Google I/O, the annual developer conference, is in full swing and, despite the hopes of the masses, there weren’t any really major hardware or Android announcements in Wednesday’s action.
As Sundar Pichai (head of Google’s Chrome and Android divisions) promised, the focus this year really is on goodies for developers; it’s also about Google’s ongoing efforts to consolidate redundant services and to become more a part of your daily life beyond search.
So what does Google have for us at I/O this year?
We’ve got a bunch of updates to the the Google Play Services, which are a set of tools and APIs that can be used in app development. The updates include improvements and enhancements to the map and location functionality (letting developers figure out where a device is, take certain actions when entering or leaving specific areas, and determine whether you’re walking, biking, or driving*), to messaging functionality (improvements to capacity and cross-device notification), and to gaming (sharing game state across devices, managing achievements and leaderboards, and simplifying multiplayer programming). There’s a lot of good stuff there for developers; for me personally, though, the only one that sounds useful is the ability to dismiss a notification on one device and have it go away on all my other devices as well.
* Google Maps is also getting an update on phones and the desktop, integrating business ratings and offers, Street View and Google Earth, and user-submitted photos.
Developers also get a new tool for creating apps and the ability to push pre-release app builds via the Play store with access controlled via Google+. The first should be useful, as it will allow simultaneous viewing of the app at a variety of screen sizes and orientations. The latter doesn’t seem to offer any real advantage over the current practice of internally-controlled access lists – losing the need to sideload apps seems pretty minor; I only recall one bug that could be directly traced to testing via sideloading. Maybe some of my former cow-orkers would care to comment on the potential advantages?
What a surprise! Google has a new music subscription service – probably the worst-kept secret leading up to Google I/O. I’ve read all of the articles I’ve found so far, and I’m not seeing what this brings us other than the Google name. It looks very similar to Spotify and other streaming services. I could see some utility if it’s tightly integrated with the existing Google Play Music, analyzing the music you already own and making recommendations based on that. It appears that is part of the plan, but it doesn’t seem like enough to take this beyond the “me too” level.
The various chat and messaging services are being merged. Google+ Hangouts, Google Messenger, Google Talk, and Gmail are now all part of a single “Hangout” infrastructure. Pardon me while I go take a nap. I’m sure it’s great that all these different channels will now interoperate, but this is pretty much a snooze for someone whose webcam is more of a webcan’t.
Anything else? There’s a big package of enhancements coming to Google’s core search functionality, all aimed at letting you search in a more “natural” way. Changes include using relationships between objects to provide related context (the example used in the demo was that asking about the population of India would also trigger Google to display a sidebar with population data for other countries), to provide context-sensitive searching (for example, recalling a recent search for airline information to provide location data for searches for hotels, rental cars, and restaurants), and – if you’re using Chrome – to provide an always-on, voice input mechanism for those searches. The first two could be useful (privacy implications aside), but that last one bothers me a bit. Like many people, I leave a few common applications running constantly: email, browser, file manager. Do I really want Chrome sitting there in the background listening for its trigger phrase? Again, leaving aside the privacy implications, either it’s using a chunk of CPU for local processing of the audio stream, or its using a chunk of bandwidth to send the stream to Google for processing. (Pause for question: why do webcams have a light that comes on when the camera is active, but not the mike? Or does the light serve as a notification for either or both functions? If so, how, in Google’s new “always-on” “Conversational Search” world, does one know if their webcam is being used to spy on them (see this and this for recent cases – I’m not even going here yet – that’s a post for another day.)
But I digress. What else is Google offering?
Google+ is getting a bunch of updates beyond the changes I’ve already mentioned, most of them enhancements to photo editing and tagging.
How about a shiny new Galaxy S 4 (arguably the current latest word in Android phones) with stock Android 4.2, rather than with Samsung’s tweaks and proprietary extensions? The main appeal here is quick access to official Android updates without needing to hack the phone. Sounds appealing, given the usual slow pace of official OS updates, but the full retail price of $649 is a bit offputting – and a lot of people seem to like manufacturers’ UI enhancements (TouchWiz, Sense, MotoBlur, and so on). So limited appeal overall. (Personally, I’d rather see Google working with (or leaning on) the device manufacturers and carriers to streamline the upgrade approval process.)
That’s pretty much it. No new Android OS (a reference to a new 4.3 release showed up briefly on an Android Developers’ site, but was quickly removed and no official word has been released). No update to the Nexus 7 – no new hardware at all, in fact. In short, nothing that triggers my issues with delayed gratification.
OK, so where does that leave us in reality? We should be seeing a flood of app updates that incorporate the new APIs Google is offering. My best guess for the next killer app: Your phone detects that you’re walking towards the door and pops up a notification to remind you to take your keys (including specifying door keys or car keys depending on whether you’re heading for the front door or garage door), tells you whether you need a jacket, and analyzes what you’re wearing to tell you whether the blue one or the black one will go better with your shirt. A suggestion for whoever writes this app: don’t make it ad-supported. Instead, the paid version should allow users to turn off the voice prompt that says “Are you really going outside dressed like that?” Trust me, you’ll make a mint.