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The 2014 Google tracker—Everything we know Google is working on this year

11 Feb

Google’s plans for Android, gaming, smart homes, healthcare, robots, and much, much more.

by  –


While some companies pride themselves on secrecy, Google doesn’t seem interested in surprises. The future of the company is often proudly demonstrated on a stage in front of hundreds of people or announced to the world via a company acquisition press release. Everything Google mentions publicly is for a reason, and if you just listen, you’ll pick up a few hints and get a pretty good idea of what the company is working on.

This post is a collection of all the hints, announcements, and acquisitions we’ve heard from Google lately, along with some common sense speculation. We’re not predicting or guaranteeing that all of these projects will become consumer products in 2014; it’s more of a “to-do list” for Google. Like any to-do list, it’s not heavy on ETAs—you can complete an item and cross it off the list, or you can procrastinate and let that list item hang around another year. So to prepare for what promises to be a wild year of Google news, here’s everything we know about the company’s future plans.

A big gaming push

Mobile devices have slowly been eroding the traditional gaming market. Portable gaming systems have been hit especially hard thanks to the proliferation of smartphones. The 3DS and PSP may have better controls and more in-depth games, but to repurpose an old camera adage: the best gaming system is the one you have with you. Everyone carries a cell phone, and when that cell phone is capable of running great-looking, in-depth games, a dedicated gaming system becomes a much harder sell.

Apple and Google both seem interested in leveraging mobile gaming success into a spot in the living room. The smartphone industry’s cheap hardware and app-enabled “do everything” mentality could create a compelling living room device. Just as point-and-shoot cameras, MP3 players, handheld gaming systems, and flip phones were casualties in the smartphone revolution, the use case of “home video game console” could be swallowed up by a do-everything set-top box.

With much looser size, heat, and power constraints, a set-top smartphone could be much more powerful than its portable, battery-powered brethren. As the success of the Nintendo Wii proved, fun games and new input devices trump graphics in the mainstream gaming marketplace, and consumers will buy a gaming system if it looks fun enough. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo are all grafting smartphone and cable box functionality (apps, multitasking, Web browsers, TV guides) onto a gaming system, but the other possible path would be to put bigger gaming functionality and a TV interface into a smartphone-in-a-box.

A first-party studio

One of the first big hints of Google’s gaming ambition came from Noah Falstein, an influential game designer who formerly worked for LucasArts, 3DO, and Dreamworks Interactive. In May of last year, Falstein spilled the beans on Google’s upcoming plans when he updated his LinkedIn profile to read “Chief Game Designer at Android Play Studio.”

Google appears to be starting up a game studio of its own, just like how Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft own gaming developers that produce exclusive flagship software for company gaming systems. First-party game developers can be a big boost to a gaming platform by leading by example and helping the platform owner realize the company’s vision. Google’s Android apps show the rest of the ecosystem how apps should be made, so it only makes sense that Google would want to do the same thing on the gaming side. Google’s studio could take advantage of the newest features of Android without having to worry about things like install base or profitability, focusing strictly on demonstrating the newest techniques to the rest of the ecosystem.

If Google does create a game studio, it would actually be its second in-house game developer. The company already owns NianticLabs, the makers of the location-based game Ingress. But that company doesn’t fulfill the traditional first-party developer role—NianticLabs seems to be focused on doing its own thing. “Android Play Studio” (Falstein probably meant “Google Play Studio”) sounds much more like a flagship first-party studio.

Gaming renovations

Google has been telling developers to prepare for an Android gaming growth spurt as well. The company publicly announced to developers that it would be tripling the number of gaming categories on the Play Store in February 2014.

At Google I/O 2013, Google announced a gaming service back-end called Google Play Games. The device closely mirrors Xbox Live or Apple’s Game Center, providing multiplayer matchmaking, achievements, cloud saves, and identity services to game developers. Android also supports game controllers over USB or Bluetooth. In fact, if you grab a USB On-The-Go cable, an Xbox 360 controller will work out of the box for many games.

Game console/set-top box

The Nexus Q, Google’s cancelled set-top…ball.

The Wall Street Journal, typically a publication that’s reliable when it comes to Google rumors, has reported that the company is going all out in the gaming space and wants to launch a home gaming console of its own. The console would most likely be similar to the Apple TV, basically a bunch of smartphone parts in a set-top box form factor. Android’s ability to adapt to different screen sizes means that Google could launch with an all-encompassing store right off the bat.

