Google spells out ambitious plan: Android world domination

The message to developers at Google's I/O fest this year was crystal clear: Android software will power everything from phones and cars to TVs and beyond.

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Sundar Pichai, Google's head of Android, Chrome and apps James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Android was the star of the show at Google's developer fest on Wednesday, with executives pitching the mobile operating software as the driving force behind everything from connected TVs and cars to new wearable devices.

"Our goal is to reach the next 5 billion people in the world," said Sundar Pichai, Google's Android chief and master of ceremonies for a two-and-half-hour presentation that played to more than 6,000 developers at Google I/O here.

Android is already the most popular mobile operating system in the world, thanks to adoption by companies like smartphone leader Samsung. Google's OS has more than 1 billion active users, Pichai said today, and runs on almost 80 percent of the world's smartphones. In comparison, Apple's iOS, which drives the iPhone and iPad, accounts for more than 17 percent.

Google needs even more if it's going to convince consumers and developers that Android deserves to be injected into every facet of everyday life. Because the software is an open platform, other brands, like Samsung, have modified it to fit their needs, leaving users to navigate the multiple iterations of Android running on hardware from Google's many partners. That's a point that rival Apple likes to drive home, calling Android fragmented.

"The overriding theme of the I/O keynote was Google reasserting control over Android," said Jan Dawson, founder of Jackdaw Research.

Google came into this year's I/O as diversified as it's ever been. While Apple, which held a similar developer conference earlier this month at the same location, focuses its efforts on a small number of categories -- PCs, mobile devices, and a few media services -- Google has a wider palette, inhabiting everything from desktop computers to smartphones and tablets, to smartwatches and appliance displays. That reach gives the search giant a way to collect the valuable user data the company -- and advertisers -- covet. That includes more intimate user data beyond the location and apps usage information it gleans from smartphones and tablets today.

While Android was at center stage, Google's famous co-founders -- CEO Larry Page and Sergey Brin -- kept out of the spotlight, watching Pichai's presentation from the front row. "Since the keynote was focused on our major platforms -- Android and Chrome -- which are both under Sundar, it made sense for Sundar and his teams to present," a Google spokesperson said.

Also missing was any mention of Google Glass, one of the more notable big-idea projects that Page has focused the company on since he retook the CEO job in 2011. Glass, Project Loon, which aims to extend Internet access to remote regions of the world via a fleet of solar-powered high-altitude Wi-Fi balloons, and Tango, a plan to accelerate 3D mapping and machine vision on mobile devices, are dubbed moon shots. They represent Google's attempt to make technical advances in leaps, instead of incrementally.

None of those projects got mentions during the keynote.

From 'L' to cars

Google kicked things off on Wednesday differently than it has in the past, introducing a new version of Android, for now nicknamed "L." (The company names its Android updates alphabetically after different types of sweets, like Ice Cream Sandwich or KitKat.) Google usually unveils the software update in the fall, but Pichai said the company shook up the schedule to better fit manufacturers' needs.

To make the operating system more malleable, Google unveiled Material Design, a programming language meant to give all devices running Android a similar look and feel. "Users will already know the way around your app, no matter what system you're on," said Matias Duarte, a vice president of Android design.

Getting Android to ubiquity also means making improvements on the back end. The company touted improvements to the operating system's performance speed, along with better graphics and longer battery life.

To do that, Google turned its firepower on wearable devices, highlighting smartwatches from LG, Motorola, and Samsung. Google in March unveiled Android Wear, a modified version of its Android mobile operating system, tailored specifically for wearables. The software lets users order food, play music, takes notes or set an alarm through Google's voice recognition technology. The platform also has integrations with apps like the ride-sharing service Lyft, or the social network Pinterest.

Google also made a strong push to get its operating system into people's living rooms with the introduction of Android TV. The set-top box has features that allow people to search for videos using voice controls and lets users look up information on actors and movies.

Leveraging Android means the company can bring users an interface they are already familiar with. "This isn't a new platform," said Dave Burke, director of Android engineering. "That isn't the point." The company's past attempts, such as Google TV -- which launched in 2010 and came with a separate software package -- failed to win over consumers.

To lock in users even when they are mid-commute, Google introduced Android Auto, an in-car system that beams data and content from an Android phone to a screen on a dashboard. It's the latest effort to come out of the Open Automotive Alliance, a partnership with automakers including General Motors and Honda, and chipmaker Nvidia, to bring Android software into cars.

With Android's rise, Pichai's rise

Pichai has been at Google since 2004. As the man who shepherded the Chrome browser and operating system from concept to their current, more refined iterations, Pichai has a record of defying skeptics and building projects from the ground up. In March 2013, he was named Android's chief, with oversight of Chrome and apps as well. "I know Sundar will do a tremendous job doubling down on Android as we work to push the ecosystem forward," Page said at the time.

The task now before Pichai is to convince developers that they should join Google on its mission to dominate the device and online worlds with Android. Not everyone is on board. The keynote was interrupted by two protestors unhappy with Google's might and influence, with one shouting, "You need to develop a conscience, Google."

To help spur enthusiasm, Google did what it does every year at I/O: give developers free gadgets to take home and play with. This year's giveaways included smartwatches and a kit called Cardboard, a quirky do-it-yourself virtual reality headset.

"We look forward to building more amazing experiences with you," Pichai said.

 

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