Google’s Most Interesting: Apps, Projects, and Services
Bytes: Google has come a long way since its humble beginnings as a web 1.0 search engine. Not only has Google dominated the internet search market and its name become a verb, but Google also has a vast array of other products, services, and projects worth using.
Following the creation of Alphabet in 2015, Google separated from some of their more outlandish projects and have turned their focus towards more consumer projects, many of which are exciting and starting to bear fruit — the kinds of projects that you may want to start using yourself!
Google’s Software Projects
Android, Chrome OS, and Fuchsia
Since 86 percent of smartphones worldwide run Google’s mobile OS, there’s a good chance that you already own an Android device. Although its main base is open source, Google puts a lot of development into Android to make it the polished end product it is. This is similar to their development of the open source web browser Chromium, released by Google as Chrome.
Chrome OS is similar to the Chrome web browser but with additional offline features. By running such a minimal OS, Chromebooks get great battery life and are usually priced far under most Windows laptops. Chromebooks have been well received largely because most users now syncs multiple on-the-go devices with cloud-based services. When everything runs on the internet, it seems unnecessary to run a full-blown operating system anymore.
There have been rumors of Google wanting to merge their two OSes, bringing a “best of both worlds” approach to mobile computing. To mark the start of this transition, in 2016 they revealed a project that would allow Android apps to run natively on Chrome OS. The beta build was rolled out to select Chromebooks and is currently scheduled for full release in late 2017. Google even recently confirmed that every Chromebook released in 2017 will support Android apps.
Parallel to this whole idea of bringing Chrome OS and Android together is an entirely new project called Fuchsia. The project was “announced” when the development team made the code available on Github. Currently there is very little information on what Fuchsia will actually be for.
What we do know is that it is not based on Linux — as Android and Chrome OS are — which makes it a radical departure for the company. It also appears to be designed to run on lightweight, minimal hardware specifications, suggesting that it could be used for IoT products. However, as Android Things is also in development (more on that below), it isn’t clear what the overlap would be here.
At I/O 2015 Google announced the launch of their mobile contactless payment service Android Pay. The seeds of the service were planted in 2011 when the company launched its online payment predecessor Google Wallet. With Android Pay, they have brought contactless payments into the mobile age.
Setting up Android Pay is as simple as downloading the app on an NFC-enabled Android phone and adding a credit or debit card from a supported bank. Using the Android Pay app, you can also keep track of all your spending and manage your loyalty cards.
The Internet of Things is a movement to add internet connectivity to almost anything in your home. It is a growing market with devices ranging from fitness trackers all the way to internet-connected Lego cities. But all of these products need an operating system in order to interact on the cloud.
Modifying the Android OS to fit other devices is nothing new for Google, as they have played this game before with Android Auto and Android TV. However, with millions of IoT devices expected to enter homes over the coming years, the battle for IoT OS is only just beginning. Although Android Things is still in early-stage development, Android has a large developer community so expect to see some early demos and prototypes in the near future.
Machine learning has become quite a buzzword, being found in almost every type of software you can imagine these days. However, Google has been using machine learning since before it was cool to categorize photos by faces and features.
However, the network can also run in reverse, adding features it has been trained to look for intoimages. This ends up creating some very psychedelic images that often resemble modern art more than photography. Google named this project DeepDream and open sourced the code, placing it on Github. From there, a number of developers have created websites and apps that allow you to create your own slightly terrifying artwork.
Gmail and Inbox
Google’s web mail service, Gmail, is one of the largest email providers in the world. Given its prominence, it’s a surprise to learn that it originally started life as a side project of a Google employee as part of the company’s 20% Innovation Time Off initiative.
Majorly changing or updating the service could be a disaster for the company as they try to prevent breaking (or significantly altering) the email client and upsetting their users. Google’s solution to this dilemma was to create the new email service Inbox. While Inbox uses the same back-end data as Gmail — meaning that you can switch easily between the two services — it aims to change the way you interact with email.
Most of us receive emails and either leave them in our inboxes until we deal with them or forget about them entirely. Inbox wants to help you turn your inbox until the ultimate to-do list. This point is emphasized when you are finished with an email you can now mark as “Done” rather than “Archive”.
Inbox also brings a host of personal assistant style features, including reminders, the ability to snooze emails until another date or location, and even save links for later. Inbox also bundles together emails of similar types like Promotions or Updates for you to easily move through your email list in a quest for the elusive inbox-zero.