Google set-top box rumblings have been going on for a while. We first heard of the project when theJournal reported that Google was secretly showing off a prototype at CES 2013. The report described Hangouts video conferencing as a core feature. The device had a video camera and a motion sensor—presumably for Kinect-like controls—and could run Android apps. The paper originally pegged the device as being announced at Google I/O 2013, but it also said the device may have been scrapped in favor of the Chromecast. I/O 2013 came and went, and we never heard a peep about the box.

One of Google’s recent moves that could help with a Kinect-style interface is the acquisition of Flutter, a company that specialized in gesture recognition. While the Kinect recognizes gestures using $150 worth of cameras, infrared fields, and processors, Flutter could detect hand gestures using only a stock webcam. Of course, Flutter wasn’t nearly as robust as the Kinect, but it was surprisingly capable while using a minimal amount of hardware. A thumb gesture left or right would trigger “previous” or “next” commands, and a “hand up” gesture would do play and pause. That’s not nearly enough to control a television interface, but with a little more hardware, the Flutter team could probably come up with a way to navigate a UI.

We’ve also heard a report (subscription required) from the same Journal writers (now at The Information) claiming that a set-top-box called the “Nexus TV” is in the works—likely the same device as the game console. The Information stated the device is on track to launch in the first half of this year. While Google TV has hung around for a few years, Google has never taken the project seriously or put a ton of resources behind it. The Google TV folks never decided on a decent input device, and the software design is nowhere near the standard set by other Google interfaces—Google TV is one of the ugliest products Google makes. A “Nexus TV” would basically be a revamped, rebranded version of Google TV.

Google’s only successful living room product is the Chromecast, a $35 HDMI dongle that provides easy streaming from Chrome and a variety of Android apps. The problem with the Chromecast is that it is strictly a streaming stick—it can’t run Android apps, and it lacks the power to do any sort of client-side graphics rendering. If Google really wants to take over the living room, it will need something more powerful.

Chrome gaming

Epic Citadel running on Chrome. Yes, Chrome—the Web browser.

Android is not necessarily the quintessential gaming platform for Google. Google I/O 2013 featured a ton of gaming demos, and most of them were actually running on Chrome (often Chrome running on Android, but still). Thanks to HTML5 technologies like WebGL, browsers are now able to pump out some serious graphics using your device’s GPU. If you don’t believe that a browser can be a serious gaming platform, check out Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 running in a browser. Granted, this demo was made by Epic and Mozilla, but the demo and WebGL run just fine on Chrome. Google showed off a WebGL game at Google I/O, but it didn’t bring in the heavy-hitting game designers at Epic.

Google has quietly been building up Chrome’s gaming foundation: Google Play Games, the matchmaking multiplayer service, also runs on Chrome, and Chrome has full gamepad support. Most of Google’s efforts in the Chrome gaming space have demonstrated the ability to sync multiple devices together using websockets. One demo showed a simple racetrack that spanned multiple Android devices running Chrome. Several other demos have shown Chrome running on a mobile device synced to a desktop version of Chrome—the desktop acted as the main display and the mobile device acted as a game controller.

Our guess is that Chrome isn’t quite ready for prime time gaming yet, although an Android TV box would be the best of both worlds. It could run native gaming apps and run whatever Chrome-enabled gaming craziness Google comes up with.

Getting the developing world online

Internet users in 2012 as a percentage of a country’s population.

Google basically is the Internet—estimates put the company at 25 percent of North America’s Internet traffic. When you own that much, your biggest area of growth is people not on the Internet, which is still the majority of people in the world. Only a third of the world is online, and the bigger that number gets, the more people become Google customers.

The US, Canada, Europe, and Australia lead the world in Internet usage, and at the bottom is most of the developing world. In the map above, the places with the biggest growth potential are the entire continent of Africa, India, and—at 40 percent penetration but with a massive population—China.

Build out the data infrastructure

The first step in getting Internet access to the rest of the world is to build out the necessary data infrastructure in places where there is none. You’ve probably heard of Google Fiber, Google’s gigabit fiber optic service available in Kansas City, Kansas and Kansas City, Missouri. In those cities, Google is a full-on ISP, putting fiber on telephone poles, running fiber to every house, supplying hardware, and billing customers directly to use the Internet. The goal of Google Fiber isn’t to eventually wire every home in the US—Google hopes to use the power of competition to put pressure on existing ISPs to raise their network speeds.

A telephone pole in Kampala, Uganda.

