Android Director of Product Management Hugo Barra appeared for the first time on stage at the Honeycomb event last year. Back then, I remember thinking he didn’t do a very good job presenting Honeycomb, but I think it was also the whole environment that didn’t make sense and put him in a bad light. It looked a lot less professional than any Google I/O event, and it seemed like they just quickly rented a room to show Honeycomb, which wouldn’t be the only rushed thing they did in relation to Android 4.0. However, at this year’s Google I/O event I thought Barra did a very good job presenting Jelly Bean, and he did it in a very confident manner.
Of course, giving speeches is not his main job at Google. His job is to manage most of the Android teams, and make sure Android as a whole turns out to be a good product. But if he’s going to be the one presenting the new version of Android every time, then I’m glad he can do a good job with that, as well. Presenting a product can be almost as important as building it, and we’ve learned that from Steve Jobs’s keynotes, where he could make almost any small thing or feature sound like a big deal and get everyone hyped about it.
Wired managed to take an interview with Barra, and ask him more details about Jelly Bean, Google Now, Nexus 7 and other new features in Android.
When asked about Google Now and voice search, Barra said that Google Now and its smart cards are actually not such a new idea, but more of an evolution of something called “one-box,” a feature that Google has been using for a while on top of Google’s search results. Occasionally, one can see an actual box atop regular search results, which contains the answer for your query and other information available at a glance. With Android, the only difference is that they’ve formatted it in a specific way to look good on mobile devices such as tablets and phones.
The idea here is to show users what Google thinks is the best answer for their questions, although with Google Now you also get a list of Google search results at the bottom, in case you didn’t find the first answer to be very accurate or you just want more information about that topic.
Google Voice Search is also not something new. In fact, it has existed for a long time on the Android platform, way before Siri appeared on the iPhone 4S. What they have now is just an evolution of that, with better algorithms, better AI, and what he says is “the most accurate, conversational, synthesized voice in the world”. I haven’t tested a Nexus 7 tablet myself yet, but if they are using the same voice technology they’ve been using for the past few months or so in Google Translate, I tend to agree with him. The voice performance in that service is very impressive, natural and almost human.
Google made sure it found the perfect human voice for this kind of feature, so it sounds friendly and conversational while speaking back the answers to the user. You’ll also have to know that Google needs a lot of computational power to make the speech synthesis work well and fast (without even counting the part about giving you the right answers). For the offline voice support that the company also announced for Jelly Bean, Google uses a different engine than the cloud-based one, but the voice should sound exactly the same.
Barra says that their AI doesn’t make jokes the way Siri does: “Google is a neutral party — it’s not your friend, secretary or sister. It’s not your mom.” I think a lot of people liked the jokes Siri was making, and it’s why they were showing it to their friends a lot, but at the end of the day, this is mostly a gimmick, a party trick, and not exactly useful. Google is more interested in giving you the right answers, rather than making a joke about your question. Google’s Voice Search is meant to help you, not necessarily entertain you.
The Wired interviewer asked him about Samsung’s S-Voice and LG’s upcoming Quick Voice features, but he kind of dodged this question by saying that this technology is just the evolution of Google Search. I think this is exactly the direction Google needs to take, because Google Voice Search and Google Now do feel like together they could be an evolution of Google Search itself – Google Search on Android will be a lot more advanced than it is now, as it can give users answers based on the information it knows about them and their location.
I do hope Samsung and LG plan to introduce these new features in their future upgrades, otherwise a lot of users will be upset about it, especially since we may be looking at the best such product in the market. It does pose the question though, where does that leave S-Voice and Quick Voice?
When asked about where Android is heading, Barra hinted that Jelly Bean and future Android versions will take advantage even more of their advanced and interactive widgets that allow the user to quickly deal with content without having to enter the app. I’ve been thinking about this ever since we saw the Chameleon UI and I definitely think this is something Google needs to explore more. If they do this right, Google could show the advantage it has over Apple’s iOS, which doesn’t have widgets at all, and even an advantage over Windows 8/WP8’s “tiles,” which are a more primitive form of widgets.
He also noted how they improved the notification system to be a lot richer, show you a lot more, and allow you to do a lot more actions within the notifications themselves, with just one click instead of three that might be needed for certain actions. This kind of improvements make the OS feel more intuitive, and I think a lot of reviewers who still think iOS is the more intuitive mobile platform are not paying attention to stuff like this that exists in Android OS.
Android is intuitive in a different way, by allowing you to be more productive and do more with less. In this case, iOS is just in your way and makes it harder for you to do certain actions. By having widgets that let you increase or decrease brightness, view the weather, toggle Wi-Fi, and so on, are just a few other examples that can support this claim.
The PDK is Google’s Platform Development Kit, and it’s kind of a SDK for hardware manufacturers. The PDK should allow manufacturers to test the new version of Android a lot sooner and make sure it’s ready to ship on their devices as soon as Google releases the open source code for the new Android version.
Barra says that until now the PDK has been in beta and they’ve only given it to a couple of manufacturers. Therefore, you may not really get to see any palpable results of the efficiency of the Jelly Bean PDK release. But that could change once Google will roll out a future PDK to more Android device manufacturers ahead of the next OS release – Android 5.0. These PDK-related details seem to indicate that a rumor we heard a few weeks ago may be true after all – that multiple Nexus devices from five different OEMs will be available this fall.
The PDK should significantly reduce the upgrade time to the new Android version for many devices – although it still remains to be seen how many devices will get the new OS update. I figure Android device makers will still want to upgrade only to the high-end devices first, and only after that update other devices to the new Android release.
Barra thinks that the Nexus 7 is the most powerful 7-inch tablet on the market by leaps and bounds, not just through its no-compromise hardware, which in many ways is as good as a $500 tablet, but also through its Jelly Bean OS, for which Google adopted a more phone-like UI. Apparently people want to use such a device mostly in portrait mode and he thinks this is the direction the industry needs to take for 7-inch tablets.
When asked about a possible 10-inch tablet, his answer was a bit unsatisfactory, as he said that they will take it one step at a time. And they’ll first wait and see what their partners do with the 10-inch form factor. That doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t release a Nexus 10 tablet this fall, especially if Android 5.0 is meant to improve the UI for 10-inch tablets some more. However, those changes are not ready now, so between now and then Android device manufacturers will have to figure out for themselves how they can modify the more phone-like Jelly Bean to work well on a 10-inch device.
Hugo says that they recognize Google Play is a new brand, and they will need a lot of education and marketing to let their 400 million users know that they can buy more than just apps in there, and more importantly to get them in the habit to actually buy from there. With the Nexus 7 they’re giving everyone a $25 credit for the Play Store, which I think is a very good idea to get people not only to set-up a Google Wallet just so they have it there ready to be used, but also to hook them up on buying stuff from the store. However, it’s worth remembering that not all the digital content stored in Google Play will be available in international markets.
Nexus 7 should help promote the Google Play store, but I think Google should do this with all upcoming Nexus and Motorola devices from now on, if it really wants to build a lot of buzz around Google Play in a short amount of time.