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What You Really Need to Know About Google I/O

As we wrote last week, Android has had limited success in penetrating markets beyond smartphones, tablets, and eReaders, though interest in the platform within the embedded space has been widespread. As such, many in the embedded community had been eagerly awaiting Google I/O 2012 in anticipation of any announcement that would help further Android’s migration to other areas.

Since 2008, Google I/O – an annual San Francisco-based developer conference hosted by Google – has, among other things, been a key platform for Google to deliver major announcements around its mobile OS. Last year, the company announced Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and the Android Accessory Development Kit, and shared details of new guidelines established around how quickly devices are updated after a new platform release. (As an owner of a high-end Android device still awaiting its ICS update, I can assure you the new update guidelines have had limited effectiveness.)

So, other than Google announcing that Android had surpassed one million daily activations, what happened at this year’s conference that you need to know?

It’s time for Jelly Beans

Front and center to Google I/O 2012 was the unveiling of Android 4.1, Jelly Bean. Unlike Ice Cream Sandwich, Jelly Bean is an incremental update focusing primarily on improving the user experience. To that end, Google has added vsync timing, triple buffering, and a variety of other new features to create a faster, smoother, and more responsive user interface. Much of this is encapsulated in Google’s “Project Butter,” a cleverly named initiative dedicated to ensuring that Android runs (cue the rimshot) smooth as butter.

Jelly Bean also includes upgraded functionality around accessibility and international support, and improved connectivity features such as Android Beam – a popular NFC-based technology.

While these new features are certainly compelling, it is also likely to hasten Android’s fragmentation – unless and until Google takes significant steps toward truly managing the device update process.

Still searching for an iPad killer

Google’s other main Android-related announcement at this year’s conference was the Nexus 7 tablet. The first tablet in the Nexus family, this $199 device was co-developed by Google and Asus, and features Jelly Bean running on a 7” screen and a 1.3 GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor.

By and large, Android tablets have failed to gain much traction, other than a brief period of momentum by Amazon’s Kindle Fire. However, Google’s previous Nexus-branded devices have been well-received, and the $199 price point (plus access to the full catalog of Android tablet apps, unlike the Kindle Fire) may stimulate enough interest to put a modest dent in Apple’s overwhelming share lead.

Interestingly, this announcement came just days after Microsoft released details on the Surface and Surface Pro tablets. Clearly, the tablet market is ripe with major competitors seeking to replicate Apple’s success and seize its market share. To date, no one has really done either, and it’s hard to imagine that Apple is losing sleep over either of these “major” tablet announcements.

But wait, there’s more

While Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7 were the most significant Android-related items to come out of Google I/O 2012, a few other announcements warrant mentioning:

  • Nexus Q – This cloud-connected media-streaming device is similar to Apple TV and Roku, leverages media stored in Google Play, and is controlled by an Android smartphone or tablet. Curiously, Google TV took a back seat for much of this conference; could the Nexus Q ultimately become a replacement?
  • Google Glass Explorer Edition – Project Glass is an R&D program sponsored by Google and tasked with developing an augmented reality head-mounted display. Google demoed a prototype Android-powered headset at Google I/O. 
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