Google is applying a similar strategy, called “Project Link,” in developing countries. Like Google Fiber, Google rolls into a town, lays down some glass, and significantly boosts the local Internet speed. Unlike Google Fiber, though, Google isn’t running fiber-to-the-home, achieving gigabit speeds, or acting as the end-to-end ISP. Project Link is just about bringing broadband to an area by installing a fiber optic backbone for a city, which other ISPs and mobile operators can then link up to. The first town to be wired up is Kampala, Uganda—a city in Africa with a population of 1.6 million. The biggest problem in Kampala and other cities is the sorry state of the local infrastructure, and Google hopes that after installing the trunk lines, the locals can take care of the last mile.

Project Link and Google Fiber are both attempts at the traditional, wired Internet connectivity model, but Google is also trying a crazy, less traditional method of Internet delivery that doesn’t involve running a wire to every building on Earth. Fiber and even copper backbone is very expensive, and it’s especially hard to justify in rural areas. This initiative is called Project Loon, a balloon-based mesh network that the company is experimenting with in New Zealand.

High-altitude balloons measuring 50 feet across are equipped with solar-powered data transceivers and deployed into the stratosphere. A base station sends a signal up to the balloons, and the balloons relay the requested bits down to the people below. The balloons are spaced about 30 miles apart, and a relay station is needed after two hops. It’s a middle ground between slow and expensive satellite Internet and ground-based cellular service.

While Project Loon’s communications hardware is powered by the sun, it navigates by the wind. The balloons are primarily controlled through their altitude, which determines which layer of the earth’s wind is carrying them around the globe. The balloons communicate to stationary antennas affixed to users’ homes and provide “3G like” data speeds.

In the US and other developed countries, the Internet comes over fiber, cable, and telephone lines, along with satellite and cellular data. In the developing world, there will be no “silver bullet” Internet access, either—it will be a mix of technologies. Airborne platforms have the potential to be very cheap compared to building towers or laying cable, provided Google can make it work.

Drive down the cost of smartphones

Google’s internal Android roadmap from 2010, revealed in the Oracle v. Google case.

Once you get decent Internet service in the developing world, you’re going to need a device that can actually go on the Internet. The cheapest Internet-enabled devices we can produce are smartphones. So with Google owning the largest, de facto smartphone OS, the company is in a good position to help the developing world get online.

At Google I/O 2013, immediately after announcing that Android hit 900 million users, Sundar Pichai, the head of Google’s Chrome and Android divisions, said, “We have to remember, there are over seven billion people on this planet, so we have a long way to go, and we think the journey is just getting started.” The crowd laughed, but Pichai was serious. If you really want to get all seven billion people on Earth using an Android smartphone, Android will need to work on some very low-end hardware.

 To-scale images of the Samsung Galaxy S4 (left) and a popular device in the developing, the Samsung Galaxy Pocket (right).

Samsung is the most popular smartphone OEM in Africa, where it sells devices like the Galaxy Pocket. The Pocket has a 2.8-inch 240×320 LCD, a 832Mhz ARM11 processor (the first Android phones had 528Mhz ARM11 processors), 512MB of RAM, 3GB of storage, and a 2MP camera. It runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread with Samsung’s TouchWiz skin. But the good news is the price: the Galaxy Pocket can be had for around $75 off-contract.

This is the kind of device KitKat was targeted at. Google can’t ship its newest services on something as old as Gingerbread, and phones this slow can’t handle the higher hardware requirements of newer versions, like Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean. KitKat was the first version of Android designed to deal with this problem. Google slimmed down the newest version of its mobile OS to run well on only 512MB of RAM, which just happens to match the slowest stuff out there in places like Africa.

Back when Google controlled Motorola, CEO Dennis Woodside suggested that the company was working on a $50 device, which would certainly be in line with Google’s desire to expand into the developing world. Those plans may be scrapped now, but at $75, Samsung was doing a good job as is. Since the two companies are so friendly now, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Google subsidize Samsung phones for the developing world. Consider that Google’s Nexus 5 is $350, and the similarly specced Samsung Galaxy S 4 is $550—if Google could bring that kind of price differential to the developing world, it could change things very quickly. Subsidizing a sub-$100 device would be worth it to Google, especially if these customers are completely new to the Internet. After the first device, many would be hooked for life.

