Google's annual I/O conference kicks off tomorrow amid widespread speculation that a new version of the Android OS will be announced, perhaps one that marries it with Google's Chrome OS.
Google and other companies such as LG are also expected to talk up smartwatches based on the Google Wear OS, which was introduced in March.
The opening keynote begins at 9 a.m. PT (12 p.m. ET) in San Francisco with a live video stream online and Google has packed in a variety of breakout sessions into the two-day event. Many of those sessions, built around the conference theme of "design, develop and distribute" will also be live-streamed.
That overall theme indicates a strong focus on cross-platform functionality, although the conference agenda also promises discussion of plenty of cutting-edge technologies.
Five Google designers are part of a panel at 2 p.m. PT Wednesday on "Cross-platform design," with another panel on "Cross-platform interaction design" at 10 a.m. PT Thursday. Both will be live streamed. Various reports quoting unnamed sources have described a Quantum Paper design framework that works across a variety of smartphones, tablets, Chrome devices, browsers and even Google apps.
One of the more unusual live-streamed sessions is set for Thursday at 9 am. PT, when Google engineers will talk about several initiatives, including Project Tango, to build smartphones and tablets that incorporate 3D motion and depth-sensing capabilities.
According to the program notes for the session, Google plans to launch an Android smartphone-like device into space this summer to construct a 3D map of the International Space Station to "enable autonomous navigation of a floating robotic platform'' that will turn into a robotic assistant for astronauts. Tango will also help enable augmented reality technologies in mobile devices on earth.
Google announced its work with NASA on the Tango technology in April.
An Android update likely
As for Android, the timing is right for an update. Android 4.4, KitKat, was launched last October and many analysts expect an Android 5.0 release (to be called Lollipop, or possibly Licorice). Various other flavors have been announced in the Android line in the past, with between five and eight months between them.
Other reports, however, indicate Google will launch Android 4.5, not 5.0.
The timing is also right for some kind of Chrome-Android integration.
In early 2013, Google put its Chrome division head, Sundar Pichai, in charge of both Chrome and Android. And Pichai said in May that Google would continue to embrace both OSes separately, while adding: "The picture may look different a year or two from now...." As this year's Google I/O gets under way, those comments will be 14 months old.
On the other hand, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in March 2013 that the two OSes would remain separate "for a very, very long time."
One way that Android and Chrome could move closer together would be through the use of HTML5 in building Web-based apps to run on both platforms.
In one example of how Android could be improved, CiteWorld's Chris Nerney noted in April that Google's voice-activated digital assistant Google Now doesn't yet function inside of an app (although it can be used to find those apps on a mobile device). Allowing that capability would be a valuable update for the next version of Android.
Analysts, asked what they expect to see at I/O, said they believe the upcoming version of Android will add support for smartwatches or other Android Wear devices, primarily by linking Android smartphones and their related apps to Android Wear smartwatches -- probably through Bluetooth.
Several analysts said that Google is likely to reveal health-related app connections to Android, much as Samsung and Apple have done recently.
In addition, Google needs to add a unified way to control in-home devices so it can take advantage of its recent purchases of Nest and Dropcam, said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Google needs to say specifically how the new Android will deal with this" home monitoring and control area, he said.
Smartwatches at Google I/O
Speculation has also focused on whether Google will announce its own Google Wear smartwatch at I/O. More likely: LG will show its LG G Watch on the OS, with possibly Motorola highlighting the Moto 360 running on Google Wear.
Moorhead said devices from Fossil and HTC will be shown, too. "Wear needs to show something above the crop of failures like the Samsung Gear if it expects to be successful," Moorhead said via email.
Moorhead wrote in Forbes recently that he has evaluated 11 different smartwatches or smart wristbands and has found most wanting when it comes to delivering a broad range of "horizontal" functions. He declared them a "long way off from mass consumer acceptance."
Security wishes for Android and Google
Of five analysts interviewed, four said Google needs to describe ways it will make Android more secure, especially for enterprise use.
Samsung has already built its own set of tools, called Knox, for use with Android. It's aimed at helping IT managers cope with employees who bring in personal devices for work. So why hasn't Google taken up security issues more directly?
"Security has been a serious problem for Android and this needs to be addressed before Android is more aggressively banned by companies," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at Enderle Group. "Original Equipment Manufacturers feel that Google just ignores them and has that attitude since the OEMs are getting the code for free and should just shut up or constrain their feedback to 'thank-you.'
"Google's disregard for OEMs is legendary," Enderle said, adding that OEMs don't want to go public with their worries because they don't want to get into a fight with Google over security.
"We'll have to keep our fingers crossed that Google makes a greater focus on enterprise-grade features," added Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. "Android is the biggest platform and has a big target on its back. There are tons of Android smartphones brought to jobs with BYOD, but a lot of enterprise groups are saying, 'Thanks, but no thanks' to Android and even with some Android apps.
"Google needs more smart security and enterprise support at the back end and greater communication with businesses," Llamas said.
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, said that Google's May purchase of Divide, an enterprise software maker focused on BYOD, could lead to an announcement at I/O about enterprise support.
"Divide ultimately needs to be embedded into Android," Gold said. "Nevertheless, Google needs to make a strong statement that enterprise capabilities will be in the next release of Android and this would dramatically affect enterprise adoption of Android, which is limited now due to security concerns."
Google has declined to talk about what announcements will be made at I/O.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is email@example.com.
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This story, "Google I/O looks to be about more than Android" was originally published by Computerworld.