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29 May 2015

Google confirms Brillo and Weave API framework at I/O, SIM-support for Wear

Google confirmed the leaked reports we looked at last week, by announcing its Brillo OS – a stripped down version of Android targeted at IoT devices, as well as an API framework called Weave. Also announced at the Google event was the new version of Android, or more specifically, the developer preview of Android M, which includes Android Pay integration.

While the new fully-featured Android will appeal to developers of consumer electronics, for the IoT, Brillo is the more exciting proposition. Google says Brillo is essentially a package that keeps the lower-level components of Android, but does away with the higher level stuff that is not needed by the kinds of devices that Brillo is designed for – those with 32-64MB of RAM.

So while the modifications to the base Linux kernel and the hardware abstraction layers are still present, Brillo will be a very different beast to the flavor of Android found in smartphones. Google promises that developers will be able to reuse existing Android software stacks for Brillo, however.

The more pressing bit of news that didn’t leak last week is the unveiling of the new Weave API framework, which Google says will help standardize communication between devices. Actual details about Weave are pretty scant, but the platform-agnostic looks like it will be pretty familiar to those who work with JSON Java, based on the preview images.

Based on the slides shown at the presentation, Weave will be the bridge between Android devices, Brillo devices, and the wider internet-enabled cloud platforms. In that sense, it rather resembles Apple’s HomeKit, which aims to allow connected objects in the smart home to talk to iDevices and Apple’s cloud services without the need for direct application support. However, we won’t know much more about the mechanics behind the platform until developers get their hands on it, or until Google starts letting more details out.

Weave joins a number of initiatives aimed at tackling the inter-communication issues that are so prevalent in the IoT. Most notable at the moment seems to be the AllSeen Alliance’s AllJoyn framework, developed and backed by Qualcomm, whose closest rival is currently the Open Interconnect Consortium’s IoTivity project. Both aim to enable device discovery and consequent communication, and effectively serve as device-level software-driven discovery protocols that can configure smart homes dynamically.

In terms of their release, Google says Q3 for Brillo and Q4 for Weave, which should see them emerge after version 1.0 of the Thread radio protocol is released. Thread if the product of the Thread Group, an industry body founded by Google-owned Nest to develop the 802.15.4-based 6LoWPAN mesh networking protocol, which we expect to form the backbone of an Android-based smart home initiative from Google/Nest.

With full-fat Android controlling larger devices in the smart home, such as TVs and dedicated smart home hubs, Brillo can be used to run the smaller devices such as thermostats, security cameras and video-based intercoms. Linking these devices to the smaller microcontroller-based devices (too small to run Brillo) will be the Thread protocol, as well as a combination of WiFi and Bluetooth in all likelihood.

And by the looks of it, Weave will be the actual bits and bytes conveyed around the smart home by these 3 radio protocols – allowing an interoperable network of connected smart home kit, and of course other applications in business or industrial deployments.

Other Android announcements:

As touched on above, Google is also adding Android Pay to the Android platform, and promises to keep it open to encourage adoption. Headline figures include support from all major credit card companies, and an NFC-based system that will work in 700,000 US stores. The system will work on Android 4.4 and later, but will of course also require NFC in the mobile device.

Another addition to Android is support for fingerprint readers, which can be used to unlock the phone and authorize applications, instead of passwords. More granular control over app permissions is also promised, partly in order to deal with the new ways of unlocking and authorizing actions within the OS.

One of the weirder additions to Android is Now on Tap, an awfully-named but admittedly-useful digital assistant that responds to the on-screen content. The example use-case saw a text conversation about dry cleaning trigger a calendar entry to remind the user to go and collect it, and a conversation about a film was augmented with suggested trailers and cast information – all powered by Google’s extensive cloud platforms and machine learning algorithms.

The fifth iteration of Android Wear is also due within a few weeks, and Google noted that by the end of the year there will be 11 Android smartwatches on the market. Having added WiFi support post-launch, support for SIM cards is due to be added soon – which will enable standalone smartwatches. Such a move is bound to irk Samsung, which forged ahead with its own Tizen OS to build a WiFi+3G smartwatch due to the shortcomings of Wear,

What this move really does is open up the Wear smartwatch market to non-Android users. The Apple Watch is still an expensive single-vendor option, and the ability to sell an iPhone user an Android watch for half the price of the cheapest Apple Watch is a strong proposition for the platform. This would also tie-in with the rumors that Google is working to make Wear compatible with iOS – although the extent of this integration remains to be seen, especially if Apple finds a clause in its terms and conditions to nix it.

After launching in its first car, the 2015 Hyundai Sonata, Android Auto is on track to reach 35 models of car by the end of the year.