Spring is in the air, the anthuriums are in bloom, and Sundar Pichai is sequestered away somewhere in Mountain View, preparing for another Google I/O. The annual developer conference, which begins the morning of May 7, gives Google three days to demonstrate its vision for the future—and convince the coders in the audience to help build it.
Remember, Google isn't just a search giant anymore. It makes hardware and a popular voice assistant. It delivers your email and manages your maps. It runs the most popular mobile phone operating system in the world. It builds self-driving cars and delivery drones. The developer conference is Google's chance to talk about all of this, showing the world just what it can do and getting buy-in from the people most likely to advance its goals.
But don't think of I/O as a conference. Think of it more like a birthday party. The company invites all of its favorite people to gather in the Shoreline Amphitheater and listen as Google explains who it wants to be this year. And, as Google turns 21 in 2019, we can expect this year to be one hell of a celebration.
But wait—don’t pop the champagne just yet. It’s been a wild year for Google, which has faced lawsuits for tracking users’ locations through their phones (even with privacy settings turned on), a €50 million fine for breaching the EU’s privacy laws, and several visits to Capitol Hill to defend its platforms and its plans to expand its search engine into China. (And that’s just in the past year!) So before Pichai can get the party started, he’ll first want to talk about privacy.
Like the rest of the tech industry, Google needs to make a commitment to protecting users’ data and respecting their privacy. Pichai and other executives will almost certainly weave this throughout the opening keynote, pointing to some of the ways that Google will treat your data differently going forward.
Of course, some of that will just be lip service. Last week at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, we heard a similar commitment from Mark Zuckerberg, who repeatedly professed that “the future is private.” It’s not yet clear how much we can expect a sea change around privacy in Silicon Valley, if at all. But as we see more privacy-focused legislation—including new rules proposed in Google's home state of California—we can expect to hear executives talking about it a lot more and trying to change the narrative.
Almost everything Google builds has AI at its core, and I/O offers an occasion to show off all the ways it's leveraging that intelligence. Last year's conference included a truly jaw-dropping demonstration of Duplex, the AI assistant that sounds completely indistinguishable from a human. So, yeah—expect Google to flex its AI muscles, in ways big and small.
The company should introduce some thoughtful updates to the Google products you already use too. Gmail, Google News, and Google Maps are likely candidates for an AI injection this year. The Google Assistant is likely to learn some new tricks—although, now that you can make your Assistant sound like John Legend, the Assistant is pretty much perfect.
Google's take on augmented reality has often been practical. Sure, you could turn your face into a smiling pile of poop, but wouldn't you rather use your phone's AR capabilities for something a little more, I don't know, useful? At last year's I/O, Google announced a feature for Google Maps that projects the step-by-step directions over the real world using AR. Expect to see more AR announcements like that, with a nod toward what developers can build using Google's AR Core.
Of course, that doesn't mean there won't be time for fun and games. Google loves games! Just a few months ago, Google announced its all-new cloud gaming platform, called Stadia, which will launch later this year. We might hear more about Stadia, or other games on Google's platforms.
Android Q, Too
Year after year, Google uses its developer conference to debut the latest version of its Android operating system. An early beta version of Android Q (which stands for … Queso?) came out in March. Based on that beta, you can expect a whole bunch of fun features (screen recording! dark mode!), as well as some practical additions (a redesigned menu, easy Wi-Fi sharing). Android Q will likely include the architecture to run on folding phones, which Google pledged to support back when Samsung first announced its Galaxy Fold last fall. And it will almost certainly introduce some new privacy controls—like file-based encryption, improved "lockdown" mode, and more controls over how apps can access personal data like a user's location. Did we mention that Google loves privacy now?
Hold the Phone
Google usually saves its gadgets for a hardware-focused event in the fall—but we just might see a few new devices this week. Rumors suggest a pair of budget phones to round out the (increasingly expensive) line of Pixel phones. The key advantage: Many of the finest features on Google's phones come from software, not hardware, so the company should be able to offer some of its best tricks in these cheaper phones. Think: Pixel-quality photos for half the price.
We might also see a new smart display, called the Nest Hub Max. (A product of that name briefly appeared in the online Google Store in March before the company took it down.) Leaks suggest a 10-inch display with a built-in Nest camera and stereo speakers. Google already makes a smart display, the Google Home Hub, but the New Hub Max's screen looks bigger, with more features designed for video calls. That could help Google compete with the smart screens coming out of Amazon and Facebook.
The opening keynote kicks off tomorrow, Tuesday, May 7, at 10 am Pacific time. We'll liveblog the whole thing here at WIRED, so be sure to follow along. You can also watch the keynote live here on WIRED.