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With Android Things, Google's smart displays are more ambitious than they seem

Because they were built from the ground up with Android Things, Google's upcoming displays could lead to much more than an Echo Show competitor.

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The first prototype for Google's smart displays.

Andrew Gebhart/CNET

Starting with a picture of a display stuck to a block of legos, Robert Ginda, Google's engineering lead of Android Things, clicked through slide after slide showing the different stages of development of Google's upcoming smart displays.

Ginda beamed like a proud parent going through vacation photos of the kids, and I understand why. Roughly a year ago, this was a simple project he was working on with a small team. Now, he was talking in front of a room full of developers at the company's I/O Developer Conference about its successful development. Google's smart displays are primed to hit the market in July.

First announced at CES in January, Google's upcoming smart displays will combine the voice control functions of a smart speaker like a Google Home with a touchscreen capable of playing games and watching videos. Google has a handful of models that will hit the market at the same time from LG, Lenovo and JBL, and all will compete with the similar Amazon Echo Show.

Google has a history of chasing Amazon in smart home hardware. Google Home followed after the popular Amazon Echo. The Google Home Mini was meant to compete with the Amazon Echo Dot.

Unlike its smart speakers, Google isn't putting its own name on these new smart displays. That allows Google to compete with Amazon in a relatively new field of hardware without risking the reputation of its brand. More importantly, the smart displays serve as a perfect proof of concept to show developers what's possible.

They were made with simple open software called Android Things, a simplified version of the Android operating system announced in 2015, that Google says gives developers the tools they need to replicate smart displays and to design new Google-based products with their own hardware ideas.

Smart displays, then, aren't just a means to catch up to the Echo Show, they're a rallying cry for Google's community of developers. They're meant to pave the way for Google to find the next big product in the minds of its community and leverage its dedicated base of designers, ideally to take the lead on the hardware front with a whole ecosystem of devices to compete with Amazon and anyone else.

What is Android Things?

Over the course of the past day, I've lost a few rounds of rock-paper-scissors to a robot hand and smiled at a plastic flower so that its emotion sensing camera would trigger its petals to change colors. Neither product is likely to make it to market, but both are on display at the Google I/O Developer Conference. They're more concepty than the smart displays -- simply there to show what developers can do with Android Things.

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Google's talked about Android Things for a couple of years now, but it just officially launched on Monday. Android Things is a trimmed down version of the company's famous Android operating system. Unlike the standard version of Android, Android Things isn't meant to handle all of the complex functions necessary to run a smartphone.

Instead, it's Android tailored to smart home devices and the ambiguous category of tech encompassing the smart home called the Internet of Things. It's meant to provide a software framework for simple tasks without using a lot of power. You can buy starter kits on the developer side of Android's website. They include basic processors and structural pieces, so if you have an idea for a product, you don't have to do as much work to build a quick prototype.

In addition to starter kits with basic processors, Android Things primarily refers to operating software that allows devices to connect to the internet. It includes access to Google Assistant -- the company's voice controlled digital assistant best known as the voice of modern Android phones and Google Home smart speakers.

Ginda presented alongside Shikha Kapoor, the product lead for Android Things, in a session called "Build real consumer devices with Android Things." Ginda would talk about a stage in the development of smart displays and Kapoor would follow with how developers could do that step on their own to make their own project.

With a little technical know how, developers can make their own Google powered smart speaker or smart display. That's not the goal, of course. Google has those device categories covered. It wants developers to use the building blocks of Android Things to create something new.

When they do, Google will offer support. Android Things also comes with regular security updates pushed out by Google. At a later presentation, Chris Ramsdale, the lead product manager for Google Assistant, revealed that Google's in discussions with large manufacturers to produce stand out third party devices at scale.

Google will obviously want to keep those products secure, and it's a boon to small manufacturers to not have to carry the entire burden of security themselves. Plus, Google gets to keep these theoretical upcoming devices unified to an extent on the software front.

The ultimate proof of concept

Smart displays show that the end devices built with Android Things don't necessarily have to be simple robots that play rock-paper-scissors. Ginda went through all the steps smart displays took from a simple concept, to discussions with manufacturers, to the nearly finished state they're in now.

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Google's smart displays from prototypes to finished products.

Andrew Gebhart/CNET

When I first saw the displays in action at CES, I was disappointed to find out that their touchscreens don't feature all of the functions of a tablet. Google justified the decision by claiming they optimized the devices for what it calls a medium distance user experience. If you ask for cooking directions, you'll want to see them on the screen from the other side of the kitchen counter.

Google also wants its smart displays to work out-of-the-box without customers needing to worry about downloading apps. That's too bad. I like downloading apps to customize my experience. We had similar gripes about the limited capabilities of the Amazon Echo Show.

With Google's first foray into smart displays, maxing out its capabilities wasn't the point. They were built from the ground up with Android Things to show developers what's possible.

Google's new displays may not be revolutionary by themselves. Consumers will get to judge when the devices come out this July. More importantly for Google, they're a clever means to an end. Google's banking on its community of developers to use the same building blocks behind the displays to make something even better.

Google I/O: All our coverage of this year's developer conference.

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