Google I/O 2013: Focusing on Improvements

Google I/O 2013

Google held its annual developer conference: Google I/O, on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Google I/O is an annual developer-focused conference held by Google in San Francisco, California. Google I/O features highly technical, in-depth sessions focused on building web, mobile, and enterprise applications with Google and open web technologies such as Android, Chrome, Chrome OS, Google APIs, Google Web Toolkit, App Engine, and more.

This year, in the conference held on May 15-17, 2013, with roughly 6,000 attendees and an estimated 40,000 other developers in 90 countries who tuned in at so-called watch parties, 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 and clarify any rumors.

Google spent about half of its annual developers conference focusing its 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 Google Play Music All Access, a competitor to subscription services like Spotify and Rdio.

"At the heart of this journey is the impact you can have on people around the world," said Sundai Pichai, Google's Executive in charge of Android and Chrome. He added that there are now 900 million mobile devices powered by Android, a tidbit that underscored the reach of Google's mobile platform. For perspective, consider that at Google I/O 2012 conference, it had activated 400 million devices at the time.

What’s New?

  • Google Play Game Services: Google’s answer to iOS Game Center and Xbox Live lets users to play games on their phones and resume their progress on their tablets. It will also have achievements, online multiplayer and leaderboards tied to the users' social circles on Google+. Google will let developers add its game services to iOS devices and web-based games, not just Android. The service will let you save games across the cloud so you can finish on one device and then pick up later on another device, thus eliminating any need to start over.
  • 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 people sign up by June 30 - they get millions of streaming tracks on Android devices and web browsers, along with artist-based radio stations and personalized recommendations.
  • Maps for Mobile: The smartphone version of Google Maps helps drivers by giving a warning when a traffic jam is ahead, along with a suggested new/alternate route to take. 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 people browse for nearby restaurants, shops, bars and other attractions.
  • Update for Desktop Maps: The desktop version of Google Maps is getting a major overhaul with smoother graphics and a focus on discovery. When users search for certain things, they’ll see recommendations based on what they or their friends have reviewed. The interface will look a lot better, with photos, user reviews, navigation options and other details popping up as users click on each location. Google Maps is getting a revamp, complete with a new interface, 3D, and social search.
  • New Features for Google+: Google is really hoping to make Google+ a better place to share. A new interface resembles Pinterest, with several columns of updates filling the page. For photos, Google+ can pare down 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 engage video chat. Google redesigned its social network with an impressive set of automated filters and hashtags . Google said it was adding 41 new features and menus that slide in and out, along with a share-box that moves from left to center, and posts (cards) that flip.
  • New Cards for Google Now: Google’s virtual-assistant service will be able to tell people about upcoming TV shows and video games and provide real-time public transit updates in select cities. Users can also use voice commands to set reminders on their smartphone, and Google Now will remind them at the appropriate time. Voice search will be available on the desktop via Chrome and the Chrome OS. Also, Google Now gets new cards for public transit commute times and for movies, TV shows, and video games.
  • Voice Search on the Desktop: While using Google search in Chrome, users will now be able to start a voice search by saying "OK, Google." And just like the mobile app, the desktop version will support conversational searches with additional features adding up.

If there’s a common thread between all these improvements, it’s that Google is trying to make all its services stickier by delivering improvements rather than highlighting new products or innovations.

Android Apps Developments

Google spent a moments 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.

More significantly, the Google Play Store is having 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.

Google has given a refreshing start for developers to create apps without 'headaches' by giving these kinds of tools to 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.

Android now have activity recognition that will help people understand whether someone is driving a car, riding a bike, or walking. The OS will also get updated with cross-platform single sign-ons, which will let people get into several services with their Google log-on info.

This year’s conference is all about improvements. 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 Google Glass or Google TV during the keynote. Google also sidestepped the Android fragmentation issue with better offerings.

At the conference, the company is showing that it isn’t trying new things, but refining old ones. Google put its tech prowess on display. It’s not announcing new hardware, but touting the devices it already has. New hardware and software will come, but only after Google puts spit shine on all its apps and services.