Well, it's here at last, Google's annual orgy for developers and fanboys alike. Rumors have been flying, but we're about to find out what's what for real.
We've got a wishlist for everything we're hoping will be coming to Android, and while there supposedly won't be much in the way of hardware, it's still possible we may meet an updated Nexus 7, and maybe a few other goodies. We've got some cushy seats, and we're getting started... nnnnnnn.... now.
REFRESH FOR UPDATES
According to Google's Sundar Pichai, in 2011, Android was at 100 million activations. In 2012, it was at 400 million. In 2013, we're looking at a mind-boggling 900 million activations. We're also looking at 48 billion app installs. That's more growth than the goiter on my grandma's neck.
We're diving right in to Android here. Google Play services, a series of APIs for app developers, is getting a hearty update today. Today Google is launching three new APIs for location. The first will provide faster, more accurate location spotting, but at a fraction of the battery life. It will also offer geofencing, and use sensors to determine when you're driving, walking, or biking. This should really boost the calibre of third party apps that use location services. (Check out our deeper dive on the new Maps features.)
Play services are also now going to support cross-platform single sign on. So if you sign on to, say, a Yelp app within Chrome, you'll also be signed in on your phone and tablet as soon as you install the app. Pretty slick. There's also a new API that will synchronize notifications between your devices. So if you dismiss a notification on your phone, it'll be dismissed on your tablet, too. This is a very, very good thing. All that redundancy has been really annoying.
They're also introducing Google Play game services. The first bit of awesome in that is Cloud save. If you get to level three some game on your phone, when you open up the game on your tablet, you'll be all set to pay level four. Very cool. There will also be synced leader boards, if you're the competitive type. These will work across Android and iOS games, so you can play against your friends whatever they use.
Play game services, will also include the Play Game Server, which is also going to let friends on separate devices play head to head in real time. They attempted to demo this on Riptide II, but unfortunately it fall down go boom. Not the best networking environment here, to be fair. (For more on games, check here.)
I'm So Glad I'm a Beta
The Play Store just created a way for developers to take beta testers directly through the store. That means, if you're into beta-testing, you no longer have to side-load apps onto your device. And for the developers, they can get feedback without all the early (bad) reviews screwing up the app's rating once it finally comes out of beta. We're not exactly sure how one becomes a beta tester, but it seems like you'll have to be invited by the specific developer. Pretty neat.
Google Play Music All-Access
Google's rumored Spotify competitor is real, and it's called All-Access. As soon as you start using it, it starts learning your preferences. You have access to everything in the play store. You pick a song, and can instantly create a station based on it, a la Pandora, but with much more control. You'll see the whole playlist ahead of you. You can swipe away tracks you don't want to hear, and you can re-order them at will.
There's also Listen Now. Listen now is basically a collection of stations from your own personal library of music you've uploaded to Play Music, and also of stations that All-Access has created for you automatically. It's basically a fast way to get to music you'll like. It's basically Google's library blended with your own.
All-Access is launching today for $10 a month, but if you sign up before June 30th, it'll be a couple bucks cheaper. There's also a free 30-day trial for everyone, and it's live right now and rather lovely, so check it out. The updated Play Music app can be downloaded from the Play Store now, and it looks terrific. (For more info on All-Access, peep this.)
A Galaxy S4 Running Stock Android
Whoa nelly! For a million years we've been asking for a way to disable skins. Google is showing a Samsung Galaxy S4 running a stock version of Android 4.2. It will also be getting all Android OS updates "promptly"— one would assume as fast as a Nexus device. This. Is. Awesome. Google will be selling this phone directly, with an unlocked bootloader. It'll be on sale from Google Play on June 26th for only... $650!? Ouch. But still, for those of us who've always wanted that hardware, but without Samsung's super heavy, unwieldy skin, this is a pretty big deal. (For more info on the stock S4, click here.)
