Google I/O ‘17: Tech Advancements, Developer Culture, and Accessibility
Claire Lynch
Claire Lynch

Google I/O ‘17: Tech Advancements, Developer Culture, and Accessibility

Claire Lynch, iOS Engineer

This post was co-authored by Claire Lynch, iOS Engineer and Harlan Kellaway, Senior iOS Engineer.

Google’s annual conference for developers, Google I/O, just passed. With it came a flurry of exciting panels and insights into the future of Google’s platforms – and, really, technology at large. I had the privilege of being able to attend many panels – and invite you to revisit my learnings from them.

The sessions I chose to attend fall thematically into a few categories that speak to some of what’s important to Google: Advancing Technology, Developer Culture & Values, and Accessibility.

Advancing Technology

Google’s Machine Learning Framework

TensorFlow is Google’s open source machine learning framework. It came up – and more pervasively the topic of machine learning – in various panels.

Google made their intention clear: over the past year, top minds at the company have focused on laying the groundwork – both in terms of new hardware technologies and software innovations – to improve their products through AI. Their approach of AI first is clearly going to change our world.

Learn more: Effective TensorFlow for Non-Experts, From Research to Production with TensforFlow Serving, and Android Meets TensorFlow: How to Accelerate Your App with AI.

Machine Learning and Art

I attended a packed session close to the end of the conference where we learned  about Project Magenta – Google’s research project to advance how machine intelligence is used for music and art generation.

Machine learning models have been trained from human doodling data to generate accurate guesses of the intended image when a human sketches with just a few stokes. These models can do the same with sounds! Based on input from two existing sounds, such as a flute and a bass, the model can generate a sound that’s an organic-sounding combination of the two.

Learn more: Project Magenta Blog, Quick Draw, NSynth: Neural Audio Synthesis, and NSynth: Sound Maker.

Android Development Tools

The focus for developer tools improvement was Vitals. There are new and improved tools within Android Studio that allow developers to determine how their app performs in terms of battery usage and networking. It’s no coincidence that providing tools to optimize these Vitals dovetails with the specific needs of the “next billion users” group I mention later on.

Learn more: What’s New in Android Development Tools

Cross-Platform Mobile Apps

Cross-platform development has been a hot topic as of late with the come up of React Native. Google has another cross-platform solution – Flutter. Flutter allows you to use the same UI code for both iOS and Android while sticking to certain platform-specific conventions. For example, when scrolling, iOS devices depict a vertical bounce whereas Android devices have the overscroll glow.

Learn More: Single Codebase, Two Apps with Flutter and Firebase

Developer Culture & Values

Girl Power!

Women Techmakers is Google’s program to provide visibility, community, and resources for women in technology. I had the privilege of attending the Women Techmakers dinner and connected with many incredibly driven and intelligent women. It’s impressive how many female speakers were represented at the keynote address. And, even more important: the extent to which they presented themselves and were received as experts, contributors, leaders, and advocates.

Google is moving the dial forward and meeting the challenge of gender imbalance in tech, not by tooting a horn to say, “Here are the girls!”, but rather by putting women on stage to show that we are accomplished technologists and crucial teammates.

Learn More: Women Techmakers Programs

Have a Heart

During the keynote, Google highlighted the potential for technology as a tool for positive change. YouTube is a Google video platform most are familiar with. It’s great for viral means – but how about as a platform for eliciting contributions toward worthy social causes? Google Lens is a new innovation that uses AI to analyze images for contextual information and actions. Sure, we could use this for recognizing and tagging friends on social – but how about as a tool for pathologists to recognize abnormal cells and provide life-saving diagnoses? And, how about AI applied to search to direct users to the consumer products they’re really looking for? Sure, but we could also use this technology to more seamlessly connects jobs seekers with employers who need their skills.

Learn More: Google I/O Keynote


The Next Billion Users

Our conception of what it means for something to be “accessible” should not be conflated with our conception of what it means for someone to be “disabled”. Accessibility issues range from a limited ability to see a screen in the sunlight, to physical tremors becoming more common in an aging population, to temporary limited mobility as a result of an injury – and to intermittent and poor network access in many parts of the world.

Providing a usable platform for the “next billion users” means thinking differently about UX. For example, large download size is one of the greatest deterrents to app usage among this user group –  one takeaway is we need to think about user flows that empower all users to make proactive decisions about their data usage.

Learn more: Designing for the Next Billion Users: Accessibility UX Insights from the Developing World

Including Accessibility In Development

This is one of the best talks I attended – and I highly recommend watching this one. The speaker covers practical steps for product managers, designers, and developers to integrate accessibility into the team workflow.

I learned a lot about “focus” – i.e. which UI element is active and how it is shown to be active for users who primarily utilize the keyboard. The speaker gave well-structured solutions about how UX designers can dictate a preferred focus flow, and how developers can implement it. Although focused on web, I think the insights are also immediately applicable to our work on mobile apps.’

Learn More: Pragmatic Accessibility: A How-To Guide for Teams, A11yCasts

Learn More

This is but a sliver of all the talks given at Google I/O with a focus on a few themes of interest – tech advancements, developer culture, and accessibility. Some of my takeaways are:

  • Machine learning will play a big part in the the future of technology and our world
  • Cross-platform mobile apps is an important topic for mobile developers to explore
  • Addressing the gender imbalance in the tech field in material ways is imperative as is diverse representation
  • Platforms are updating to empower the “next billion users” – and so should our user experience
  • Accessibility is a worthy and achievable goal during development

With the next WWDC right around the corner, I look forward to seeing what the other mobile juggernaut, Apple, has to say on these topics. Regardless, Google is saying these things are important and we as mobile developers, designers and users should pay attention.