I have gone to my fair share of tech conferences so far in my career, but now I can say that I’ve been to Nerd Woodstock. Last week was the 10th annual Google I/O which took place at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, near Google’s main campus in Mountain View, California.
The Keynote began with an amazing live Earth Harp performance of a song from the motion picture Amélie followed by a slick video and then dove right into the announcements.
The following were the highlights for me:
Building on the Big Brother-esque amount of data Google has on the world, and on us as users, they are now able to use natural language processing to respond to voice queries and commands in a conversational tone. They call it the Google Assistant, and they’re integrating it into every product they can, starting with Google Home. Out later this year, the Google Home is a device about the size of a large stemless wine glass that will let you voice-query Google and cast music and video to your speakers, television, and other synced devices. This one was a bit of a non-starter for me since, as a Generation Y techie, my apartment already has more Internet of Things devices than I know what to do with, including my two much-beloved Chromecasts which this device would seek to replace. As for voice-activated search, my phone might as well be permanently affixed to my hand, so that’s not much of a draw for me either. Still, it’ll be interesting to see how well Google Home performs, especially in comparison to the Amazon Echo.
I’ve heard a lot of guff along the lines of “oh yes, a new chat app, that’s exactly what we need.” On the surface, I can see where this sentiment comes from. Why not just update GChat and Hangouts with all these new features that they’re dumping into Allo and Duo? Beats me, but here’s my hunch: a rebrand was in order. In my opinion Hangouts and GChat feel musty, and have felt that way since not long after they were released. With the wild and growing popularity of apps like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, What’s App, Facetime, and even Slack, it is not at all surprising to me that Google wants to re-enter the fray with a fresh start. They’re pulling a lot of the best-loved features from those competitors (Writing on top of photos => Snapchat. Overuse of emoji => Slack. Stickers => Messenger. Minimal interface => Facetime.) and layering Assistant ecosystem and Knock Knock to give themselves a competitive advantage.
Admittedly, I am not an Android developer nor do I own any Android devices. I took this part of the Keynote as an opportunity to apply more sunscreen. Naturally, I’m pleased to see that Google is lobbying for better representation of women in Unicode. I intend to use the “woman working on a laptop” emoji daily, as soon as it is available. And although I’m not an Android user, I was pretty impressed by the Android Instant App initiative and I wonder if/when Apple will follow suit.
The big focus for all the Web talks at this year’s I/O was on mobile. Speakers threw the “1 billion mobile users” statistic around a lot. They also harped heavily on their concept of Progressive Web Apps, which are essentially adaptive websites with some Android flair thrown in (such as the ability to pin to the home screen, offline capabilities, and access to the notifications API) and their open source project called AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages).
I was a little concerned, upon first receiving my ticket information, about the fact that the bulk of the conference appeared to be taking place in a series of parking lots.
Once I arrived I was reassured to find that all the presentations (save the ones in the Amphitheatre) would be given in enormous tents with top-of-the-line AV equipment. They weren’t all domes, and some were much larger, which was good considering the amount of people wanting to get in.
Image credit: Andrew Cunningham, Ars Technica
Monica Dinculescu gives her presentation on Web Components inside a dome tent.
Yes, there were long lines, and yes, I did miss most of the sessions I’d hoped to see on Wednesday.
I was impressed, however, by the conference’s agility in fixing the issues by the second day. I was able to get into every presentation I wanted to attend for the rest of the conference, and many of Wednesday’s over-popular presentations were repeated on Friday.
In the meantime, there was no shortage of interactive and cool stuff to keep attendees preoccupied. A portion of the Amphitheatre, which appeared to be a restaurant usually, was repurposed to house the Google Code Labs, where developers were invited to sit down at workstations, some complete with Nests and other devices, to hack through hands-on exercises. Googlers roamed the area, answering questions. I, for one, am very proud of the web interface I cobbled together using Polymer and the Nest API.
Further afield – in the parking lots – tent-shaded areas showed off products like Nest, Firebase, a self-driving car, various smart watches, and Android Auto. There were also Android Experiments like a splatter-painting robot, sight-singing phones, and a plotter that drew out single-line portraits of attendees. A Project Loon balloon was also on display.
Android Auto on display in a Maserati. No big deal.
Project Loon brings the internet to all by way of stratosphere balloons.
There is so much going on here that I can hardly take it all in. Here's a video of phones... sight singing. pic.twitter.com/lEU8hAUjxp— Caitlin Steinert (@csteinert) May 18, 2016
There was even more stuff, but I need to wrap up this blog post eventually, and I haven’t even covered the sessions yet!
So what about those sessions that people waited full hours to get into? As expected for a conference of this nature, they were all slick and well-prepared. My focus was mainly on the Web, with things like Polymer and Chrome DevTools. Here are my top favorites.
Building for Billions on the Web
With the internet at our fingertips, it can be hard to remember – if not a complete revelation – that the vast majority of internet users are accessing the web on sub-optimal data connections and small devices. Tal Oppenheimer’s research and insight into this subject is eye-opening, and her recommendations are ones I look forward to playing around with.
DevTools in 2016
Chrome DevTools Team
Practical lessons from a year of building web components
With a secondary title like “The Meownica School for Kids Who Want to Web Good and Do Other Things Good Too,” you know this is going to be a wild ride. And it is. Monica delves into the tips and tricks she has learned on the Polymer team, with a healthy smattering of emoji and anti-input-element sass. My tweet summary does it a fair amount of justice:
Just go watch the whole thing. You are unlikely to regret it.
Mobile Web State of the Union
Chromium Dev Team
This presentation covers Google’s new AMP and PWA initiatives. Making our mobile experiences faster and better for our users is something we as developers should already be striving towards. It’s nice to see that Google has our back. For me, the biggest jaw-drop moment in this presentation is the unveiling of the Web Payments API. That is going to be amazing, and I hope that wide acceptance will push other browsers to follow suit.
Web Performance Tooling
Paul Irish, Sam Saccone
In a conversational, podcast-like presentation format, Paul and Sam take on some real-world performance issues with the Chrome DevTools. They are self-professed performance geeks, and taking even a little bit of knowledge away from this protip-rich talk is likely to improve your performance game. I am both excited and terrified to run these DevTool recordings on my own site.
Understand your Place in this world
Florian Bertele, Ravi Palanki
I use Google Maps and Places on a near-daily basis, so this was an interesting dive into the Places API and how it works.
Although this was the largest Google I/O yet, with roughly 7,000 attendees, tickets were still difficult to come by. I was able to attend due to the joint efforts of Women Techmakers and Girl Develop It, for which I’m very grateful. I was also invited to attend the Women Techmakers Dinner the night before the conference began. Aside from the delicious food and beautiful setup, it was exciting to be in the company of a couple hundred amazing tech industry women from all over the world.
Photo credit: Google Official Blog
As one of the Columbus Chapter Leaders for Girl Develop It it was exciting to be able to attend a happy hour hosted by the San Francisco chapter near the conference venue! In true Mountain View fashion, we commuted to the happy hour on Google’s brightly-painted fixie bikes.
I’d also like to thank the rest of the Base Two team for letting me jet off to California a little over a week after joining the team (Hello, world!) with only minor grumblings of general jealousy.