Google I/O 2013 Is All About Cleaning Up the Mess and Filling In the Gaps

Google's I/O conference keynote was, in many ways, the opposite of what we expected.

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Larry Page, Google co-founder and CEO, speaks during the opening keynote at the Google I/O developers' conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco on May 15, 2013

Google’s I/O conference keynote was, in many ways, the opposite of what we expected.

Google did not announce any new hardware — no new Nexus 4 phone, upgraded Nexus 7 tablet or new Chromebook — nor did the company reveal a new version of Android. Wilder rumors about an “X Phone” from Motorola and an 11-inch tablet from Samsung did not materialize. (The only semi-new hardware announcement was that of a Samsung Galaxy S4 running stock Android, coming in late June for a cool $650.)

Instead, Google spent about half of its annual developers conference focusing on, well, developers, and the tools they need to make better apps. The rest of the time, Google spent announcing improvements to core Web services, such as Search, Maps and Google+. The biggest new product launch was arguably Google Play Music All Access, a competitor to subscription services like Spotify and Rdio.

In other words, Google was less interested in wowing the crowds with flashy hardware and software news, and more interested in making itself look good.

What’s New for Google Users

Here’s a quick overview of all the new, consumer-facing things that Google announced at the show:

Google Play Game Services: Google’s answer to iOS Game Center and Xbox Live lets users start playing a game on their phones and resume progress on their tablets. It’ll also have achievements, online multiplayer and leaderboards tied to your social circles on Google+. Surprisingly, Google will let developers add its game services to iOS devices and Web-based games, not just Android.

Google Play Music All Access: Google is getting into the subscription-music business, with a service that resembles Spotify and Rdio. For $9.99 per month — or $7.99 per month if you sign up by June 30 — you get millions of streaming tracks on Android devices and Web browsers, along with artist-based radio stations and personalized recommendations. No word on apps for iOS or other platforms.

Maps for Mobile: The smartphone version of Google Maps lends drivers a hand with warnings when a traffic jam pops up, along with a suggested new route. The map view will show major sources of traffic jams as well. Google has also created a new interface for tablets, with an “explore” feature that lets you browse for nearby restaurants, shops, bars and other attractions.

A Big Update for Desktop Maps: The desktop version of Google Maps is getting a major overhaul this summer, with smoother graphics and a focus on discovery. When users search for certain things, like sushi, they’ll see recommendations based on what they or their friends have reviewed. The interface will look a lot slicker, with photos, user reviews, navigation options and other details popping up as you click on each location. You can sign up to preview the new Maps through Google’s website.

New Features for Google+: Google is really hoping you’ll share more on Google+, its two-year-old social network. A new interface resembles Pinterest, with several columns of updates filling the page. For photos, Google+ can pare down your vacation photos by automatically selecting highlights, and it can make photos look better with skin softening, noise reduction and other quick editing tools. Google is also launching a separate Hangouts app for Android and iOS, letting users talk, share photos and jump into video chat.

New Cards for Google Now: Google’s virtual-assistant service will be able to tell you about upcoming TV shows and video games and provide real-time public transit updates in select cities. You can also use voice commands to set reminders on your phone, and Google Now will nudge you at the appropriate time.

Voice Search on the Desktop: While using Google search in Chrome, you’ll be able to start a voice search by saying “O.K., Google.” And just like the mobile app, the desktop version will support conversational searches, so you can say something like “Where’s the nearest pizza place?” followed by “How far is it from here?” Google says this feature will be available soon.

If there’s a common thread between all these improvements, it’s that Google is trying to make all its services stickier. Instead of merely looking something up on Google Maps, maybe you’ll hang out there exploring things for a while. Instead of searching once on Google and clicking some links, you’ll have a back-and-forth voice conversation. You’ll spend more time playing games that are connected to Google and more time listening to music. And maybe you’ll actually use Google+ for once. Doing all these things could make your life easier and more enjoyable — but of course they also allow Google to pursue its business model of learning more about you, and selling more ads.

Reducing Android App Headaches

Google spent a significant chunk of time talking about things that had little to no direct impact on users. For instance, the company unveiled a way for developers to offer beta tests of their apps, and to see how their apps look across multiple screen sizes. (Judging from the hooting and hollering in the room when this feature was announced, it seems long overdue.)

More significantly, the Google Play Store will finally have a section for tablet-optimized apps. This change does affect users, but it also gives developers an incentive to write apps with tablets in mind.

It’s refreshing to see Google offer these kinds of tools for developers, instead of just tacking on new features to Android and hoping the apps will follow. That strategy hasn’t worked in the past, especially for tablet apps. By removing some of the headaches in Android app development, Google may have better luck getting developers to support the platform.

This year’s show is all about polish. Google only wanted to show off the things it does best — slick, Web-based services — while brushing aside its more experimental tendencies. There was no mention of Glass or Google TV during the keynote, and it’s easy to see why: the former is still an experiment, and the latter has been a spectacular flop. Perhaps for the same reason, Google also sidestepped the Android fragmentation issue — better, at least, than offering more false promises to fix it.

