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.