"The same capabilities that you're used to using for Chrome on a desktop, are going to be coming to Chrome on Android," says Sundar Pichai. Thanks to WebGL and web audio API's you're going to start seeing some pretty impressive web experiences, including games and rich interactive environments that were typically limited to the desktop experience. That's going to be especially sweet on a tablet.
Better Web Imaging
Google took a moment to show off WebP images. The quality was indistinguishable from JPEG, but it was about two-thirds the size. That's the kind of thing that will save you if you're mobile browsing. Not only will it boost the load time on websites, but it will help you not go over your data if don't have an unlimited plan. And, joy of joys, WebP supports animated images. Take that, GIF!
On the video side, they touted the benefits of VP9, which they say has the same quality of h.264, but comes in at less than half the size. Neato.
Google found that when it comes to shopping on your phone, the percent of people who get to a purchase screen and then jump ship was in the high nineties! Ouch. To combat that, they're releasing updated shopping APIs that websites will be able to simply integrate that will take Android/Chrome users to a streamlined checkout process, complete with autofilled information. Looks pretty smooth.
Android in Education
Google is about to go heavy on education, basically creating a whole subsection of the Play Store for educators. It will be sorted by subject and level. Say a teachers wants all 500 kindergarten students in a district to be working on the same app. The administrator can simple click the app they want, order 500 copies, and it will go to all 500 tablets (or Chromebooks) that those kids are using, instantly. It makes it really easy to buy in bulk, and there will be reviews from other educators.
I know, I know. Where will these thousands of tablets for kids come from? Well, there are already thousands of Chromebooks being used in schools. They've been rolling out both in the U.S. and in places like Malaysia. In fact they're in over 10,000 schools, and considering how cheap Chromebooks and tablets like the Nexus 7 are compared to full computers, we expect this trend to continue.
Google Play for Education will be rolling out in the fall. In the mean time you can learn more about it here.
Google is introducing 41 new Google+ features today. Holy crap.
First, there's going to be a major redesign. It kind of looks a little more like Google Now. It's a really good-looking multi-column design, and it's width will scale depending on what device you use. You can also choose to just do one column if you want. It's full of animations, where cards slide, flip, and fade. Normally we don't go for that kind of thing, but it actually looks fantastic.
Google is also adding a layer of depth to make hashtags smarter. Not only will clicking on a post about, say, the Eiffel Tower, take you to other posts about the Eiffel Tower, but you don't even have to hashtag it yourself. It can do image analysis, recognize the tower, and hashtag it automatically. Pretty nuts, though obviously that won't work for everything.
Googles long-rumored revamped chat app previously rumored to be called Babel is now real. It's a really sweet-looking standalone app that will work on web, Android, and iOS all starting today. It will provide an on-going conversation within the hangout that doesn't end when you sign off. So if you're sharing photos with your family, you can jump back in months later. Or with the tap of a button, you can engage group video chat instantly with all of them. Of course, you can remove things from the thread or delete them, but there's the option to keep them there for as long as you want.
Google+ announced earlier this week that in addition to unlimited backup of all your standard sized photos, it will now give you 15GB of storage for full sized images. This is rather cool. They're also introducing an analysis algorithm to create a highlight reel of your photos. It'll check all your photos in album for blurriness, smiles, and dozens of other criteria (taught to it by hundreds of actual human photographers), and create a highlight reel. It can even recognize your wife or kid and make sure some photos of them into the real. Which is cool, and also kinda scary.
It's also introducing an "auto-enhance" feature that will instantly adjust tonal distribution, red-eye, vignetting, skin softening, noise reduction, and a ton of other criteria to theoretically improve your photo with a single click. In the demo, it does indeed look to make dramatic improvements, but we're a wee bit skeptical about how well this will work in real life. But maybe if you're really, really crunched for time it'll help.
