Google announces new Android privacy features, smartwatch strategy to compete with Apple

Better representation of darker skin tones in photographs and 3D video conferencing is also on the agenda.
Better representation of darker skin tones in photographs is also on the agenda Photo credit: Supplied

Google has unveiled updates across many of its services including Maps, Photos and Android operating system as the company showcases its role in a world that has become more digitally connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The announcements were made during the virtually-held Google I/O developer conference and also indicated a boost for the company's smartwatch strategy, which competes with Apple, and for its collaboration tools that rival offerings from Microsoft.

They also show how Google is aiming to demonstrate that its advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) will keep users attracted to its ad-supported or paid services for shopping, communication and entertainment, even as pandemic lockdowns ease and people resume in-person activities.

Android 12, the latest version of the mobile operating system active on over 3 billion devices globally, will arrive later this year packed with personalisation features such as customising apps' colour schemes. It will also enable devices to be used as a digital key for some cars.

A beta version is currently available for Google's Pixel phones with versions to come for the likes of OnePlus, Lenovo, Asus and Oppo phones. Pixel phones can enrol on the beta site while instructions for other phones are on the developers page.

One of the big changes in Android 12 is the new colour themes. By changing the wallpaper, the system automatically determines dominant and complementary colours and then applies them across the entire system.

Improvements around security and privacy will also include a new privacy dashboard that will allow users to see which data is being accessed by which apps, with the ability to revoke permissions through the dashboard, as well as an indicator on the status bar so users know when apps are accessing the microphone and camera.

Google also said its smartwatch operating system, Wear OS, would be adopted by its newly-acquired Fitbit unit and Samsung, both of which had used their own systems for years. Now working together, the companies could attract more app developers hoping to better compete with Apple Watch.

The company also shared new editing and viewing options for Google Docs and other work software, including a simple tool that suggests using inclusive terms instead of gendered words.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has made advocating for social justice a priority across the company. In another move the company said by this autumn its Pixel smartphones would better capture darker skin tones and curly and wavy hair in photos.

AI updates included a new effort to help drivers using Google Maps to reduce sudden braking by navigating them on "safer" routes. Google Photos will offer users a reminder that they can search Google Images for specific objects in screenshots.

In a tease of futuristic collaboration software, Pichai revealed 'Project Starline', which involves video-conferencing booths that use so-called light-field displays to let people view a 3D representation of their counterparts. Healthcare and media companies would test the system, Pichai said.