With Google’s I/O event in June drawing the developer conference season to a close, we’re all now a little clearer on the paths that lay ahead for the big three players in technology. Or at least, we think we are. While many of the headline grabbing innovations look amazing when Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, or Satya Nadella demonstrate them on those huge, barren stages, most of the wonders on display are not actually finished yet. It will be a few months before we’ll be able to check the veracity of claims that things ‘just work’, but we can see already that the next year could be a hugely significant one as technology continues to come of age.
Microsoft has seemingly set its eyes on reclaiming the mobile space it conceded to Apple and Google in recent years. This is hardly surprising as PC sales show little signs of increasing and a few manufacturers are adopting Android and Chrome OS alternatives as they scramble to stay relevant in this rapidly changing landscape. HP even announced ‘The Machine’, a new kind of computer aimed at data centres and one which will run a bespoke Linux OS rather than using a Windows server variant. Microsoft is responding to this uncertainty by bolstering its own line of hardware with the Surface Pro 3, an excellent device which is certainly the best hybrid yet. As a benchmark for how Windows 8.1 can truly make sense it’s already a triumph, with the only thing that might hold it back being the asking price of around £1000 for a usable system. That being said, it was never intended to be a budget device, but instead take the fight to Apple in the premium market. How it will fare against the new iPads when they appear towards the end of the year, or even the much rumoured 12” MacBook Air’s with retina screens, remains to be seen.
It was interesting to note that Google announced at I/O that there are now over a billion Android users, which is a huge deal when you consider that Windows as a whole currently boasts numbers around 1.5 billion. How long will it be before Android becomes the number one used OS in the world? To hasten this changing of the guard Google also revealed it’s Android One initiative, which lays out the template for low cost devices that manufacturers in developing markets can build themselves and take advantage of Google Play services. This puts them in direct competition with Windows Phone, which has begun to see some solid traction is this part of the market. Expect an aggressive campaign from both sides as this battle for the ‘next billion’ starts to heat up.
Windows Phone also had some big news with the introduction of Cortana, a digital, personal assistant that brings the platform into parity with its peers. It also immediately leaps to the front in the all important territory of which has the coolest name. The launch demo wasn’t without its awkward moments, as Cortana embarrassed the increasingly sweaty Joe Belfiore by mistranslating several commands, but features such as being able to set reminders that trigger the next time you talk to a certain person, or Cortana interacting with non native apps, will make it an interesting service to watch as the rough edges are smoothed out.
All of the companies revealed various refinements to their operating systems, interfaces, and general features, but perhaps the most curious trend to emerge was the subtle switch of focus from traditional devices such as phones, PCs, and tablets, towards lifestyle services that look set to dominate consumer technology in the near future.
Google dedicated a significant portion of its mammoth keynote to launch Android TV. The new service, available in the Autumn, is a set top box (or built-in interface for smart TVs) that boasts media content from the Google Play store, apps for other streaming providers, and allows you to play Android games while using your phone as a controller. You can also mirror your phone or tablet’s screen on your TV, much like Apple does with Airplay on its Apple TV device. This isn’t the first time that the search giant has dabbled in this area, with Google TV being a certified flop, but the recent release of the cheap and cheerful Chromecast has repaired much of the damage and is notable for the fact that it’s mainly cross platform (iOS and Android). Microsoft of course has its own entertainment solution in the form of the Xbox One, which has plenty of content, voice control, a blu-ray player, and premium level gaming. With each company now having web stores that sell films, TV, and music, it makes sense that they would be very keen to position themselves at the heart of the family home. After all, as Apple discovered with iTunes, once customers start investing in a platform they tend to stay there.
It’s not just the living room that will see a tech invasion either, as home automation became another focal point with Apple announcing HomeKit. This suite of tools will enable users to control various aspects of their homes, including lighting, heating, security, and various smart appliances. Google have already bought the company that makes the Nest smart thermostat, and Nest Protect smoke alarm, which puts them in a position to develop further in this area.
Wearable also became a reality with LG and Samsung releasing watches that use the Android Wear OS, a smart companion device for your Android phone. Google Glass finally received a UK launch, and Apple are heavily rumoured to be preparing a health based wearable device after the company were seen to be actively hiring professionals in those fields over the past year. Even cars were targeted for an upgrade as both Apple and Google laid out their vehicular interfaces (Carplay and Android Auto respectively) which bring hands free controls to your navigation, media, and communications apps.
The question that these wonderful creations pose is whether they’ll ever actually play nicely together? If we’re about to see a wholesale revolution of our homes, bodies, and transport, it would be preferable if we were still able to choose the devices we like rather than just the small range that will talk to each other. Apple has long been the master of the closed system approach, and it has served them very well, but with the new suites of interlinking services that Google and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft are now developing we could see these types of compatibility issues becoming more considerable. Will the fact that your phone and car can’t understand each other make you switch brands on either side? Could your choice of TV be decided by the flavour of smart apps that it comes with? Would you even restrict your running shoe variety to brands that have companion tracking software? These might seem like decisions that remain a problem only for the wealthy or those who suffer from technolust, but mobile phones and tablets have taken very little time to become central components of modern life. The extension of their domain will happen quicker than we might think. Either way, shopping has just become a lot more complicated, or far more simple.
See also: Android L vs iOS 8 comparison