Everything a Mobile App Team Should Know About Google I/O 2018

Google kicked off their I/O conference in Mountain View yesterday. Like last year, there was a strong emphasis on AI and AI-powered experiences in the Google Assistant, including a compelling demo of Google Assistant having real phone conversations with businesses to make reservations at a salon and a restaurant.

But Google also introduced a new narrative of Digital Wellbeing, with an emphasis on giving users new tools to help limit the amount of time they spend in apps instead of the real world. Google is clearly responding to the public debate around “Time Well Spent” and controversies like Facebook’s recent Congressional spotlight. It remains to be seen how deeply that changes their behavior - or the experiences for developers building on top of their platforms.

As I did last year, I’ll try to break down Google’s exuberant futurism into three areas: things you probably want to start thinking about now, things you might want to wait for a few months on before investing in, and things that are interesting but either niche or a long way off from primetime - the stuff you can put on your “someday” list.

Things to Think About Now


  • Android P is coming this Fall with a visual redesign and a new Material Theming framework. If your app is trying to fit in with Google’s Material Design, you’ll want to consider making some visual updates to stay fresh.
  • Notification Channels, introduced in Android O, are getting more attention in P. If your app is sending notifications, it’s become much easier for end users to selectively hide specific apps or Notification Channels, and to see which apps are notifying them the most. This should actually improve things for apps behaving responsibly and sending the right messages to the right users - relevant notifications should have an easier time cutting through with less noise. Effectively using Notification Channels makes it easy for your end users to choose how they want you to reach out to them, without as much risk of a full app uninstall.
  • Actions and Slices will let Android developers integrate more deeply into Android system search and the Assistant on phones. Google demoed a search for “Infinity War” directly suggesting a link into the Fandango app to buy tickets, and a search for “Lyft” showing in-line times and fares for hailing a ride home. This is part of what Google calls the “decomposition of apps,” while still retaining the app itself as the provider of the functionality. This, combined with a new taxonomy of Assistant Intents, has a lot in common on the surface with SiriKit Intent Extensions, but it seems like it might be more open to domains outside of Siri’s built-ins. Most non-game apps - travel, ecommerce, media content, and more - can potentially benefit from surfacing their content in better, deeper ways to users from search and Assistant sessions, so finding ways to tie in to this is likely to be beneficial.

Wait and See


  • (Non-App) Google Assistant Actions - As with last year, if you have a service with a strong use case for low-UI interactivity, consider building a standalone Google Assistant Action (Google Assistant’s voice apps). There’s still a discoverability problem for developers targeting these sorts of platforms, and a lack of ubiquity of the hardware in the home. Stickiness remains a problem too, since notification capabilities are only just being introduced for the platform, and it’s hard to stay top of mind for an end-user without a home screen or launcher.
  • MLKit promises to make it easier for apps to add machine-learning smarts, and in a way that will let you leverage the code across iOS and Android. If you’ve got good uses for image recognition or predictive smarts within your app - especially ones that need to work in real-time and not from your back end - MLKit looks very promising.

Someday


  • Progressive Web Apps (PWA) for Mobile App Replacement - Nothing major has changed with Android’s support for PWAs. They’re still a great idea for improving your mobile web business performance, but they’re still not likely to replace a dedicated native app in most cases. They’ve still got a discoverability problem, iOS support is lackluster (especially when it comes to notifications), and they’re getting only a small handful of dedicated developer sessions at I/O this year. That’s a safe sign that Google isn’t committed to making PWAs first-class citizens outside the browser frame. Equally important, PWAs don’t get to play with any of the new mobile technologies Google has introduced recently - MLKit, Slices, and notification channels are all inaccessible to PWAs.
  • Flutter - Google is also announcing improvements to their cross-platform native-app framework, Flutter. It has a lot in common with React Native, but is still niche - apps are written in the fairly obscure Dart language, and Flutter simply hasn’t gotten the traction other frameworks like React Native and Xamarin have. It’s also increasing the fragmentation in Google’s developer support story.  Google needs to decide whether they want developers building native apps in Java or Kotlin, cross-platform native apps in Flutter/Dart, or PWAs in HTML/Javascript, instead of pitching all three simultaneously.
  • Instant Apps, Daydream VR, and Android Wear all appear to be second-class citizens this year. No major announcements and very few (if any) developer sessions scheduled for these technologies should be a red flag for anyone considering a major investment in these platforms.

At Localytics, we’re excited for the future of mobile computing - and the future of deeply intelligent “beyond mobile” experiences that are on display at I/O this year. I personally always love seeing the keynotes and sessions from Google I/O - from the practical nitty-gritty developer content up to the pie-in-the-sky visionary hardware pre-production announcements. Clearly Android apps are still where the rubber meets the road for the company, but the vision for the Assistant and an AI-powered future full of AR phones has us excited to see what’s next.

You can catch all the talks on Google’s I/O conference website, and let us know in the comments what you’re excited about, skeptical of, or starting to develop for today!

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