Home automation

A more recent big Google initiative is the company’s dive into home automation. The biggest headline grabber was the acquisition of Nest, makers of a smart thermostat and smart smoke detector. Nest is one of the few companies in the “Internet of things” and “smart home” space actually delivering purchasable products, and that basically makes it an industry leader.

Google has been interested in home automation for a while now, starting with its 2011 announcement of Android@Home. The initiative was first demoed at Google I/O, with Google saying the company wanted to “make your whole house an Android accessory.” The company talked about the potential of a smart home and showed off smart LED light bulbs that were controlled by an Android app. Sadly, nothing ever became of Android@Home. It quietly missed its scheduled end-of-2011 ship date, and Google hasn’t publicly spoken about it since. Privately, there have been some developments: a year ago the Android search app contained code for an Android@Home Google Now card that could control a light bulb, and the Android 4.2.2 source code contained reference to an “Android@Home mesh network device.” Google was also caught making its own smart thermostat app, and Android Police scored screenshots for the new app, called “Google Energysense.” Other than the interesting Googley design aesthetic, it looked like a fairly basic thermostat control app.

Judging by Nest CEO Tony Fadell’s comments on his position within Google, it sounds like he’s running a new home automation division within Google. Whatever is left of both of these products would probably greatly benefit from Nest’s stewardship. It’s easy to get stuck dreaming up pie-in-the-sky smart home opportunities where everything talks to everything else, but it’s significantly harder to ship a single, working product that is useful to consumers. Nest has shown that it knows how to get a product out the door.

Healthcare

Google’s Smart Contact Lens.

Healthcare is one of the next big fields being revolutionized by technology, and naturally Google wants to be a part of that movement. Its most recent news in the medical field was the announcement of a “smart” contact lens for diabetics. The contact lens can monitor the wearer’s glucose level via their tears, saving the need to stab a finger and bleed into a glucose measuring machine. Google is also exploring integrating a tiny LED into the contact lens that could light up when glucose levels need tending to. One of the co-founders of the project, Babak Parviz, previously worked with Microsoft Research on a similar idea. He has even embedded copper circuits and LEDs in contact lenses in the past. Currently, Google is developing the project in-house and discussing approval options with the FDA.

Anti-aging research

One of Google’s biggest moonshots was announced in September of last year. Google shocked the Internet by announcing “Calico,” a company dedicated to “health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.” Basically, Google wants to solve the problem of aging. Since the announcement, Calico has been recruiting high-profile anti-aging researchers.

There is real science behind life extension—one of Calico’s new employees, Cynthia Kenyon, gave a TED talk describing how her team was able to double the lifespan of a worm. Life extension will be one of the next big fields in science—it would be incredibly lucrative, as everyone is aging and no one wants to die. Further, a lot of rich Silicon Valley executives are starting to get older and therefore have a very personal interest in making headway in this area. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is a perfect example: he has his own anti-aging company called “The Ellison Medical Foundation.”

Calico doesn’t seem too interested in making a name for itself, so we don’t expect much in the way of news. The company doesn’t even have a website.

Google Robots

In December 2013, it was revealed that Google was starting a robotics division headed by Andy Rubin, the founder and former head of Android. Rubin immediately went on a shopping spree, snapping up robotics companies Schaft Inc, Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka Robotics, Holomni, Bot & Dolly, and Boston Dynamics. While Boston Dynamics is the headline grabber—it was basically the US military’s robotics wing—Schaft Inc. is a big deal, too. Its namesake robot recently won the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a disaster response competition created in the wake of the Fukushima power plant failure.

In fact, if you use the DARPA Robotics Challenge as a barometer for the robotics industry, Google’s ownership of the robotics space borders on monopolistic. Through Schaft, Google handily won Track A, the main bring-your-own-robot competition, and Tracks B and C were software-only challenges using the Atlas robot, which is built by the Google-owned Boston Dynamics. There are only a handful of other high-profile players left in the robotics industry: iRobot, which makes some wheeled military robots and consumer robo-vacuums; Rethink Robotics, a company founded by an iRobot co-founder and the makers of the assembly-line bot Baxter; and the seemingly disinterested Honda Motor Company, the makers of ASIMO.

It’s not entirely clear what Google intends to do with its new robot wing. It’s expected that the company will somehow tackle the business sector first, which is much more likely to drop $10,000+ on expensive robot parts compared to the consumer market. The goal of the division isn’t to be a long-term research project—it hopes to get a product to market sooner rather than later.

Self-driving cars

 A Google self-driving car.

