San Francisco: Google's Android software is coming to cars, televisions and watches this year, as the internet search giant races against Apple and other technology companies to extend its business into a rapidly broadening field of internet-connected devices.
At its annual developers' conference I/O, held Wednesday in San Francisco (early Thursday morning in Australia), twice disrupted by protesters, Google said the first cars running its new Android Auto software for navigation, music, and messaging will hit showrooms later this year.
The in-car system will pair with smartphones and allow users to access features with the tap of a button on a steering wheel or voice control, which Google hopes will reduce road accidents by distracted drivers.
Already Google's free Android software — a new version of which was released to developers on Thursday — runs on more than three out of every four smartphones sold globally. That penetration is a valuable hook for consumers to experiment with the company's money-making online services such as web search and maps.
More than 40 car companies have signed onto Google’s software development alliance, but the company did not say which ones will actually build Android into their cars in 2014.
"We want to create a seamless experience across all these devices," Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president in charge of Android and Chrome, said.
Samsung and LG smartwatches running Android Wear, a new version of Android tailored for wearable devices, were also announced at I/O. A third, Motorola's Moto 360, which has a circular screen, goes on sale later this year. The announcement drew groans from the audience that had hoped to get it earlier.
A spokesman for Google said LG’s G Watch would be available on Thursday for pre-order in Australia on its Play Store, while Samsung’s will be "coming soon". LG’s watch would cost about $US229, although Australian pricing won't be known until it goes on sale.
When Samsung’s watch, the Gear Live, comes to the Australian market, it will likely cost around $US199.99. Pricing and availability of Motorola’s is yet to be announced.
Google's push into wearable devices comes as Apple looks to move into the market. Several analysts have speculated that Apple may unveil a smartwatch later this year.
Google TV is back
Google executives also demonstrated Android TV, reviving the giant's foray into streaming video, and its aim to give viewers an easy interface to search and display content. It is optimised for TV watching, aided by a recommendation system and voice searches for commands like "Breaking Bad" or "Oscar-nominated movies from 2002”. TV makers Sony, Sharp, LG and Asustek will be among the partners for it.
A TV version of Android comes four years after Google's first effort to enter the living room, via Google TV, failed. It also follows the release of the popular Chromecast dongle in Australia, a small device that converts any high-definition television into a smart, web-connected TV that can be controlled with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop.
Google also showed off some of the features of the next version of Android - temporarily dubbed "L", which will include more privacy tools, better power management promising up to 90 minutes extra battery-life for smartphones, and a feature that lets people disable their phone if it gets stolen. Android L will also look different, include more animation, colours, and a feature called "material design", which lets app developers add shadows and seams to give visuals on a phone's screen the appearance of depth.
The new version of Android has been designed to work across all devices as long as the gadgets are running the Google operating system. This means a user can check email on a smartwatch, answer the message on a smartphone and then delete it on a computer, for example. Notifications, such as calendar alerts, are also synchronised across devices, meaning they will now only need to dismissed once.
Another feature will save peoples’ thumbs from typing their passwords every time they log into their phone - which Google said was on average 125 times a day. The feature uses Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in a smartwatch to determine whether the user is close to their smartphone. If they are, it automatically authenticates them. If the smartwatch being used as authentication is not around, it will ask for a password.
Android-powered Chromebook notebooks will also have this feature, and allow Android smartphones and smartwatches to be used to log users into their devices.
"It's a land grab," said Sameet Sinha, an analyst with investment bank B. Riley & Co. "The person who gets a platform which controls the devices could be the dominant operating system, not of just devices, it could be the operating system of your home."
"New platforms offer new opportunities for hardware sales, advertising sales, e-commerce sales, all of these," Sinha said.
A service called Google Fit, which collates and tracks a user's health and personal fitness information similar to recently introduced services from Apple and Samsung, was also unveiled. The tracking and analysis of health information is expected to become a big driver behind the adoption of smartwatches and other sensor-laden devices this year.
Google's annual conference is designed to introduce new Android features to its army of developers, crucial in creating apps that keep the software popular as it competes with Apple's iOS. It said it had paid $US5 billion to developers since this time last year.
Apple and Google are now going head-to-head in emerging countries like India and China, where there remains room to grow in terms of smartphone adoption. Google is developing a sub $100 smartphone for the Indian market.
The event was interrupted twice by protesters, with one man raising concerns about Google's forays into robotics. In another disruption, a woman complained about how she was being evicted from her home by a Google staffer. Both were eventually dealt with by security workers, while Google executives joked about the interruptions from the stage.
Separate protests took place outside the conference venue, the Moscone West building in downtown San Francisco. Another, at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, resulted in 10 arrests after protesters refused to leave saying proposed “net neutrality” laws would stifle internet freedom.
The writer travelled to Google I/O as a guest of Google
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