Google I/O Day 1: Music, Maps, Search, Social

May 15, 2013 (01:05 PM EDT)

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Announcing that there have been 900 million Android activations worldwide and that Chrome has 750 million active users, Google opened its annual developer conference, Google I/O, in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, with the introduction of a series of new APIs and services for its mobile operating system and the Web.

Unlike last years' spectacle-heavy event, in which skydivers wearing Glass stole the show, Google I/O 2013 is about fortifying Google's platforms and empowering developers. It's about practical platform enhancements rather than pushing the technology envelope, at least for user-facing services.

"Our goal behind these platforms is to make sure developers can build amazing experiences," said Sundar Pichai, senior VP of Chrome, apps and Android at Google.

The real advances at Google are happening behind the scenes, in areas such as semantic search. For example, Vic Gundotra, senior VP of engineering and social, described an image-quality identification system that has been added to Google+ Photos thus: "Google can pick the best pictures for you." That's right, Google's engineers believe their software can compute aesthetic value, a determination not normally entrusted to code and machines.

Google Glass was barely mentioned during the three-hour keynote presentation.

[ Google is counting conference attendees' footsteps and other ambient stats at its developers' get-together. Read Google I/O Features Sensor Network. ]

To help developers create the amazing experiences mentioned by Pichai, Google debuted new APIs for Android, new Google Play services for developers and consumers, and major enhancements for Google+ Stream, Hangouts and Photos. The company also is re-imagining its search service, deepening its ability to understand queries and to respond to conversational queries, at least for Chrome users.

Amit Singhal, senior VP of search, called it "the end of search as you know it."

The Android APIs include Fused Location Provider, a faster, more accurate and less power-hungry location system; Geofencing, which supports up to 100 virtual location-based boundaries in an app; and Activity Recognition, which can help developers measure physical activity through phone motion.

Google is expanding Google+ Sign-In with cross-platform single sign-on, so that Google credentials can be used on Android devices and websites. The service includes the ability to prompt the user to automatically install an Android app when logging in to a related website.

Google+ gained dozens of new features. The three major ones are: a redesign of the Google+ Stream to support a multi-column format; a revision of Hangouts so that it works as a cross-platform communications service; and new image editing and organization tools for Google+ Photos.

Google Play Game Services can be thought of as Google's answer to Apple's Game Center, except that Google Play Game Services is cross-platform: It can be deployed in Android apps, iOS apps or Web games. It includes cloud game saving, achievements, leader boards and multiplayer matchmaking and coordination.

To address the lackadaisical Android update policy followed by many mobile carriers, Google plans to sell a special Samsung Galaxy S 4 through Google Play for $649, beginning June 26. It features the Nexus UI and will get Android updates from Google as soon as the updates are released.

Google also is releasing an integrated development environment (IDE) for Android called Android Studio, to improve programmer productivity.

Google launched its own music streaming service, Google Play Music All Access, for users in the U.S. For $10 per month -- $8 if you sign up before June 30 -- users gain the ability to stream millions of Google Play songs to computers and mobile devices. The company also added a new section to the Google Play store, Google Play for Education, a service to help schools, educators and students use Android content.

The Google Play website has received the same design revision displayed in the Google Play mobile app last month. And the Google Play Developer Console now boasts five new features: Optimization Tips, advice on ways to make apps sell better; App Translation, an integrated way to submit text strings in apps to various third-party services for translation into different languages; Usage Metrics and Referral Tracking, to help developers understand how their apps are being used; Revenue Graphs, to see the money; and Beta Testing and Staged Rollouts, to distribute apps in a controlled manner.

Google has added the ability to set Google Now reminders using voice commands, along with other new Google Now services, and it previewed "hotwording," the ability to set a phrase that will prompt Google to search based on a spoken query. Google has already implemented this in Glass: Users alert Glass to a forthcoming command by prefacing the command with "ok glass."

"The search of the future will need to answer, converse and anticipate," said Singhal.

As expected, Google showed off a forthcoming version of Google Maps that features a cleaner design with more relevant, personalized information. "When you are logged in, you get your maps and we'll highlight everything that's important for you," said Bernhard Seefeld, product director for Google Maps.

Google says there are more than one billion monthly active users of Google Maps services and more than one million websites and apps using the Maps API. To use the new maps, users can sign up at Google expects to send out invitations on Thursday.

Although not mentioned in the keynote, Google is now supporting PHP as a language on App Engine and has opened Compute Engine to the general public. It launched Google Cloud Datastore, a managed NoSQL database to complement its other cloud platform offerings.