One robot initiative that very much is a long-term research project is Google’s self-driving car experiment. A self-driving car is really just a hulking, four-wheeled robot that is programmed to follow the rules of the road. Google hasn’t given us a status update on the project lately—the last we officially heard of the project was in August 2012, when Google said it drove 300,000 miles without the car causing an accident. Legal issues are going to be one of Google’s biggest hurdles, but the company has slowly been making progress: self-driving cars are now legal in Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan.

In August 2013, Amir Efrati—a journalist who has a great track record with Google rumors throughThe Wall Street Journalreported that Google was exploring commercializing these self-driving cars. Efrati reports that at first the company met with traditional car manufacturers about integrating this technology, but when those meetings didn’t go anywhere, it started talking to major auto-components companies about building its own vehicles. Most auto manufacturers are terrified of self-driving cars for both marketing and litigious reasons, so if Google really wants to create a consumer product, chances are good that the company will need to go it alone.

Besides selling the cars to individuals, Google has also considered the idea of a “Robo-Taxi”—imagine Uber (a Google Ventures investment) without the drivers. It’s illegal to not have a driver behind the wheel of a self-driving car, however, so it’s unclear how Google expects to ever operate a robo-taxi service. Either way, cost is a serious factor. The current autonomous driving gear adds $150,000 to the cost of a vehicle, but Google has been trying to drive the cost down by building its own components.

Project Ara

Motorola

Google is working on a smartphone with user-removable parts called “Project Ara.” The idea is a totally customizable phone, meaning even the internal parts can be removed by the user. Each part—like the SoC, camera, screen, and battery—lives in a detachable “module” and can we swapped out for more or less expensive components. The project was originally started at Motorola, which is slated to be sold to Lenovo. However, Motorola’s R&D department and Project Ara will be staying at Google. Completely customizing a phone would be interesting, but having every single part come in its own external case and click into a framework is going to take up a huge amount of space. Creating this without it being laughably huge will be a challenge. We’ll have to see what Google comes up with.

New Android features

We know a good deal about what the Android Team has been working on lately. 2014 should bring us two new versions of the Android OS, along with a ton of features that have been leaked one way or another. It’s hard to say how Google will choose to release some of these features, as it now has a ton of ways to push new code out to users: an OS update, an app update, and a Google Play Services update.

Android in your car

Cars are one of the next big mobile devices. The capabilities of infotainment systems have been steadily growing, and it will soon be time to give those systems a real OS running real apps instead of the proprietary, manufacturer-specific operating systems of today. Apple is planning an “iOS in the car” feature, and while the company hasn’t been forthcoming with details, what is public doesn’t appear to be a full, app-enabled iOS experience running on the car’s hardware. It looks more like a limited iOS-like experience that isn’t expandable with apps.

Google wants to take things a step further and embed an Android device in every vehicle. At CES 2014, Google announced the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA), a partnership with Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai, and Nvidia to bring the Android OS to every dashboard. While there is really no info other than the initial announcement, the OAA claims that the system will ship in cars in 2014. The FAQ on the OAA site mentions that developers will be able to “deliver a powerful experience for users,” which is marketing-speak for “there will be an app store.” It also mentions that there are two phases to the project: “enabling better integration between cars and Android devices” and “developing new Android platform features that will enable the car itself to become a connected Android device.” Of course, there are concerns about safety, with the OAA page stating that it’s working with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on guidelines for apps and usage of the infotainment system.

No one knows what the Android infotainment system will look like, but the OAA page does mention “a familiar and consistent experience” as one of the benefits. Based on that language, it shouldn’t stray too far from what we’re used to.

A new camera API

One of most exciting Android features in the works is a new camera API. Commit comments in the public Android source code describe the new camera API, meaning that we have Google-written descriptions of a future Android feature. The headline of the new API is camera RAW support, which saves a picture as a minimally compressed and processed file that can be “developed” later via image editing software. RAW is sort of like a “digital negative” in that the photographer can capture as much data as possible and make decisions about exposure and white balance after the fact. Other fun features on the way include burst mode, better face detection capabilities, and support for removable cameras.

The improvement everyone is really hoping for is better image quality. It seems like Google is doing a group-up rewrite of the camera stack, so hopefully improved photos will be the end result. Google does seem to care about image quality. Vic Gundotra, the head of Google+, boasted in February 2013 that Google was “committed to making Nexus phones insanely great cameras. Just you wait and see.” The commits made it sound like the new API was due in KitKat, but those ended up being pulled, presumably because the API wasn’t ready in time for release. The Nexus 5 camera ended up not being great, so perhaps Gundotra was impressed with the work being done on the new camera API instead.

