Google I/O: What to Expect, What to Hope For

The 5 things I hope Google unveils in Android 2.2.

More Than Just a Free Phone?

The folks at Apple have made an art form out of annual conferences with big announcements.

In recent years we’ve seen the iPhone, MacBook Air, and more recently the iPad unveiled to much fanfare.

Not to be outdone by Apple, Google has been making some Waves as well with their annual spring conference dubbed Google I/O.

At last year’s event participants received Android phones with a free month of service, fueling speculation that this year’s attendees may receive some goodies as well.

I confess it would be cool to get a device, even though I already have a few. I already have a Nexus One running Android 2.1 and more or less like it, though I could always give one away or perhaps sell one on eBay — a Palm exec confessed to me last summer, as he happily texted on his Palm Pre.

I guess living in northern California has its benefits — go to a conference, get a phone, hawk it on eBay. Not a bad deal if you can get it! The airfare from Newark would eat into profits, so I’m going to sit this one out.

Or perhaps this year attendees will receive an Android-based set-top box for Google TV? That would be very cool to check out, particularly because the Hollywood video store near my house just closed their doors. Clearly the brick-and-mortar style for media distribution is under some serious pressure. Thank you, Netflix.

Traditional means of selling cell phones is however not yet dead as just this week Google announced that they are closing down their online Nexus One store, instead opting for traditional merchandising avenues for mobile phones — the most likely reason is that we have not yet broken our addiction to subsidized hardware.

I guess they wanted to get that bit of inconvenient news out of the way so Google I/O announcements could dominate the blogosphere this week. Probably a good move — kind of like releasing bad news late on Friday and then commenting on Monday that it is “old news”.

Gear or no gear, this year’s attendees are likely in for a treat, and whether it is a phone or a TV, there is little doubt that the star of the show is Linux based Android.

Android 2.2

Keeping in line with its predecessors, the latest Android release, version 2.2, is code-named after a dessert. This time it is frozen yogurt, or simply “Froyo”. It must be a California thing because folks in Northern New Jersey don’t do frozen yogurt — we have Italian Ices. Remember, we’re the (former) home of the Sopranos.

Keeping with the theme of being part of the “family”, if I were calling the shots in the Android camp, here are a few items I would make sure find their way into Android 2.2.

Some of these items are related to the application and eco-system of Android, not necessarily the OS itself. That said, the more that is “built-in”, the better. So here is my top 5 wish list:

#1 Outlook Synching

I’ve griped about this before and yes, I am still whining about the lack of out-of-the-box Microsoft Exchange support. For those looking to tell me that GMail and Google calendars are enough — they’re not.

Fans of Android want it to gain momentum and getting adopted by corporate users can really aid in that effort.

Of course, the guys at NitroDesk who put out the Touchdown application have to be loving this gaping hole in Android’s ActiveSync capability. It’s raining twenty dollar bills for those guys. Good for them, though all the same, I would have preferred not to contribute after the non-trivial investment in the phone itself.

#2 Enterprise Tools

BlackBerry devices have long been the corporate standard for mobile solutions because of their robust messaging platform and enterprise-class tools. Adding quality remote management features is an opportunity for Android to gain some ground in the lucrative corporate market. The obvious items here are things like remotely provisioning a new device or wiping a lost device. Hardware encryption would be nice also to aid in protecting corporate data.

As attractive as those features would be, there is another feature that BlackBerry users enjoy — something enabled by the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES): message distillation.

When an email is sent to a BlackBerry user, it is first picked up by a BES server, pre-processed/distilled/put on slim-fast/etc. and then sent to the device. The net effect is that the recipient just gets the “raw text” of the message and a list of attachments which are individually download-able.

When an email is forwarded from a BlackBerry user, the BES magically sends the original email — complete with the attachments and any text added by the mobile user. Contrast that behavior with an Android user attempting the same “comment and forward” activity — it just isn’t the same.

The other day I read a message on my Android device but didn’t download the attachment. Then I forwarded it to someone on my team, making reference to the attachment. They shot back a note saying “what attachment?”. Unfortunately, the attachment was never sent because it wasn’t first downloaded to my phone.

This is something I would do countless times with my BlackBerry. Part of the appeal of mobile email is that I don’t have to touch the entire message — I just want to read it and either make a quick reply or forward the email to someone else to handle. Having to download a complete message, attachments and all, and then push that entire bucket of bits back up the wireless pipe is costly.

While not a core Android, kernel-level feature, this is an application usage scenario that is important to today’s mobile user. Having to download all of the attachments in order to forward a message is a non-starter. The BES solution saves time, saves battery life, potentially data plan allowances, and in my case, my sanity. Of course, this is larger than just a point release of an operating system, but hey, if Google can spend years developing something like Wave, a better mobile email solution wouldn’t hurt. Enough said, let’s move on.

#3 Tighter Application & Media Browsing Experience

It could certainly be worse, but the Android marketplace needs a face-lift. In particular, it would be nice to browse applications from the desktop. Yes, I know that some of us believe we’re supposed to live on our mobile devices 24/7/365 but the reality is that many of us still spend an unhealthy amount of time at the keyboard of our PC’s, MacBooks, NetBooks, or dare I say, iPads.

Browsing for content: books, applications, music, video, etc. is an important aspect of the entire experience — without content our devices would be fairly boring, rather over-priced phones with under-performing cameras. After all, most of the fun connected to shopping is the “just browsing” experience anyway, right? And no matter how good the browser is on my Nexus One, the browsing is better on my computer, particularly when I consider that my battery isn’t running down and the tabbed-browser experience in Firefox is better than the small screen on the phone.

Again, this is not necessarily a core Android device feature, but rather a user experience issue. No matter how unpopular iTunes may be to some, and no matter how much fun it can be to have distrust of Apple’s business practices, the lack of a core, no-brainer synching solution is a liability for Android. doubleTwist shows some promise in this area, but Google would be making a nice investment in Android if they would put some weight behind this kind of effort. How about even some “Summer of Code” interns to build something in this camp? Please?

#4 VPN and server access

The VPN setup doesn’t allow Group settings — or if it does, they are very well hidden. Cisco owns a significant share of the corporate firewall market and a mobile device that wants to play in the enterprise space would be well served by supporting Cisco products.

A built-in Remote Desktop client would be nice also. Accessing a server in the corporate data center from your mobile phone is a good driver for that market.

There are a number of RDP clients in the Market place — Google should buy one with some loose change and include it with the OS core image.

#5 Stability

OK, so this is perhaps not a “feature”, but I am a bit embarrassed when I have to call someone back because I had to pop the battery due to a “lock-up” of my phone. This is happening to my Nexus One (Android 2.1) about once every other day. I’ve read that it may be due to low memory conditions, but whatever the problem, it is a bit of a non-starter for a TELEPHONE to simply crash when a call comes in!

I suppose I can live with this for now because, well, I paid a lot of money for this thing and I need a real device to finish my Android development book, but I would love it if Froyo can make calls work more consistently. Absurd request, I admit, but that is my reality at present, and unfortunately, I am not alone in this frustration.

I can finally finish the book!

We are in the red zone of completing an update to the Android development book and having lived through many SDK releases during the first edition, I am well accustomed to “running the gauntlet” of trying to find a way through writing the book and hitting the sweet spot of SDK releases.

One way or another, this looks to be a promising week for Android. Hopefully I don’t have to go out there and use my Jersey negotiating skills to get my wishes granted.

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