Currently there are no signs that Google plans to fold Gmail in with Inbox or even merge the features. There is always the possibility that they will run both services in parallel since they are both built on the same back-end. The alternative would be to test features in Inbox and potentially move them over to Gmail when they are deemed ready for prime time.
Google’s voice search has also been widely regarded as powerful and accurate. However, up until very recently, there was no way to connect the personalization of Google Now with a voice control that could understand conversations.
Google has also announced Actions on Google which allows developers to add commands to Google Assistant. This can either be a direct command (like booking a specific flight) or ways to start up a contextual conversation. Google’s aim is to let you talk to Assistant and do everything you want without having to install apps or authorize new services.
Assistant is currently limited to Google Home, the Google Pixel phones, as well as their messaging app Allo. However, you should expect to see it coming to more products in the near future, especially as Actions on Google allow developers to embed Assistant into other hardware.
One of the most compelling services by Apple for iOS users is iMessage — a service that supplements your regular SMS experience by adding extra features like video calling and group chats. If you ask an iOS user why they wouldn’t move to Android, it will likely have something to do with iMessage.
Of course, as Apple’s major competitor in the smartphone market, Google is keen to create an iMessage alternative for Android. However, Apple controls all aspects of the iOS experience, from the hardware down to which carriers can support iPhones. Android is far more fragmented with many varieties of phones running on multiple different networks, so how would an iMessage competitor work?
The answer lies in Rich Communication Services (RCS), a replacement to the rather tired SMS. RCS brings with it the ability to send files between devices, make video calls, send large photos, and even support group messaging.
Following their purchase of Jibe Mobile in 2015, Google launched the Jibe Platform as a way to implement RCS for Android. Google Jibe could cause a dramatic shift in the way we message on our smartphones, potentially rendering rivals (like WhatsApp) redundant.
Since Google launched their cross platform messaging app Hangouts, they’ve put a substantial amount of effort into its development adding voice and video calls and SMS support on Android. Until recently it was seen as Google’s alternative to Skype, WhatsApp, and potentially iMessage. Its user base grew, helped in large part by it being pre-installed on the majority of Android phones and integrated with Google accounts.
That all changed when Google launched standalone messaging apps Allo and Duo for Android following I/O 2016. Hangouts has pivoted to a professional messaging service for businesses while the messaging app Allo and its video-calling companion Duo have become the company’s consumer-facing messaging platforms.
Some might argue that spinning off Android’s messaging to two separate apps, which need to be downloaded by all of your friends and family to be useful, was a poor decision. However, the performance of both apps is much improved over the often buggy performance of Hangouts.
Duo is a one-to-one video-calling app that allows you to chat with another who also has Duo. While the performance and stability of the app exceeds that of Hangouts, it is missing the ability to start a group call.
Allo is much like other popular messaging apps (e.g. WhatsApp and Telegram) where you can send and receive messages, videos, and audio from your contacts who also use the app. However, its biggest selling point is the integration of Google Assistant. You can message Assistant either in a standalone chat just for your own use or integrate it into your Allo chats by tagging @google.
You can upload your entire photo collection from your phone or computer to Google’s servers for free (as long as you don’t mind the resolution being limited to 16 MP). The whole collection is then viewable through the Photos app or the website.
Photos also houses an assistant, but this is an entirely different Assistant to the one on Google Home, Pixel, and Allo. The Photos assistant looks at your upload photos, then groups them together by location. It can also create collages and stylized photos which you can save to your library. It even has a Timehop-style feature where you can be notified of what you were doing in years past.
Google’s Hardware Projects
The watches, made by partners like LG, Motorola, and Samsung, all look stylistically different, with some featuring additional sensors, like heart rate monitors, but Google is very much in control of the OS.
Just like the full-blown OS, Android Wear can run apps from the Play Store to add features to the watch. While smartwatches in general, including the Apple Watch, have largely failed to capture the imagination of the general public thus far, they have been embraced by one group: fitness enthusiasts. One of the places Android Wear excels is in fitness tracking, either using Google Fit or by downloading third-party apps.
Amazon’s Echo smart home device practically created a new market for internet-connected devices. The ability to talk to your virtual personal assistant and have it respond to you and use the device’s in-built speaker to play music was game changing. It was only natural that Google would want to build a competing device, which they did with Google Home.
Launched at I/O 2016 alongside Google Wifi, it marked Google’s first major foray into hardware manufacturing. Google Home’s design aesthetic is similar to that of Google Wifi and Google OnHub. It hopes to become a celebrated centerpiece of the home rather than an ugly piece of technology, and to highlight this, Google created customizable bases which can be changed at will.