Google Home on more devices

Despite being a headline feature of KitKat, Google’s search-based home screen is currently only on the Nexus 5. It has some nice features, like a new design featuring a cleaner layout and more transparency, an “OK Google” voice search hotword, and Google Now integration. According to The Verge, the launcher is exclusive to the Nexus 5, though the report said, “The company may change its mind and offer it for the Nexus 4 and perhaps even put it on the Play Store someday.” Changes made to Google Home’s code would suggest that Google is moving in that direction since the company has been hard at work fixing bugs for devices other than the Nexus 5. Google has fixed several alignment and keyboard issues on the Nexus 7 and added a dynamic grid that automatically scales for different screen sizes.

Releasing the search-centric home screen for other devices seems like a no-brainer for Google. Users like it, and Google likes it when users perform searches. We aren’t really sure what the holdup is.

A speedier Android runtime

Android’s architecture and Google’s future plans for it.

One of the more interesting changes in KitKat is a developer setting to switch the virtual machine runtime from Dalvik to ART. In English, that means basically ripping out the aging engine which runs all Android apps and replacing it with a souped-up new engine designed to take advantage of modern smartphones. Dalvik is the virtual machine that runs all of Android’s apps—when you see Android apps running on other platforms like the Blackberry OS or on Linux, those platforms are implementing Dalvik.

Android and the hardware it runs on has constantly changed over the years, but the one thing that has stayed the same—because changing it is such a huge project—is Dalvik. Dalvik was originally designed (PDF) not for speed, smoothness, or power, but to save space. Android devices at the time had very limited storage and memory, and Google’s primary concern at the time was fitting everything into a small footprint. Today, Android runs on much different hardware with tons of power and storage, and Android could see a big performance and battery improvement with a more modern runtime. That new runtime is called “ART,” short for “Android RunTime,” and it’s a newer, speedier replacement for Dalvik.

ART is present in KitKat and can be enabled in the developer settings, but it’s still experimental. Coming up with a Dalvik replacement has been a two-year effort by Google, and the work still isn’t done yet. Early benchmarks show minor improvements, but we’ll have to wait for the finished product to properly judge ART.

A fitness API

Fitness tracking is all the rage, usually involving clipping a device with an accelerometer—like a Fitbit—to your person. Smartphones have accelerometers too, but keeping them powered on all day would suck up a little too much power. To take over the Fitbit use-case, KitKat added support for two new low-power fitness sensors: a step detector and a step counter. This is new hardware that is included in the Nexus 5 (and could be packed into other smartphones). Along with KitKat, it allows your phone to collect all the data a Fitbit would.

To share this data with multiple apps, Google is working on a fitness API, which would upload your fitness data to the cloud and allow you to share it with more than one app. Besides tracking data from a phone, it could be integrated into a smartwatch and take over the duties of a Fitbit Flex

A Chrome remote desktop app for Android (and iOS)

Google makes a fully featured remote desktop application for Chrome in the form of an extension.After installing the extension on all your computers and registering everything with your Google account, it’s possible to access any computer running Chrome from any other computer running Chrome. The only problem is that since mobile devices don’t run Chrome extensions, they are left out of the party.

Google is working on rectifying that. The company has been openly developing an Android client for Chrome remote desktop, and a few days ago there was word that an iOS app was even in the works. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see it sometime this year.

YouTube: Background audio and a subscription music service

YouTube contains just about every single piece of music ever made. It’s great resource for streaming a song you want to listen to right now, but on Android, that means staring at the YouTube player. The second you leave the YouTube app, the video playback stops, even if all you wanted was to hear the music. Hidden in a YouTube update was some inactivate code that described a background music playback feature. Clearly, Google is working on making YouTube a little more music-friendly.

A few months ago, Billboard reported that Google was close to launching a YouTube music subscription service. The service was described as basically a rebranding of Google Play Music All Access. The report described the free tier of the service as “unlimited, on-demand access to full tracks on all platforms, including mobile” and that the paid tier would add offline listening and ad removal. Play Music All Access is currently subscription-only, so an ad-supported free tier would certainly net Google more eyeballs than the company currently has.

It’s not clear why Google would have two music services. Google Play has always been the “content” arm of Google, and moving a music subscription service to YouTube would certainly muddy things. YouTube is a huge brand, though, and it would get more people to consider Google’s music service. However, the entire YouTube interface would need to be changed, as the current app isn’t really cut out for browsing songs or albums.

