At Google I/O, Sundar Pichai to talk Assistant, Android Q amid scandals

The annual developers conference comes amid the most tumultuous time in Google’s history. Now its CEO has the chance to speak up.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read

Google CEO Sundar Pichai typically kicks off I/O with a keynote address.

James Martin/CNET

Google will host thousands of developers in its hometown of Mountain View, California, for I/O, its biggest event of the year. The annual conference, which kicks off later today, is Google's opportunity to tout its newest creations for its Android operating system, Assistant software and other popular services.

But this year there's even more at stake. It's a chance for CEO Sundar Pichai to address the world, on his home turf, amid what's been the most tumultuous time in the search giant's 20-year history.

Since last year's gathering, Google's biggest issues have spilled into public view. The company's workers have protested against Google's military contracts, its work in China and its treatment of temporary and contract workers. Pichai has also been dragged in front of Congress to defend Google against accusations of political bias.

The event comes just days after thousands of employees staged a sit-in at several Google offices to express discontent over alleged company retaliation for a prior protest. Two longtime employees said management had been unfairly targeting them because of their roles in organizing last year's historic Google walkout, which saw more than 20,000 of the company's employees march out of their offices. That protest was aimed at Google's handling of sexual harassment allegations directed at executives.

Google has also faced criticism over YouTube's inability to police the content on its sprawling platform. The video service, a Google subsidiary, has been accused of prioritizing growth over the safety of its users. The blowback crescendoed after a shooter livestreamed himself gunning down worshippers at two New Zealand mosques last month. YouTube wasn't able to contain the video's spread on its platform, and it was uploaded tens of thousands of times.

On Tuesday, Pichai will take the spotlight for his most high-profile address of the year. It's akin to Google's State of the Union, and TV cameras and press will be on hand to hear what he has to say.

Watch this: Our wishlist for Google I/O 2019

Though he may nod toward some of Google's current controversies, he's likely to try to keep the focus on lighter fare: new features and products. In years past, Google has unveiled Glass, its ultimately doomed smart eyewear; Google Cardboard, a do-it-yourself headset that became the launching point for the company's virtual reality efforts; and the Google Assistant, its digital-helper software akin to Amazon's Alexa. Last year, Google simultaneously wowed and creeped out the world with the first demo of Duplex, artificial intelligence software that sounds jaw-droppingly human.

CNET will be on hand to cover Pichai's keynote address and bring you live updates from the conference. Here's what we may see at I/O.

When and where is it?

Google's annual developer festival kicks off May 7 and runs through May 9. It's being held in the search giant's backyard at the Shoreline Amphitheater. The giant concert venue is so close to Google's global headquarters in Mountain View, California, you can see it from CEO Sundar Pichai's office.

How do I watch it?

The event's main keynote, which Pichai typically headlines, will start at 10 a.m. on May 7. It's usually livestreamed on YouTube and you can catch it on CNET as well. We'll also have our own live coverage and a team on the ground to bring you real-time updates.


Google holds its I/O conference at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, CA.

James Martin/CNET

Android Q

Over the last few years, Google has released its newest flavor of Android to software developers in March. But the company often reserves a portion of stage time for its mobile operating system. This year's Android Q will support foldable screens, faster app launches and privacy updates, such as more restrictions on location sharing.

The question with Android updates, of course, is how Google will get them to more of its smartphones (many still run on older versions). Hopefully, Google has a better answer. 

Google Assistant

Google typically uses I/O to introduce new features for the Assistant. Last year, that included new Assistant voices (including John Legend's), a feature that requires kids to say "please" when bossing the Assistant around and the ability to ask two questions at one time.

But what really stole the show was Duplex, artificial intelligence technology that speaks like a human. It draws out some words and pauses after other words, like normal people do. It says "uh" and "um" and has other verbal tics. The idea is to let the software make calls on your behalf to set up appointments, like restaurant reservations. From the moment it was announced, the product drew controversy over its ability to deceive people who might not know they could be talking to a robot. Google later said they'd build those disclosures into the product.

This year, it's reasonable to expect more updates to the Assistant as Google tries to push the service to more people and devices. The company is in a race with Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri to be the dominant digital helper in your life. 

Augmented and virtual reality

Three years ago, Google introduced its Daydream virtual reality platform at I/O. It lets people turn their phones into VR machines by putting them into special headsets. Recently, Google has been quiet about its Daydream and VR efforts.

But the company has made noise around augmented reality -- overlaying digital images on top of what you'd normally see in the real world. For example, Google introduced a technology called Lens at I/O two years ago. It's a tool that lets you search for information on stuff through your phone's camera. For example, you could see digital directional arrows on your phone's screen when you're in Google Maps' navigation mode. Or you could see review information about a restaurant when you point your camera at a store front.

Any news would come on the heels of last week's Facebook F8 conference, which saw the launch of the low cost Oculus Quest, which editor Scott Stein called the best thing he's tried on this year. 

It wouldn't be a surprise if Google offered more insight into its vision for AR or VR. 


Google Lens lets you search for stuff with your phone's camera.

Josh Miller/CNET

Nest Hub Max

Last month, Google appeared to accidentally leak its own product: The company's store website made mention of the Nest Home Hub , with a "10-inch HD screen and stereo speakers." The device will also reportedly have a built-in Nest Cam .

In the past few years, Google has typically reserved many of its hardware announces for its annual "Made by Google" event. (That would also include Nest, which Google absorbed last year.) But a big hardware reveal at I/O wouldn't be out of the ordinary. The company unveiled the original Google Home smart speaker at the conference three years ago.

Pixel 3A

Rumors have swirled about a midrange version of Google's flagship phone, reportedly called the Pixel 3A. In another apparent Google online store slipup, the company touted a "Pixel 3A -- NEW" in the phones section of the website, before scrubbing away the mention.

To feed the speculation even more: Earlier this week, the Google store website teased "something big coming to the Pixel universe" on May 7, the same day as the Google I/O keynote.

Google Stadia

Last month, Google took the wraps off of Stadia, a new cloud-based gaming platform. The idea is to stream video games directly from Google's data centers, instead of a console. The platform also has tie-ins to YouTube and will let people share playable snippets of games by sending links.

There are still several unknowns. We don't know yet if Stadia will have a subscription model or how much it might cost. We also don't know much about what kind of gaming catalog it will have. When the search giant announced Stadia at the Game Developers Conference in March, the company said it would give more details "in the summer," presumably at the E3 gaming conference in Los Angeles. But it's possible Google could tease us with more about Stadia at I/O, too.

Originally published on April 22.

Updated on May 7 at 5:16 a.m. PT: To include additional background.