May 15, 2013 at 8:31 AM ET
Google I/O, the tech giant's annual developer's conference, kicked off Wednesday with a keynote event in San Francisco. Though the show lacked a sky-diving stunt and new hardware (both which were the stars last year), the company offered up a new music service, redesigned Maps — and a surprise Q&A by a hoarse CEO Larry Page, who recently disclosed the nature of his ailment.
"Welcome to the sixth annual Google I/O," senior vice president Vic Gundotra began before thanking developers for their work so far. (It was, after all, focusing on developers and not — as we had hoped — consumers.)
Gundotra quickly turned the stage over to Google senior vice president Sundar Pichai, who leads the Android, Chrome, and apps teams. "Today [Android] is the most popular mobile operating system in the world ... and [Chrome] is the most popular browser used in the world," Pichai told the audience. In 2011, there were 100 million activations of Android, Pichai reminded. Today, there are 900 million total activations of the mobile operating system. "We have a long way to go," Pichai admits, acknowledging how many billions of people are in the world.
Hugo Barra, vice president of Android product management, took the stage next. "Google Play has just crossed 48 billion app installs," Barra shared. He introduced some new geographic tools for developers, allowing them to enable geo-fencing on location-reliant services and more. Barra also detailed game-centric services of which developers can now take advantage. There are now ways to easily incorporate leaderboards, achievements and cross-platform cloud saves.
Chris Yerga, engineering director for Android, showed off how Google Play makes music recommendations to users, based on what their friends enjoy before pausing to ask the audience if it wanted to hear about music. (Yes, there were cheers.)
"What if we combined the powers of Google to figure out what you want to hear? We built that service," Yerga declared. Google Play Music All Access — what a mouthful — is the name of the new service and it will guide you through curated playlists, recommendations, key albums which define certain genres, and more. Instantly created radio stations for related tracks — unlike similar services — allow you to swipe away undesired content or re-order upcoming songs. "It's radio without rules," Yerga explains. The new service will be priced at $9.99/month (though there is month-long free trial). And if you start using All Access early, you'll lock in a $7.99/month price.
Barra took the stage again to show off a very special Samsung Galaxy S4, which will offer the same experience as the Nexus line of smartphones (this means none of those crazy Samsung skins). The device will be unlocked and available through the Google Play Store for $649.
After a lot of developer-centric news, Gundotra returned to talk about Google+. "Today we're introducing 41 new features," Gundotra announced. Redesigned streams, new Hangouts, and a "new Photos experience."
Google+ now allows for a one-, two-, or three-column layout, depending on your settings and browser window size. Photos and videos are occasionally featured across multiple columns. Automatically generated hashtags encourage users to look at new content. These tags are seemingly selected through magic, as they not only take text into consideration, but also pull out suggestions from image content. (Yes, this means that the photo of your kitty cat might be tagged #cats.)
Hangouts is the name of Google's new communications hub. The service will unify "old" Hangouts (the video chat service you already know), Messenger, and Google Talk. It will be accessible via Android and iOS apps as well as within Gmail and Google Talk. There will also be a Chrome app, of course.
The new Hangouts are platform agnostic and sync messages, no matter what devices you're using. (This might be a bit familiar to iMessage users.) There are indicators to show you when your friends have read your messages, support for photos, a thorough history archive, group chats, and a fantastic little trick that'll keep you sane: If Google realizes that you are sitting at your desktop and chatting … it will silence notifications on your other devices.
Since Google snagged Nik Software, maker of several popular photo editing products, last September, we've been expecting to hear a lot more about the tech giant's photo-related features. On Wednesday, we got to see these features. Things boil down to: Short of taking the photos, Google will do everything for you automatically. Auto uploads, auto enhancements, auto creation of animated images, and more.
Senior vice president Amit Singhal talked about the core experience of Google: Search. Thanks to a combination of Search, Google Now, and a touch of magic, you'll now be able to directly converse with Google. "OK Google," you'll say, just like someone who is using Google Glass, and then add what you'd like to know. "Show me things to do in Santa Cruz," for example, could be a query you speak. Yes, you could say "OK Google, show me pictures of cats."
Brian McClendon, vice president of Google Maps and Google Earth, reviewed the history of the tool before stepping aside to allow Daniel Graf, director of Google Maps for mobile, introduce the latest mobile features. Mind you, there was a quick pause during which the fellas took a jab at Apple Maps and its accuracy.
Google Maps is getting an overhaul: Integrated Offers, a shiny new user interface (which puts the actual map part front and center), directions which include detailed schedules, and more. Google Earth is also coming to the browser, no plug-ins required. (And there will even be real-time views of clouds when you zoom all the way out and view the whole planet.)
Before the three-and-a-half hour presentation drew to a close, Google CEO Larry Page took the microphone to talk about how important it is to focus on technology and to get more people involved in it. He expressed disdain for negativity, for companies being pitted against each other. The focus should be on making "new and important things to make people's lives better," he said. In a surprise move, he then took questions from the audience.
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