Another year, another I/O. The 2013 edition of Google’s widely anticipated developer conference has come and gone, and earlier this year too by about a month and a half. In general, Google has been working on a number of projects for that ten and a half months since (and probably before that too, but you understand), though only a portion of those projects pertain directly to Android. (If you want to view the full keynote presentation to see what Google is up to in general, you can watch it here. The appearance of and Q&A with Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, pictured below, is well worth it.)
Having said that, Google’s mobile platform received a great deal of attention at the conference. The event definitely catered more toward developers in 2013, which is the way Google wants it. I/O 2012 seemed more like a consumer expo, what with the announcement of the feature-rich Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and the Nexus 7, the flagship tablet product from Google and Asus that shipped with the new OS version. This year, however, Google aimed the conference squarely at the developers driving the development of the Android app ecosystem forward.
Nevertheless, Android users certainly have plenty for which to be grateful. Below is a list of Android-related highlights from I/O.
Google Senior Vice President of Chrome and Apps Sundar Pichai, who recently stepped in for Andy Rubin as the head of Android, took the stage early during the conference to announce that Android activations have reached a staggering 900 million since Google announced 500 million activations just months ago. Just shy of 1 billion activations, Android has seen monumental growth over the past couple of years as it has become the most popular mobile platform in the world. This announcement has little significance at face value for Android users, but the number has broad-reaching implications moving forward. If Android continues to maintain this level of adoption worldwide, then developers will have greater cause to prioritize the platform over rivals like Apple’s iOS, meaning more and better apps. Android still has a ton of room for growth, and watching that number of activations climb in the coming months will only translate to positive news for users.
In the early part of the I/O keynote, a few important players in the Android division at Google announced several new Android APIs (that is, application programming interfaces), which act as interfaces that allow software components to communicate with one another. In this instance, Android APIs provide developers access to software directly from Google that they can use in their own apps to communicate with various Google services.
Google Play Games
Android enthusiasts have speculated for months now that Google would announce its own games service that would boast a number of features gamers have come to expect from other major gaming services, like Xbox Live. The Google Play Games service and API provides developers with the tools to integrate those features, which include achievements, leaderboards, multiplayer auto-matching and invites, and, perhaps most importantly, cloud data sync.
The last feature allows users to play a game on one device, such as a phone, and then pick up right where they left off on another device, such as a tablet, without losing a beat in between. Personally I have always hated that I was more or less restricted to playing my favorite Android games on one device for fear of being forced to repeat the same levels I already completed on another device. As soon as developers begin to integrate these new features, gaming on Android will become a lot more awesome.
Google Cloud Messaging
One of my other issues with Android was the flaw in its notification system which forced you to dismiss the same notifications on multiple devices. With the Google Cloud Messaging API, notifications will now be synced across devices, meaning as soon as you dismiss a notification on your phone, you will see it disappear on your tablet almost simultaneously.
The GCM API also allows for cross-platform simple sign-on, meaning if you log in to a service in your web browser and install the service’s app remotely to your phone or tablet, the app will already be signed in once you open it on your device. This feature eliminates the need to sign in manually after installing an app, which can be rather tedious if you have to do it multiple times.
Google Wallet Instant Buy
For those of you who shop on your phones or tablets often, the inconvenience of entering payment information to complete a purchase is probably one of the most annoying aspects of mobile shopping. Sometimes you may not even complete the purchase; according to Google, 97% of mobile shoppers abandon their cart contents because of the tedium associated with the process of checking out in a mobile interface.
If you use Google Wallet, however, the new Instant Buy API will allow developers to ease your pain by providing you with option to bypass all of that nonsense and complete your transaction in as few as two clicks. See the slides from Google’s presentation on the API above to compare the number of steps in the old process and the new process.
Google Play Music All Access
Google Play Music has been a solid service since its inception, but its new design update and an additional service offering from Google has established it as one of the premier music services available. All Access is a monthly subscription program, which you can try for free through a promotional offer from Google, that allows users to stream from Google’s entire catalog of music. The service works much like Pandora or Spotify, but you can also “pin”, that is, download, music, even that which you do not technically own, to your device, thereby allowing you to listen to it even without the Internet connection that other streaming services require. The redesign of the app and web interface places an emphasis on music discovery by allowing you to create stations from music you love; it also features the same design language as Google’s other products, displaying the now familiar cards to represent items, like artists, in lists.
Samsung Galaxy S4 Google Edition
Much to the surprise of most everyone in attendance, a rumor that arose earlier in week came to fruition when Vice President of Android Product Management Hugo Barra pulled from his pocket a Samsung Galaxy S4 running stock Android 4.2.2. To the average user, stock Android has little appeal, mostly because the differences between it and a OEM skinned version of Android have not been well established in advertising; as such, this variant is not a mass market product, but a niche developer one that will be available at the end of June directly from Google in the Devices section of its Play Store. At $649, no one was exactly excited about the price, but people need to realize that several hundreds of dollars for an unlocked phone of this quality is par for the course. Anyway, even if it sells poorly, this Nexus Experience version of the S4 at least puts rumblings that Google’s relationship with Samsung has soured over the past year to rest to a degree. If you need a new phone on AT&T or T-Mobile, like stock Android, and have some fat stacks burning a hole in your pocket, then this phone is for you.
Google Search Update
At the core of everything, Google focuses on search, and seeing an update to its Search app is certainly no surprise. The portion of the keynote which centered on Google Search demonstrates how far Google has come in terms of developing a system that understands human language. See the video below featuring Vice President, Search and Assist, Mobile Johanna Wright, who walks through a few anecdotes from her life in which Google Search provides an intuitive way for her to access directions, photos, etc., all based on contextual awareness by the app.
Google Maps Update
Perhaps one of the most visually appealing presentations at the 2013 conference was that by the Google Maps team. The web and app interface have both undergone a major redesign placing the emphasis of the experience on the map itself rather than a separate sidebar wherein relevant information is contained. Results from queries for local attractions, restaurants, etc. appear right on the map and allow the user to interact with them directly rather than sift through a list. The changes have yet to drop on the masses, but I signed up for an early invite to the web version of the new Maps experience. So while we wait on the wide release of the web redesign and app update, see the screenshots above for Maps and Earth views of Washington, D.C.
From a consumer standpoint, one of the biggest announcements expected from Google at I/O was a unified messaging system. Between Talk and Voice and Google+ Messenger and plain, old text messaging, Google has a plethora of messaging services available, but no meaningful distinctions between them. Sure, they all have different functionality, but what does the name of a service mean to someone when they hear it? Remembering the differences and taking advantage of them is a chore.
With its newly released Hangouts, Google is looking to rectify that. A replacement for Talk, Hangouts allows users to communicate via text or video and share photos. Unfortunately Hangouts has yet to incorporate regular text messaging, and Google+ Messenger and Voice still appear as separate services, though Google has committed to integrate them into Hangouts for a seamless experience moving forward. Until then though, the app is a bit of a mess. There is no clear indication whether a person is available for chat and determining whether a person receives a message is sort of difficult, mostly because Hangouts requires a Google+ account, which not everyone has.
A quality unified messaging app would truly be something to behold; if Google can pull it off in the long run, it will be to the benefit of Android users everywhere. In the meantime, encourage your family and friends to become Google+ users so that when the day comes where Hangouts is ready for daily use, you will be prepared.
Phew. Well, that about does it for the major updates concerning Android from Google I/O 2013. As always, if you have any categories you would like us to tackle, any apps you would like us to review, or any lessons about Android you would like to learn, please let us know in the comments. Thank you for reading!
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