If anything, Google was showing off a complete execution of its “more wood behind fewer arrows” strategy. The company isn’t trying new things, but refining old ones. It’s not announcing new hardware, but touting the devices it already has. New hardware and software will come, probably later this year — but only after Google puts spit shine on all its apps and services.

MORE: Complete TIME Tech Coverage of Google I/O

16 comments
chromelinux
chromelinux

My guess is they are queuing up the hardware announcements until Apple's conference where they can diffuse whatever Apple announces.

chromelinux
chromelinux

Not to mention by delaying hardware announcements, Google saves some bucks by not obliging itself to give away the stuff at I/O, as well as have some extra time to polish and prep before release.

LiTj
LiTj

>> But of course they also allow Google to pursue its business model of learning more about you, and selling more ads.

             -- Why can't it interpret as " learning more about you, server you better"? Google Map and Search become more and more intelligent, and the end user will benefit from it at the first place. 

os2baba
os2baba

>> Google spent a significant chunk of time talking about things that had little to no direct impact on users.

You do realize that IO is a developer conference right?  So naturally it's going to target developer interests which will eventually translate to user impact.


newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@os2baba I'm well aware of the nature of IO. But keep in mind that previous shows have been anchored by things that do have a direct impact on users, such as new versions of Android and new devices.

This is often the case with conferences and trade shows in general. Apple uses WWDC to announce new versions of iOS and OS X (and has announced new iPhones at the event in the past). Microsoft used BUILD in 2011 to show its first in-depth look at Windows 8. E3 and CES are ostensibly places for companies that make stuff to connect with companies that sell stuff, but they are both used as venues to announce major product news.

Just because a show is ostensibly a developer conference, or a place to do business, doesn't mean it isn't used as a place to make bigger announcements.

Gnabergasher
Gnabergasher

@newmanjb @os2baba How does a massive overhaul of G+ Maps and Search not directly impact users?  Google Games and hangouts will also have a pretty massive impact.

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@Gnabergasher @newmanjb @os2baba Did you read the rest of the story? I said Google spent "a significant chunk" of time talking about developer-related stuff, not the entire keynote. And nearly half the piece is devoted to all the consumer-facing things that Google DID announce.

App8ite
App8ite

I guess Android has reached a point where it's  much harder to move forward. The writing is on the wall now for a Chrome merger as Android is publicised less and less even during Google's own keynote. That mess could take a few years to work out thats for sure.  I think everyone misses the point that these are just platforms and it's the content/services that bring the sparkle http://wp.me/p36QpK-x9

mbashir1
mbashir1

This article failed to say anything about the S4 Google will offer with vanilla android and direct software updates. I think the author was too tired and just didnt even see the actual 3.5 hours keynote !! 

newmanjb
newmanjb moderator

@mbashir1 Yeah I should have mentioned that. Stuck it in the top. I was at the keynote, though I'll admit to getting a bit cranky as it dragged on!

KevinNguyen
KevinNguyen like.author.displayName 1 Like

Regarding Music All Access, it's $7.99 if you sign up by June 30th, not June 3rd.

SuperSam64
SuperSam64

Disappointed to not see an Android update... however, I have to say I can recognize that this is not a rational disappointment.  Android 4.2.2 is fantastic, and certainly does not need a makeover.  The only reason I was interested in an Android update is because I kind of have that "what will they do next" mentality; but I guess if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

stevo-go
stevo-go

I just bought my first "smarter than me" phone using Android on Virgin Atlantic USA's $45 per month plan (no contract, 1200 minutes and unlimited everything else). The damnest thing is, there doesn't seem to be a current manual for this phone model yet. Anyone know anything about the Kyocera,  "RISE"? 

SuperSam64
SuperSam64

@stevo-go 

If you can't find a manual specific to that phone, you may want to just see if you can find a general Android tutorial.  Although each manufacturer puts a different skin over the operating system, for the most part they all work in a similar way.  To find out what Android version you are using, go to Settings > About Phone and you should see an Android Version number.

2.1 = Cupcake

2.2 = Froyo

2.3 = Gingerbread

4.0 = Ice Cream Sandwich

4.1, 4.2 = Jellybean

Once you find the number, just search for a tutorial on that Android version.  To use 4.0 as an example, you could search either for "Android 4.0 tutorial" or "Android Ice Cream Sandwich Tutorial".  There are probably some videos on Youtube that can help a lot.

Of course, the other option is just to play with it.  Android is much more intuitive and easy to use than people give it credit for.  If you are at all technically inclined, take a few hours a day to just explore the apps and menus and you should get the hang of it very quickly.

If you need to know how to do something specific, reply and I'll try to advise you.

SantoshShukla
SantoshShukla

"Google was less interested in wowing the crowds with flashy hardware and software news, and more interested in making itself look good."

It really did have that impact, and to me it seemed genuine. Loved the way Larry Page addressed the audience and came up with some nice quotable quotes:

“Being negative is not how we make progress, everything is not a zero sum game”

“We do not ask the basic questions. That is why we have only incremental progress.”

“People are starving in the world not because we do not have enough food but because we are not organised”

More of these mentioned here: http://blog.f1circle.com/google-io-2013/