Android in 2020: the future of Google's mobile OS explored
24th Sep 2013 | 10:00
Android Rocky Road?
Cast your mind back to late 2008, when the first Android-powered handset saw the light of day. Obama won his first Presidential election, Apple launched its App Store (the iPhone had appeared the year before), Google announced its own Chrome browser and we got our first look at the company's new mobile OS on the T-Mobile G1.
The Android of 2013 is a world away from that 2008 version, where the Android Market was in its infancy, there were no native video playback capabilities and the G1 had no multi-touch support. But Google is going to have to keep innovating and improving its mobile OS to keep the lion's share of the smartphone market.
We've taken a peek into the future to consider what Android might look like in the year 2020. With new Android monikers now appearing about once a year, its codename should start with an "R" - Rhubarb Pie, Rocky Road or Rice Pudding, perhaps? Or maybe even Rolos, given the tie-up deals Google is putting in place these days?
Here are the four key features we think could play the biggest part in Android's ongoing evolution over the next seven years:
1. Maps in Android in 2020
Apple's Maps app may not have set the world alight when it launched, but it's here now (alongside Nokia's offering), and that means Google needs to up its game to stay ahead. The 2013 Google Maps refresh brought with it a greater level of customisation based on your personal searches, and this will only increase in the future.
With Google Now and Google Latitude tracking your every move, you'll see directions to your favourite pub appear on-screen every Friday lunchtime. If the pub in question has an Android-powered bar installed, you might even find your tipple of choice waiting for you when you arrive.
As for all of the services hanging off Maps, Google is already hiring out the Street View cameras and enabling you to peek inside buildings - you can expect Android 2020 to offer better imagery of most public buildings, as well as tappable info as you move around.
There might even be an option to enable Google to anonymously augment its Street View data with the snaps you take on your phone to provide an even more up-to-date view of the world.
2. Android messaging in 2020
Google has already made its intentions clear with the Hangouts upgrade we got at I/O this year. With Facebook, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype et al to battle against, there's no doubt we'll see Google push further into the universal messaging game, covering SMS, email, instant messaging and video calling with tools that are baked into Android.
You won't have to have separate apps for each of these, as the UI will be unified in a way that makes it easy to seamlessly slip between each method of calling.
We might even get Google Voice in the UK by the time 2020 rolls around, though don't hold your breath.
How far Google can go depends on the networks and its competitors in the field - it's already launched an ultra-fast internet service in the US, so telecoms could be next. And the company has been sniffing around unused wireless spectrum frequencies, too.
Don't be surprised to see free 5G video calling and texting between Android devices by 2020, with all of your conversations grouped by person rather than platform, and archived and searchable in Gmail.
Eric Schmidt has already predicted that every human will be online by 2020 (no doubt hoping that we'll all have a Google+ page too), and the more people his company can help get connected the better for Google's bottom line.
3. Android payments and security in 2020
Over the next few years our phones will become even more important for making payments, transferring money and verifying our identity (everything from getting through the door at work to logging into Facebook).
The Google Authenticator app of 2020 could work with your device's NFC chip to automatically log you into Gmail when you sit down at your laptop, for example, or pay for your flight when you step on a plane. Apple has Passbook, and Google will want an equivalent in place too.
We've seen tattoos and pills shown off as possible authentication triggers of the future, and Android 2020 will play a big part in proving you are who you say you are, whether it's at a coffee shop or Google I/O.
Basic face recognition is already available, but in the years to come it has the potential to get much more accurate. It might even be joined by fingerprint or retina scanning built into Android's camera app, or at least part of the phone, now that Apple has shown that fingerprint scanning is a viable option with its new Touch ID technology.
4. Android hardware in 2020
Hardware innovations are going to play a big part in Android's roadmap. Besides the obvious smaller, thinner, faster improvements for our phones, bendable screens should be in place in the near future - the likes of Samsung have the tech already in production, and Android will change to adapt itself through scrolling rivers of news, status updates and other notifications.
Ever-changing, ever-optimising displays will be the order of the day, and the batteries and mobile processors of 2020 should be able to keep up.
Google Glass has of course generated plenty of buzz this year, good and bad, as has the rumour of an Apple iWatch to compete with the Galaxy Gear. It looks like the wearable tech revolution is about to take off, and by the time 2020 rolls around this could mean miniature devices on our glasses, wrists and clothing, ready to capture every moment and record every movement.
You won't need to take photos any more, since Google will simply pick out the best pictures from the unedited stream of the day's events. Nor will you need to decide what to eat for dinner - Android 2020 will know what you've been doing today (and what you're probably doing tonight), and can pick out the most suitable foods for you.
Android: the 2020 edition
The only certainty about Android's future is that it has a fight on its hands to stay competitive. Apple's new-look iOS 7 has given Google plenty to think about, not least with its tie-ins with Facebook, Twitter, Bing, Flickr and Vimeo.
Android's continuing integration with Chrome and the desktop/laptop will make for an interesting story too - they're both run by the same man, Sundar Pichai, remember - and perhaps Google's biggest challenge will be to convince us that we can trust it with more and more information about where we are, who we communicate with and the way we live our lives.