Most of the world’s biggest tech companies want to talk to you—through voice-activated helpers including Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, and Apple's Siri.

The assistants today help solve simple everyday problems, but the tech giants are hoping to build on those relationships as they work to integrate the voice-activated helpers into tomorrow's smart homes, connected cars and other Internet of Things gadgets.

So Google surprised no one today when it devoted much of the keynote opening of its annual developers’ conference to updates to Google Assistant that may leave Alexa and Siri feeling a little uneasy.

The search giant also used Google I/O, which began Wednesday at the Shoreline Amphitheatre here, to unveil improvements to Google Photos and an upgrade to its Android mobile operating system that (some) users will see starting later this year.

Google Assistant

The conversational search app that debuted last year on Google’s Pixel phones and Home smart-home hub now runs on far more devices—more than 100 million, CEO Sundar Pichai said in the keynote. As of Wednesday, it runs on iPhones and accepts typed input, ending the awkwardness of talking to your phone in public.

In a few months, another new feature will let Assistant see. Google Lens is like the longstanding Google Goggles app, but instead of only identifying whatever’s in front of the camera, Lens enables Assistant to engage in useful conversation.

In one demo, the app read a restaurant sign in Japanese and translated “octopus dumplings.” The user could ask “what does it look like?” to call up images of the item. Outside firms will be able to link their own apps to Assistant for tasks such as placing a takeout order via voice commands (for consumers who find speaking to a human by phone too boring).

On the Home device, the Assistant will let you place free calls to numbers in the U.S. or Canada. And that cylindrical hub will be able to connect to streaming services like Spotify and HBO Now, using any TV with a Google Chromecast plugged in as its external display.

This could make Home more competitive with Amazon’s Echo, which has so far led the market

Google Photo

Google Photos, the automatic backup and curation system that Google introduced at I/O in 2015, now has more than 500 million monthly active users. In 2017, it is growing in sophistication.

Google Photos vice president Anil Sabharwal announced a new feature, “Suggested Sharing.” Once the feature is switched on in a few weeks, Google Photos will scan your library for compelling photos of friends, select them, and prompt you to send them to the subjects.

Something he didn’t mention: Google Photos can recognize that multiple photos include the same person, but it doesn’t try to identify who that person is, so you’ll need to label them first for the feature to work.

A second upcoming feature, Shared Libraries, will let you invite one confidante to see all or a set part of your library—or only photos of designated people.

For offline browsing, Google Photos can create photo books (starting at $9.99 for a 20-page softcover book, $19.99 for a hardcover volume). And instead of leaving it to distracted users to find and lay out the right pictures, Photos can do all that work automatically.

The features go well past the capabilities of the Photos app Apple has neglected since its 2014 introduction as the replacement for the even-more-neglected iPhoto. 

Android O

Google’s mobile operating system now runs more than 2 billion active devices, Pichai said at the start of the keynote. Historically, the latest release of Android, in any year, has run on just a slice of the total Android market, because system updates get held up—or ignored—by phone manufacturers and carriers. 

So while iPhone users generally have the newest operating system, Android users often have at least mildly outdated systems. Google has spent years pledging to fix the problem, yet even new models from name-brand vendors still ship with obsolete releases.

The successor to the current Nougat version (aka Android 7.0), for now called only “Android O,” will include a major change to the operating system that’s meant to move carriers and manufacturers out of the update loop.

What Google calls “Project Treble” will separate the core of the operating system from the code that carriers and hardware companies must maintain. That should help Google get really important improvements, including security patches, to consumers quicker. That could let Google act more like Apple, which pushes updates directly to consumers' phones. 

Android O will also add a quartet of features Google calls “Fluid Experiences.” A picture-in-picture mode will let you do things like take notes as you watch a YouTube clip. “Notification dots” will let app icons indicate they have a notification waiting. A new autofill feature will let Android save passwords for apps, not just Web sites. And “Smart Text Selection” will—finally!—automatically grab all of a phone number, street address or e-mail address when you start to select it.

Under the category of “Vitals,” Android O will add Google Play Protect, which makes more of today’s background screening for malware visible. This update—engineering vice president Dave Burke said is due “later this summer”—should also start up and launch apps faster and impose new limits on how much battery an app can burn through while operating in the background.

Finally, an “Android Go” project aims to make this operating system work well on cheap, memory-starved phones that dominate many overseas markets but show up in smaller numbers in the U.S. too. 

AR and VR Ambitions

Google is also moving to make virtual-reality and augmented-reality interfaces more at home in Android. Software updates will add support for its DayDream VR software to Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8+, while HTC and Lenovo are working on standalone VR headsets that will also support this technology.

In AR, information is overlaid on the camera’s view of the real world—what you see on the screen is a combination of live video and images supplied by an app. The idea was popularized by Pokemon Go. Today, Google described an upcoming Asus ZenPhone AR phone that will incorporate a new “Visual Positioning System” that lets the phone determine its precise spot indoors by referencing objects already mapped by Google.

Why would consumers want this? Mainly for in-store navigation. The company demonstrated that with a video showing how this phone could point you to an item on a particular shelf in a particular aisle in a Lowe’s. That sounds a bit like one of the features of the much-reviled Google Glass, but without the user having to wear a computer on their face full time.

That could make the technology a better bet in the market than Glass and other past I/O debuts that flopped in the market.