina Dugan. Expect an update to some of its existing initiatives — like the modular phone Project Ara — and possibly some of its hidden ones. A wearable, perhaps. The description of the ATAP sessions at I/O hints at “wearables that we hope will blow your socks off. (We mean this more literally than you might think…).”

Re/code will be on hand, with socks and shoes kept intact.

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