Google Voice integration with Google Hangouts

When Google Hangouts was just rumored as a project with the codename “Babel,” Google had fourAndroid texting clients: Messaging (the stock SMS client), Google+ Messenger, Google Talk (the stock IM client), and Google Voice (SMS over the Internet using a virtual number). Google shut down Google+ Messenger, and Hangouts replaced Google Talk. Hangouts eventually gained SMS capabilities, killing Messaging. Now we’re down from four texting clients to two: Hangouts and Google Voice. Google Voice gives you a Google-issued phone number and allows you to send and receive texts the same way you do e-mails: read or respond from any of your devices or from a website. But Google has promised that the all-encompassing Hangouts will eventually take over Google Voice duties, too; it’s just a matter of time.

Google Maps lane guidance

Lane guidance on a TomTom GPS unit

One of the few features a standalone GPS has over Google Maps is the ability to offer lane guidance. Something like a TomTom will tell you that the road you are on has three lanes, and you need to get into the right lane to make your exit.

Almost a year ago, Google Maps had hidden text to report problems with a lane guidance feature. It mentioned that Maps would show the numbers of lanes and turning arrows for each lane, and it would recommend which lane the driver should be in. Google collects enough road data to make this work—if you’ve ever added a road in Google Map Maker, you’ll be asked for number of lanes, along with a thousand other road attributes. While it has certainly been a while since we’ve heard any movement on this, it’s just a feature that makes sense for Google Maps.

Wearable computing

The Wimm One smartwatch. Google acquired Wimm about 2 years ago.

Smartwatches are another big smartphone expansion area, and they’re one of the first wearable computers that sort of make sense. The first major companies out of the gate were Samsung, Sony, and the Kickstarted Pebble smartwatch. No device has really been able to deliver on the promise of creating a useful wrist computer that doesn’t look ridiculous, although Pebble probably came the closest with the Pebble Steel.

Google has slowly been working its way toward a smartwatch. The rumors (and common sense) claim it will be powered by Android, and KitKat’s lighter system requirements should help all wearable computers run a little more smoothly. According to reports from The Wall Street Journal, the watch will be heavily integrated with Google Now and will be able to “answer questions”—which presumably means it will be voice activated. It all sounds a lot like a wrist-mounted version of Google Glass.

The killer feature for smartwatches will be enabling users to effortlessly deal with incoming notifications, something no watch has yet to deliver on. In Android 4.3, Google added a new notification API that allows apps (and presumably other devices) to read, dismiss, or take action on a notification. For some mysterious reason, no company has taken advantage of this feature on a watch yet, probably due to the low profile of the API. If anyone knows the ins and outs of Android, though, it’s Google. Imagine being able to archive a Gmail message right from your watch.

According to the Journal, Google is looking to tackle the biggest problems with smartwatches to date: usefulness and battery life. While there are no details on how Google plans to tackle the battery problems, Google Now cards and actionable notifications will seriously help in the usefulness department.

To bolster its smartwatch initiative, Google purchased smartwatch maker Wimm during the summer of 2012. Wimm was one of the first smartwatch makers, releasing an Android 2.1-based watch all the way back in 2011. Wimm’s software was particularly impressive—at a time when Android didn’t even support tablets, Wimm had a custom set of APIs for super-small screens and a working app store. Google saw the company’s hardware and software prowess and snapped it up, and now the Wimm team is working on Android from the inside.

A consumer release of Google Glass

While Google released a very minor revision of Glass in late 2013 that added an earbud and compatibility with prescription frames, we’re still waiting for a true update of the futuristic device. Sergey Brin stated that Google hopes to get a consumer release out sometime in 2014, but beyond that, there isn’t much we know about the new version.

Comments from Googlers suggest that the second version of Glass will slim down the physical size a bit. When demoing the original version to The New York Times, Babak Parviz, the former head of Project Glass said, “This is the bulkiest version of Glass we’ll ever make.” A slimmer version would hopefully cut down on the awkward, lopsided design of Glass while also making it a little less dorky looking.

