Google I/O 2012 Keynote: Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7

Google I/O 2012, Google’s annual developer conference is this week, and yesterday’s keynote speech saw the company unveil Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean), the Nexus 7 (an official Android tablet), new apps for Maps, Currents, and Google+, Android’s own search assistant, and more.

In case you missed the presentation, here’s a quick overview.

Jelly Bean

As indicated by the version number Android 4.1 is not a complete overhaul of Android (unlike Ice Cream Sandwich), but it does bring a number of significant improvements.

Jelly Bean will be released for Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Motorola Xoom phones in mid-July, and will be made open source at the same time. With luck, this means we won’t have to wait too long for ROMs.

User Interface

It looks like Google has been keeping an eye on SwiftKey, as Jelly Bean’s stock keyboard seems to mimic the alternative keyboard’s most attractive feature: the ability to predict the next word you’re going to type, as well as the one you’re tapping out now.

Speaking of input (and speaking of speaking), the continuous voice transcription is no longer based in the cloud; it’s been shrunk down to fit on the app, so you can talk and talk and talk and Android will type and type and type, without having to be online. Unfortunately this will only be available in US English to begin with, but more languages and dialects will be rolled out over time.

There’s a big emphasis on getting the entire UI to feel smoother and faster; this effort is codenamed Project Butter (as in, “smooth as”), and was demonstrated through high-speed camera recordings as well as tools that developers can use to find bottlenecks in their code.

Notifications have been revamped: the keywords here were “customisable” (for developers) and “actionable” (for users). Each notification has a bigger thumbnail, which could be your friend’s avatar when they send you a text or the album art of a song that’s currently playing, for instance. Notifications can also contain buttons, like Play/Pause/Skip for music or Call Back for a missed call alert, and can be expanded with a gesture to fill much more of the notification area.

Jelly Bean notifications

There are a few other, smaller new features:

  • Android Beam (the NFC platform) will let you share photos and videos by tapping phones together, and pair with Bluetooth devices by tapping the phone to it.
  • Accessibility has been improved, with integrated Braille support.
  • Persian, Hindi, and Thai input language support has been added.
  • When adding a widget to a home screen, it will automatically push icons out of the way or resize itself to fit as necessary.
  • The camera’s gallery has new gesture controls for navigating through photos and deleting ones you don’t like, among others.

These are all little details, but they add up.

The New Search

Last month, Google introduced Knowledge Graph, which aims to give more context to search results. For instance, it “knows” that Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance, and so can link him to other bits of information like his birth date, paintings, and even contemporary artists.

On Android, this info can be shown to you in the form of a card. It can also read the text of the card back to you, and when you combine that with the ability to dictate a search with your voice, it starts to feel a little like a certain mobile virtual assistant…

A Knowledge Graph card

While this does seem to be a response to Siri, it’s not exactly a rip-off. Given Google’s experiments with Voice Actions and data mining in the past, I get the impression this is the kind of thing Google would have come up with eventually.

Google Now

Google Now combines your current location, your calendar entries, and your search history to figure out what’s relevant to you right now. (Some people are going to be immediately turned off by the search history mining alone, for sure.)

For instance: it can detect what your favourite sports teams are and notify you when a match is on and what the current score is. It can figure out whether the route you take home from work every day has an unusual amount of traffic and suggest an alternative when you leave the office. It can recommend restaurants as you walk down the street in a new city, and tell you what’s good to eat once you get a table.

Nexus 7

The rumours were true. This is an official 7-inch Android tablet, with a 1280×800 screen resolution and a quad-core CPU (with an octal-core GPU).

"Fits in your hand"

Based on these stats alone, you can tell that it’s not trying to compete with the iPad. In fact, the presenters made it very clear – without ever actually saying the word “Amazon” – that the Nexus 7 is going after the Kindle Fire market. They spent a long time talking about the Google Play Store, emphasising that it sells movies, books, and songs, not just apps and games.

The tablet will be available in the US, UK, and Canada from mid-July, will launch with Jelly Bean, and will cost $199 (£159) for the 8GB model ($249/£199 for 16GB; sadly, there’s no SD card slot). You can place a pre-order right now.

The Rest

Google showed off another new Nexus that came as a bit of a surprise: the Nexus Q, an Android powered device that can stream HD video and music to your home TV and stereo. We’ll have more information on this in a post later this week.

We already reported that Google Maps is about to get an update, with 3D features and offline caching, but it’s not the only one. Google Currents will feature on-the-fly translation; YouTube will let you cache videos you’re subscribed to and have some form of TV integration; and Google+ will finally get a tablet-specific version.

The Play Store itself is getting a couple of improvements, too – although most are aimed at app developers, two that we can all enjoy are the addition of TV shows and new “smart app updates”, which means that only the difference between the old and the new version gets downloaded (translation: smaller downloads).

At the end of the keynote, while Vic Gundotra was demonstrating the new Google+ Events, he was suddenly interrupted by co-founder Sergey Brin who showed off Project Glass:

This last video has nothing to do with Android, but it’s the best live product demo I’ve ever seen.