At Google I/O, expect smartwatches as Android spreads to new screens

The Moto 360 smartwatch could launch, and possibly a mobile health-tracking system

Android Wear smartwatches will respond to the cue "okay Google" in the same way Google’s Voice Search does. The device will be able to answer questions, action instructions and keep track of exercise goals.
Android Wear smartwatches will respond to the cue "okay Google" in the same way Google’s Voice Search does. The device will be able to answer questions, action instructions and keep track of exercise goals.

Expected news around smartwatches, health systems and Android-connected devices at Google's I/O conference, which starts Wednesday (US time), is sure to draw attention from consumers as the search giant tries to connect a wide range of home and personal devices.

Google I/O, the company's biggest event of the year, is officially aimed at helping third-party engineers build products using Google tools for the Android and Chrome platforms. The tech tools, though, are aimed at the development of new consumer products. Some of these products make a splash during the show itself, such as with the launch of Glass two years ago and the handout of Google's US$1,000-plus Chromebook Pixel laptop last year.

This year, developing and designing for Android is a focus as Google tries to compete with Apple in cleanly integrating its software into more hardware. Some two dozen sessions are being held over the two-day show looking at different aspects of Android including performance, UI and how it operates in a cloud environment.

When it comes to hardware, Google is looking beyond smartphones and tablets to leverage Android to enable new ways for users to interact with multiple devices. During I/O, Google could launch or at least give more details about Android-connected smartwatches, a health-tracking system that would run on those watches, and Android-based systems for cars and televisions, according to rumors.

Google's recent acquisition of programmable thermostat maker Nest also shows the company has an interest in the devices some people already have in their homes.

"We're likely to see new tools for developers to help them build Android apps and experiences across a wider range of devices," said Charlene Li, an industry analyst with the Altimeter Group. "There hasn't been as much diversity, yet, in this area," she said.

Take the wristwatch. Google earlier this year announced Android Wear, a version of Android designed to power a new wave of wearable devices, including smartwatches. The idea is to focus less on Android's typical grid layout -- that would look ugly on a watch -- and enable more functions based on voice commands and quick taps. Last week Google revealed more of its thinking on the OS in a YouTube video.

At the time of Android Wear's announcement, Google said it was working with a number of manufacturers like Fossil, LG, Motorola and Samsung on smartwatches. One of the first to launch, Google said, would be Motorola's Moto 360, available in the summer. There's speculation that the Moto 360, or at least more details about it, will be revealed during Wednesday's keynote.

There's also talk that LG's G watch, powered by Android Wear, could launch at the show.

Meanwhile, Google is reportedly ready to launch Google Fit, a health-tracking platform, that might run on these smartwatches. If so, Google would be competing with a growing number of devices like Samsung's Simband or Gear Fit, trackers like Fitbit, or Apple's rumored iWatch.

Google also wants to get Android into cars. The company is working with auto manufacturers like Audi, GM and Honda as well as chip company Nvidia on the Open Automotive Alliance, formed to bring Android apps and services to in-car systems for easier and safer use while driving.

A recent report in the trade publication Automotive News said that Google would unveil an in-car operating system, based on its collaboration with the auto industry, at I/O. The system could rival Apple's CarPlay, which allows drivers to operate their iPhones via built-in displays in cars.

As for the living room, Google is set to launch Android TV, which will focus on streaming media services and shows as well as video games, according to a report in Gigaom. Once Android TV is available, it's unclear what will happen to Google TV, launched at I/O in 2010 and designed to bring apps and other Web content to TV screens.

In trying to pull all this off, Google faces a number of challenges. One of the biggest is the possible fragmentation of Android. Unlike Apple, Google works with outside OEMs on the hardware side for many products, which can create inconsistencies in the implementation of Android. Some industry watchers say Google could unveil a new version of the OS at I/O, possibly called "Lollipop," to address these issues.

As Android comes to more personal devices, Google could see a greater need to make sure Google+ is used as a central identity platform. But Google+, at least based on I/O's published schedule, does not seem to be a focus of the show, and its future seems to be a question mark.

"If we want all these devices to work together," said Altimeter's Li, "having an identity platform is important."

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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