The current Glass unit has similar specs to the Galaxy Nexus, with a 1Ghz dual-core TI OMAP 4430 and 1GB of RAM. While a speed boost would be nice on the new version, the Texas Instruments OMAP processor has to be replaced, as TI quit the mobile processor business and no longer provides support for its SoCs. The Galaxy Nexus doesn’t even run KitKat because of the lack of support from TI. Presumably, Google would also want a new version of Glass to run on the faster, slimmer KitKat, but the current Glass software only runs Android 4.0.4, Ice Cream Sandwich. That puts Glass four versions behind the latest Android devices and means the device is missing a ton of performance improvements.

On the Glass ecosystem side, Google finally launched the Native Glass SDK around two months ago, which enables developers to write more powerful, native Glass apps. Before a consumer launch happens, Google will need to have some kind of Glass app store to house these applications. Right now, Google lists third-party Glass apps at the bottom of the MyGlass settings, which isn’t a scalable solution. Integrating with the Google Play Store is a possibility, and it would save a lot of work since most of the difficult app store features—like accounts, payments, cloud installs, in-app-purchases, and device compatibility—have already been built by the Android team.

Chrome

 

Google has been slowly working on integrating Google Now into Chrome. We’ve seen an early look at Google’s predictive cards in nightly builds of Chrome, and the feature has started to show up in the Chrome OS dev channel. The current design puts the cards in Chrome’s notification panel, but they are pretty hard to notice. Google surely has a few bugs to work out, but as it gets more stable, Google Now will slowly move to the dev, beta, and stable channels.

Google has frequently described Google Now as “the future of search”—it’s basically predictive search—so the company needs to eventually find a way to put it on Google.com, too.

A Chrome OS tablet

Buried in the settings of Chrome OS is an option to turn on a virtual keyboard. The Chrome team has been hard at work on this feature, issuing updates for it as recently as a few days ago. Why does Chrome have an onscreen keyboard? It makes no sense for any of Chrome OS’ current form factors, which consist of laptops, headless desktop boxes, and all-in-one desktops. There are a few Chrome OS laptops with touchscreens, but they also have keyboards. The only device that needs a virtual keyboard and would conceivably work with Chrome OS is a tablet.

Chrome OS’ virtual keyboard.

Why make Chrome OS tablets when you already have Android tablets? The current plan is that Android runs on phones and tablets, and Chrome OS runs on laptops and desktops, sort of like Apple’s iOS/Mac OS X division. A Chrome OS tablet device would muddy this delineation a bit, but we might have an explanation. Android does not work very well on 10-inch devices—most apps can stand being stretched to a portrait 7-inch screen, but the user experience starts to fall apart on a horizontal 10-inch screen. Google seems to agree with this, as it isn’t in any kind of a hurry to refresh the 14-month-old Nexus 10. Perhaps the new plan is to stop Android at the 7-8 inch size and sell Chrome OS on devices 10 inches and up.

A floating retail space

An artist’s rendering of the finished barge.
SFGate

The Google Barge! Google has been experimenting with turning a bunch of shipping containers on a boat into a four-story floating retail space. No one is quite sure what Google will sell on its sea-going store—Google has only described it as “an interactive space where people can learn about new technology”—but most rumors claim that it will be a Google Glass exhibition. Google is actually building four of these things, and when finished, the big, square buildings will be covered in a dozen sails and will go from port to port showing off Googley wares. According to San Francisco regulators, Google’s fleet of ships is expected to be up and running in late spring 2014.

Behold the massive size of Google, Inc.

Google has been growing at a breakneck pace lately and looks to continue that growth going into 2014. If you aren’t getting a creepy megacorporation vibe from all of this yet, we haven’t even mentioned Google’s pushes into schools, government, and the workplace with Google Docs and Chromebooks or the special Play Store for education. We haven’t touched on any of Google’s data center work or its innumerable investments in power either.

Hopefully this list is not just an eye-opener about Google’s ambitions. Our goal was to shed some light on just how all-encompassing the computer revolution has become. Cars, homes, watches, televisions, phones, transportation, video, music, and medicine are all being disrupted by the computer, and it will eventually all culminate in a walking, talking computer (also known as a robot). Google wants to be at the forefront of all of these new markets, and it has the cash, engineers, and ambition to tackle nearly any technological problem it wants. 2014 promises to be another year full of acquisitions, announcements, and product launches for the company. Who knows how many more areas Google will tackle before 2015.

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One response to “The 2014 Google tracker—Everything we know Google is working on this year

  1. Mobile Apps Debelopment Company

    February 12, 2014 at 1:40 am

    This post is a collection of all the hints, announcements, and acquisitions we’ve heard from Google lately. Mobile Apps for Business”>

     

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