There was a chilly sea layer in the air over the Shoreline Amphitheatre, but the danceable beats pounded on nonetheless. Dan Deacon played a set that had something to do with AI, followed by a person in a duck costume dancing on stage. Not the kind of spectacle you usually expect before you’ve even had your second cup of coffee, but that’s Google I/O, honey.
I/O, of course, is the company’s annual developer conference, and it officially kicked off Wednesday morning when CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage to headline a two-hour presentation almost entirely devoted to AI. We got a sneak peek at what’s coming to Google Search, Gmail, and Photos, along with an unsavory, photo-realistic image of pizza fondue. It was all AI, top to bottom. We’ve been reassured time and time again that Google is responsible for implementing AI and that the company is taking steps to ensure the technology doesn’t end life on the planet as we know it.
But what we didn’t hear much about – barely deserving a mention on stage in fact – is I/O’s usual guest of honor: Android. Namely Android 14, which is now in beta and expected in the fall. There’s plenty about the apps and services that go hand-in-hand with Google’s mobile operating system, but the platform itself gets very little time in the spotlight.
This is a major shift from previous years. As late as 2019, the next Android version (it went as Q at the time) commanded a special 10+ minute segment in the keynote highlighting new features. 2023? Android 14 is mentioned almost an hour and a half after the keynote, while highlighting new options for customizing the lock screen. Earlier in the program, we got updates on item tracking and a heads-up on unknown tracker alerts that will work with Apple’s AirTags. But these things were framed as updates to Android ecosystemnot as Android 14 features.
That’s not an accident. I asked Sameer Samat, VP of the Android ecosystem, why Android 14 specifically got so little airtime. He said that as Google has implemented ways for Android devices to receive updates outside of an annual platform upgrade, such as Play System and app updates, it’s become necessary to frame things a little differently. “So this year, we felt it was important to show people what’s new in Android from a user experience perspective, regardless of the OS version. While some of the features we announced will launch with Android 14, many people will get their hands on these continuous updates,” he says.
Rather than lumping a bunch of new features into an OS upgrade that will roll out slowly (or not at all) to certain devices, the company rolls out features like updates to Google Photos or Gmail throughout the year. That’s a good thing, and it’s a side effect of Google’s efforts to fix the well-known problems of Android fragmentation. Google now has more leverage to get feature updates and security fixes for Android phones faster. It just means fewer of those features are built into major versions of the OS.
It also means that what’s left isn’t very exciting. Android 14 has been in beta for a while, and so far the highlights include updates that I’d classify as nice-to-haves: a different look for the back navigation arrow, support for a new backwards-compatible HDR image standard, and lossless audio through USB headphones. Not bad, but not the kind of thing that makes people happy during a keynote.
Google now has more leverage to get Android phone feature updates faster
There’s also the fact that the smartphone market has reached a sort of maturity that makes year-to-year upgrades less exciting than ever. See also: actually every device announced last year. Device makers, including Google, are shifting focus to the earbuds, watches and tablets they sell and how they all work together to make our lives easier – or so the sales pitch goes. Phones just aren’t the stars of the show anymore, and neither is the software they run.
That’s how we arrived at this year’s I/O keynote, which was as much a hardware launch and AI pep rally as it was a software showcase. After the keynote ended and Pichai left the stage, we were encouraged to stay in our seats for the next session: the developer’s keynote. Small trays of snacks were handed out as bribes to keep us in our seats.
Still, most of the crowd made their way to the exits. We were there for the Fold announcement or to see how Google responded to the pressure of Microsoft’s AI developments. Android was covered extensively in smaller sessions later in the day, but on the company’s biggest stage it played little more than a supporting role.