Android 14 played a surprisingly small role in Google’s I/O keynote

There was a cool seashell hanging in the air over Shoreline Amphitheater, but the dance beats kept pounding through it. Dan Deacon was playing a set that had something to do with AI, followed by a person in a duck costume dancing on stage. It’s not the kind of show you normally expect before you’ve even had your second cup of coffee, but that’s Google I/O, baby.

I/O is, of course, the company’s annual developer conference, and it officially kicked off Wednesday morning when CEO Sundar Pichai took the stage and headlined a two-hour presentation that focused almost entirely on AI. . We got a preview of what’s coming to Google Search, Gmail, and Photos, along with an unappetizing, photorealistic image of a pizza fondue. It was all AI, top to bottom. They assured us, time and time again, that Google is being responsible with its implementation of AI and that the company is taking steps to ensure that the technology does not wipe out life on the planet as we know it.

But what we don’t hear much of, in fact barely earning a mention on stage, is the regular guest of honor for I/O: Android. Namely Android 14, which is now in beta and expected in the fall. There are plenty of apps and services that run hand in hand with Google’s mobile operating system, but the platform itself gets very little time in the spotlight.

That’s a major change from previous years. As recently as 2019, the next version of Android (at the time, it was going as Q) commanded a dedicated 10+ minute segment in the keynote highlighting new features. In 2023? Android 14 is mentioned nearly an hour and a half into the keynote as new lock screen customization options are highlighted. Earlier in the show, we received updates about item tracking and a notice about unknown tracking alerts that will work with Apple AirTags. But these things were framed as updates coming to Android. ecosystemnot like Android 14 features.

That’s not an accident. I asked Sameer Samat, vice president of the Android ecosystem, why Android 14 got so little airtime. He said that as Google has implemented ways for Android devices to receive updates outside of a once-a-year platform update, such as Play System and app updates, it’s become necessary to frame things a bit differently. “So this year, we think it’s important to show people what’s new in Android from a user experience standpoint, regardless of the OS version. While some features we announce will launch with Android 14, many will find their way into people’s hands through these ongoing updates,” he says.

Instead of bundling lots of new features into one OS update that will roll out slowly (or not at all) to certain devices, the company is adding features throughout the year like updates to Google Photos or Gmail. That’s a good thing, and it’s a side effect of Google’s efforts to solve the familiar problems of Android fragmentation. Google has more levers to pull now to get feature updates and security fixes to Android phones faster. It simply means that fewer of those features will be integrated into large number versions of the operating system.

It also means that what’s left isn’t terribly exciting. Android 14 has been in beta for a while, and so far the highlights include updates that I would classify as good: a different look for the back navigation arrow, support for a new backwards compatible HDR imaging standardand lossless audio via USB headset. It’s not bad, but it’s not the kind of material that gets people excited during a presentation.

Google has more levers to pull now to get feature updates to Android phones faster

There’s also the fact that the smartphone market has reached something of a maturity that means year-on-year updates are less exciting than they once were. See also: basically every device announced last year. Device manufacturers, including Google, are shifting the focus to the headphones, watches and tablets they sell and how they all work together to make our lives easier, so goes the sales pitch. Phones aren’t the stars of the show anymore, and neither is the software they run on.

That’s how we got to 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 walked off the stage, we were encouraged to stay in our seats for the next session: the developer keynote. Tubs of sandwiches were distributed as a bribe to keep us in our seats.

Still, most of the crowd headed for the exits. We were there for the Fold announcement or to see how Google responded to the pressure of Microsoft’s AI developments. Smaller sessions later in the day covered Android in depth, but on the company’s bigger stage, it played little more than a supporting role.


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