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Why It Matters That Google's Android Is Coming to All the Screens

The company is trying to assert algorithmic control over the new frontier: the notification.

David Singleton, Android's director of engineering, announces a new smartwatch during his keynote address at the Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco. (Reuters)

There is a likely vision for computing in the next decade that looks like this: One smart device in your pocket acts as the brain for an ever-evolving constellation of screens in your car and living room and on your face and wrist.

The phone—moving ever farther away from its name—rules everything around you.

Today, Google showed how it is building this future. The company is bringing Android, its mobile operating system, to televisions and cars.

"So, this isn't a new platform. That's kind of the point," Android's engineering director, Dave Burke, told an audience of programmers at the Google I/O conference. "We're simply giving TV the same level of attention as phones and tablets have traditionally enjoyed. We want you to be able to leverage your existing skills and investment in Android and extend them to TV."

What this means for an average person is that the people building apps for phones will soon be building apps for all kinds of stuff.

The design frameworks and types of interactions that you have on the device in your pocket are going to proliferate all around you. When you're in your car, Google wants the Android design language to sit in the dashboard. When you look at your watch: Android. When you turn on the TV: Android.

Google/Alexis Madrigal

The spread of Android matters because operating systems are not a neutral way of accessing computing power. They structure all the interactions that we have with our phones. They change what applications are possible. They set standards for security and accessibility. They smuggle in a way of thinking about accessing information and communications.

If Android is to be the core of your own personal swarm of screens and robots, it means that all of the data Google knows about you will come to the interactions you have with the stuff around you. The profile you build up at your computer and on your tablet will now apply to your television watching and your commuting, seamlessly (as Google likes to say).

Sitting underneath all the interactions you have across these devices, Google's algorithms will be churning. The way Google thinks—its habits of data collection, analysis, and optimization—will become part of these experiences that have previously remained outside the company's reach.

Google recently purchased a slate of robotics companies, home-sensor maker Nest, and the surveillance-camera startup Dropcam. Many have read these moves as Google's push into physical space.

Well, the effort to put Android everywhere is the other pincer in Google's maneuver. The acquisitions focus on novel hardware devices, while the Android team attempts to make Googleyness ubiquitous on screens.

How might this shape the future?

Well, another announcement Google made in describing the upcoming version of Android was to talk about optimizing the notifications that show up on the lock screen of phones. As Wired's Mat Honan has noted, "Notifications are the new interface frontier." Notifications are one reason WhatsApp was able to make such rapid user gains: A message popping up from WhatsApp was functionally equivalent to a text or a Facebook message. If companies can get people to opt-in to their notifications, it is even better than being on the "homescreen" of the phone.

Which brings us back to Google's announcement that they will be determining "the most important" notifications to show you. Like Facebook's News Feed or Gmail's Priority Inbox, you'll see a selection of possible notifications, rather than all of them, when you glance at the phone. (A tap lets you see all of them.) That is to say, Google is asserting algorithmic control over the new interface frontier. And the software that determines what you see will be opaque to you.

This feature might work great, especially as more companies try to exploit notifications to grow their user bases. I, for one, could not survive my inbox without priority filtering, and few users of Facebook could manage a raw feed. But let's be clear: Google is almost always willing to trade user control for small increases in efficiency.

So get ready! That's what's coming to a car, television, wrist, or face near you.