Android 12 redesign, brand-new Wear OS, Android Automotive, and more: Google’s biggest I/O in years

Google I/O is in full swing, and we’ve put together all the biggest announcements in our continuously updated post covering the event right here. From Android 12’s massive new Material You redesign, to the newly-combined Wear OS and Tizen smartwatch platform, to amazingly useful new tools in Google Photos, Maps, and your digital privacy, I/O 2021 is shaping up to be the company’s biggest developer event in years. Let’s break it down, piece by piece.

Android 12 redesign (Material You)

Material You is the latest version of Google’s official design language, and it’s coming to Android 12 this fall to Pixel first (for more on that, read our story here). Along with it will come major changes to the entire Android aesthetic, including greater personalization along with a very fresh coat of paint for the entire operating system. Oh, and the new beta of the OS is live now for Pixels, and here are all the OEMs who plan to support Android 12 betas as time goes on.

We’ve got a deeper dive in our post on Material You right here, and let me tell you: we are excited. This is easily the biggest Android redesign in years, and it just looks stunningly good — Google even brought Matias Duarte on stage to introduce it! Here’s a mega-gallery of some of the new Android looks.

Android 12 also promises big improvements to performance to go along with this fresh new look, with fewer stutters and lockups. It all sounds very promising.

Oh, and side note: there are now over three billion Android devices out there!

Wear OS gets completely reinvented

Wear OS is undergoing the biggest change in the platform’s history: Google is teaming up with Samsung and combining the Wear OS and Tizen wearable operating systems into a single, unified platform. The announcement included a massive redesign for the OS, and promises from Google of renewed investment in smartwatches, along with the implication of strong cooperation with Samsung on wearables going forward.

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Smartwatches have been a bugbear for Google from day one. None of the company’s iterations of Android Wear (later Wear OS) really impressed anyone, and reliance on lackluster Qualcomm silicon left the platform feeling abandoned. We hope this renewed investment will finally change the game for Android-compatible smartwatches and other wearables.

Google also announced that powerful new fitness and wellness features will come to this platform via Fitbit, which Google now owns. There’s still a lot to learn about Google’s new wearable platform and what the future of the hardware that will utilize it, but it’s the most confident Google’s sounded about smartwatches in years. We can only hope the follow-through matches today’s exciting new vision.

And in terms of new features? YouTube Music is coming to Wear OS. Finally.

Android Auto and Automotive

Android Auto wireless is coming to more manufacturers this year, as is Android Automotive. Google is also announcing that your Android phone will become a car key when used with vehicles from select manufacturers, which is pretty cool (and something Apple announced last year).

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Google Photos

New features for Google Photos like locked folders, photo grids, cinematic moments, and memory controls have us perked up as well.

locked folder photos

Locked folders in Google Photos

The new memory controls are particularly notable, as they’ll allow you to hide memories with certain people, pets, or even a specific image from being surfaced as a memory in the Photos app. New pattern recognition AI will make it even easier to find and create collections of objects and scenes you’ve photographed.

Google Maps

Google Maps announced a suite of changes, like new safe routing that will help you avoid particularly dangerous cycling routes or areas where pedestrians have poor access to sidewalks or are overly exposed to traffic. There will also be new alerts about especially crowded neighborhoods and areas, as opposed to just businesses and places of interest.

A quick demo of Google Maps’ new area busyness experience

There are also some notable changes like more detailed street maps for 50 cities, some of which you should check out in our more detailed post linked in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Advanced new search AI (MUM)

A new “Multitask Unified Model” (codenamed “MUM”) will allow Google to interpret text, language, and media in radically powerful new ways. Google says this will allow for far, far more complex queries in search, like “I’ve hiked Mt Adams and now want to hike Mt Fuji, what should I do to prepare differently?” — a question that a mountaineer might be able to answer without skipping a beat, but that a search engine would be utterly useless to solve when queried in this fashion. Another crazy example: imagine showing Google a picture of your hiking boots and asking if they’d be suitable for hiking Mt Fuji.

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OK Google, this is kinda nuts

That feels like the kind of magical future Google frequently offers, though rarely delivers in practice, so color us skeptical for now. But the fact that they’re even shooting for this kind of functionality is pretty amazing stuff.

Privacy controls

New privacy controls like deleting the last 15 minutes of your search history allow you to quickly and easily get rid of recent queries. Google Maps is getting reminders about your location history, with a quick toggle to turn off location tracking, along with the aforementioned Google Photos locked folder.

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Quickly and easily delete your last 15 minutes of searches

Google Chrome will also prompt you to change your password on sites directly where it knows you have a compromised password.

Major changes to Android’s privacy controls are also in store as part of the Android 12 update (like microphone and camera kill switches), and it’s tough to summarize in our overview, but you can find all the details in our rundown right here.

LaMDA conversational AI

Google later unveiled its brand-new LaMDA conversational AI, which produces some mind-blowingly human language in dialogue (one of Google’s demos was a conversation with the ex-planet Pluto). Another demo involved chatting with a paper airplane, one of the most strangely abstract things I think I’ve ever seen a computer do. That said, it was all exceptionally impressive, if a little odd.

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Only Google would chat with a paper airplane to demo new AI tech

These new conversational models have practical uses, too, but Google promises that its Assistant AI will become radically more intelligent when it comes to understanding complex but natural inquiries like “find a beautiful mountain view” in Maps, or showing a video of a lion roaring on YouTube. It’s pretty wild stuff.

Workspaces

We’ve seen big changes to Workspaces, with support for Google Meet integration directly into Google’s suite of apps like Docs, Sheets, and Slides — which should make for significantly easier collaboration on projects.

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A whole lot more changes for Docs and Sheets are also in play, so be sure to check out our full post on those right here.

Quantum computing (we’re just as confused as you)

Google then lept into the world of quantum computing, but we’d be lying if we said we had a good idea of the implications of those announcements at this point — it’s cutting-edge science involving technology that could power a generational leap in processing. Relatedly, Google wants us to know quantum computers need to be really, really, cold! Even this really abstract art piece doesn’t exactly do much to help me understand what this is all about, but it sounds exciting (and difficult).

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I can’t say I understand any of this any better now

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