There's also an "Auto Awesome" mode. If you take a burst of photos, it will make an animated gif out of them. If you take a series of shots, and someone is smiling in one but not in another, it can make a composite image (similar to what the Galaxy S4 can do, but you don't have to activate that setting first, which is nice). It can also do HDR, and auto-stitch panoramic photos. Fun stuff. For more on the new photo stuff, snap this. For more on the new photo stuff, snap this.
Knowledge Graph—Google's service that answers your questions directly when you ask them, rather than sending you to the web—is about to get smarter. Not only does it answer the question you asked, but it'll predict the next question you might have. So if you ask for the population of India, it'll show you that and compare it to the population of the U.S.
Knowledge Graph will also work a bit like a manual Google Now now. So if you want your upcoming flight info, or dinner reservation, you can just ask for it (in case the card isn't already there).
The big news here is that conversational search is coming to Chrome and Chrome OS. You won't even have to click the mic to search. You can sit back, relax, and say, "Okay Google..." then ask your question. It worked flawlessly in the demo, perfectly understanding context, even words like "it" and "here". It knew your location, and was able to give incredibly detailed answers to very specific questions. It's the next level we've been hoping for.
Google Now will now support reminders, which is pretty awesome. You can set the reminder to go off at a certain time or when you get to a certain location. All via voice. It was extremely intuitive and had a very clean layout. Google Now will also capable of sending emails via voice ("Email Barry, Why are my pants on backwards?") and provide a lot of contextual info "Show pictures from my Costa Rica vacation last year.") It's also adding cards for TV shows, video games, and more.
These features will be available today for people in the Search Field Trial, and should be rolling out to everybody soon. It wasn't 100 percent clear which part is rolling out when. Very exciting stuff, though. The new Search app can be downloaded now from the Play store now. For more on the new Search updates, click here.
Maps for Mobile
Coming soon to Android and iOS, the mobile Maps app is getting a big refresh. It's more of a full-screen experience. It's really uncluttered, and gives the map the focus. If you're searching for something like a specific cuisine, the list of locations you'll get are paired down and easier to read. You can swipe between different results and get the skinny on each of them. There's a 5 star user rating system now that will be integrated across Google search, and Zagat scores/review are incorporated where available. Offers are going to be integrated right into the Maps results now. They've partnered with a bunch of companies already (including Starbucks) and will be announcing more soon.
Navigation is getting a major boost, including incidents and dynamic rerouting! This is one of the features we've been dying for. It'll let you know if there's an accident ahead in your route, and it'll automatically reroute you around it. Finally!
There's also more emphasis on location-aware discovery. Finding things around you (restaurants, tourist attractions, etc.) is a more visually rich and intuitive experience. We're looking forward to seeing how good the results are.
Finally, Google Maps on desktop is getting a major overhaul. You can see all of the relevant pinpoints at once. A simple click will open up a Google Now-like card for the restaurant with relevant info. Another click will zoom right in to the interior of it, with photos or StreetView if available. The maps are vector based and scale quickly and cleanly.
It's also more customized for the specific user. If you're logged in, places you've been (or rated) will have a permanent place there. If your friend is logged in, he'll have his special places and yours will be gone. If you're looking for directions to a place, the map will make sure the street names you need are clearly visible, which wasn't the case before (you'd have to zoom way in). It's basically a more personalized map, and it actually looks really nice.
The new directions interface looks absolutely fantastic, too, giving you very clear visual info on the duration of different routes. The 3D aerial view has been further refined, making it way more life like. Those changes were applied to the 3D Photo Tour, as well, which is powered by user submitted photos. Nexus users that can take PhotoSphere shots and add them to these maps as well, to create and enhance the interior 3D views of places.
Oh, and if you pull way out for a full view of Earth, the clouds you see are where they are in real time. That is frigging amazing. Pull back even further, and you see which part of the earth is lit up, where it is relation to the Sun, and even the Milky Way's stars are right where they should be. Madness.
And that's it! Be sure to check out our deeper dives on all of these tentpoles.
[Camera equipment provided by borrowlenses.com]