Google Adds AI Capabilities for Android Developers

Google grabbed headlines this week with announcements about new AI-powered product features, a rebranding of its research group to emphasized AI, and a demo of its stunningly human Duplex artificial intelligence agent.

AI is also playing a role in the latest version of the Android OS (Android P, now in beta) in the form of a new "adaptive battery" feature that learns from usage patterns how to maximize the battery life of a particular device. Another AI-based feature, "adaptive brightness," learns how the user likes the screen brightness.

Google is doubling down on its AI strategy, and it's taking pains to make sure developers have the tools they need to participate.

"The pace of AI innovation is breathtaking," said Jason Titus, who leads the company's developer product group, during the developer keynote. "A whole new set of capabilities is going to change the way we do things. We're at an inflection point. AI used to be something that only deep experts and PhDs could use. Now it's becoming accessible to everyone."

"Guided by your feedback, we've focused our efforts on making mobile development fast and easy, helping you get more users by making apps radically smaller, and increasing engagement to keep users coming back," wrote Android Production Management Director Stephanie Cuthbertson in a blog post.

Cuthbertson also appeared onstage during the developer keynote, where she unveiled a new app model for Android, called the Android App Bundle. A new upload format, the App Bundle includes an app's entire compiled code and resources, but defers APK generation and signing to Google Play. (APK is the package file format used by Android for distribution and installation of mobile apps and middleware.)

Google Play's new app serving model, Dynamic Delivery, uses the App Bundle to generate and serve optimized APKs for each user's device configuration, Cuthbertson explained, so they download only the code and resources needed to run the app. Devs no longer have to build, sign, and manage multiple APKs to support different devices, and users get smaller, more optimized downloads.

"App sizes are growing," Cuthbertson said, "and that's not good. We're making it easier to build smaller apps, and that meant re-architecting our entire app serving stack.

Cuthbertson also updated the crowd on Google's support of the Kotlin programming language. Google's Android team announced first-class support for Kotlin at last year's I/O, and began shipping it alongside Java and C++ with the official Android IDE. Since then, 35% of professional developers are now using it to develop on the Android platform, she said. "More and more Android development is going toward Kotlin," she said. "We are committed [to Kotlin] long term."

Titus announced two new capabilities for Android developers: App Actions and Slices. App Actions allows devs to bring their content directly to Android surfaces, including things like Search, the Google Assistant, and the Google Launcher, when and where the user needs it. Slices are "interactive snippets" of an app that can appear in Google Search and Google Assistant. Actions will also be accessories-aware -- it'll notice, for example, if the user plugs in a set of headphones and then it might suggest a few of his/her favorite playlists. Google says Actions will appear in the Google Assistant, Google Search, the Play Store, and smart text selections.

Titus also unveiled the Android Jetpack, which the company describes as "a set of libraries, tools and architectural guidance to help make it quick and easy to build great Android apps." Jetpack brings together the Support Library, which provides backwards compatibility and immediate updates, with a larger set of components, "making it quick and easy to build robust, high quality apps," the company said. Jetpack manages things like background tasks, navigation, and lifecycle management, eliminating the need for boilerplate code. Android Jetpack is designed to work with Kotlin. Along with Slices, this release includes the WorkManager, Paging, and Navigation, components.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].