Google has been producing phones since 2010 when they launched the first device in the Nexus line. These phones were aimed at developers as a showcase for what a stock Android experience could be like. In order to keep the cost of the devices down, they typically had mid-range hardware — nothing that would be classed as flagship material. In actuality, Google never made these phones, instead choosing to work closely with the design teams at Samsung, Motorola, LG, and others.
Since Google turned its focus more towards the consumer market, it makes sense that they would try their hand at producing the first Google phone. The Pixel, alongside its larger sibling the Pixel XL, was launched in October 2016 as a direct iPhone competitor.
At first glance it’s easy to see how Google has taken aim at the design of the iPhone with the Pixel’s rounded edges, metallic body, and high-resolution screen. Google also decided to borrow the iPhone’s premium pricing, retailing at $649 for the base model.
The Pixel and Pixel XL have only been out for a few months as of this writing, but reviews have been very positive overall While the heavy price tag is hard to overcome, the Pixel is a shining example of what a fantastic OS Android can be.
Cardboard and Daydream (Virtual Reality)
Alongside the headset, Google also developed a software development kit (SDK) for creating VR apps compatible with Cardboard. Initially Cardboard only supported Android, but it has since expanded to include iOS. The low cost coupled with wide-ranging accessibility means that Cardboard, which was originally a “20% project”, is now a huge hit.
Building on Cardboard’s success, Google launched the Daydream VR platform at I/O 2016. Daydream is built directly into Android 7.1 allowing for a more immersive and seamless experience. Instead of having to open a VR app from your phone as with Cardboard, the new Daydream view is a virtual reality world which houses all the new VR experiences built for Daydream.
The software isn’t the only upgrade for Daydream — the headset got a makeover too. A new premium headset was developed, created from a lightweight cloth to make it more comfortable to wear. New capacitive buttons replaced the manual push button of the Cardboard headset, and an NFC chip simplified the connection process.
Google Wifi and OnHub
It’s common knowledge that many home routers are unreliable or just flat-out don’t work. Poor connection and Wi-Fi dead zones have plagued us all for many years, so in a lot of ways routers have stayed firmly planted circa 2007. The hardware has gotten better, but for most routers the software and management have stagnated.
Wireless coverage was improved too by rethinking the positioning of the Wi-Fi antennas. There was even an app to manage the OnHub, replacing the often clunky web interfaces of most routers.
And at I/O 2016, they proudly announced Google Wifi. This move initially stung owners of the OnHub who were still waiting on promised feature-adding upgrades. However, instead of replacing it, Google Wifi lives within the same ecosystem as the OnHub.
Google’s Service Projects
Since Google provides the OS that powers the majority of smartphones around the world, it was only a matter of time before they made the jump to mobile carrier to complete the package.
Project Fi runs on the infrastructure of four different operators: Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Three. This lends itself to Project Fi’s main advantage over a traditional carrier, which is the ability to switch between 4G networks depending on signal strength and speed.
Consider what happens when you’re on a Wi-Fi call but get disconnected: Fi seamlessly merges your call onto its cellular network. Currently only Google’s Pixel, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6P phones are set up to work with Project Fi as they were specifically designed with a mobile radio to support network switching.
Despite being a virtual network, you can move your current cell number over to your new Project Fi plan. Another benefit of Fi is that there is no annual commitment. Gone are the 24-month contracts and in its place comes a rolling monthly contract.
The United States is geographically huge and serviced by only a few telecom companies capable of high-speed fiber broadband internet. And since Google’s entire business is online, it’s in their best interest to get as many people connected to the internet as possible.
Google Fiber is now available in various areas around the U.S. with more currently in development. If you live in a Fiber area, then you can get up to 1,000 Mb/s broadband speeds. The Fiber service also carries your cable television service, which includes more than 220 channels.
Included in your cable package is a home DVR capable of recording up to eight HD shows simultaneously. You can even access your recordings on the go with Google’s Fiber app. As this is Google, they also equip your Fiber cable with Smart Search. This lets you search your TV listings, and even filter by actor.
What’s on the Horizon for Google?
This list only scratched the surface of what Google is working on. Alongside some other consumer projects, Google is putting a lot of effort into development tools and cloud services.
And that’s not to mention the projects of Google’s now-parent company Alphabet! All things considered, 2017 could be a very exciting year for the Mountain View tech giant — and for you, depending on how many of these projects you start using yourself.