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If you were expecting maybe a new Nexus 7 tablet, Android 4.x, Google Glass for $199 or even self-driving (or self-flying) cars, this week's keynote at Google I/O was a bit of a letdown. The presentation at San Francisco's Moscone Center was a three-hour endurance test for the live audience, which sat through a lengthy status report on Google's less flashy undertakings, including upgrades to the Google Play store, Chrome browser and OS, Google+ social network and the company's cash cow, Google Search. But even if audience members began to grow a little restless after, say, 120 minutes of demos and more demos, each was rewarded with a shiny (and very expensive) Google Chromebook Pixel.
Interestingly, Google didn't try to top the spectacle of its 2012 I/O event. There were no new tablet or phone announcements. No mysterioso consumer gear like the infamous Nexus Q, the media streamer that went MIA before it ever shipped. No bombastic Google Glass demos with skydivers descending onto the Moscone Center. Rather, the 2013 keynote ended on an earnest, relaxed tone, with Google CEO Larry Page waxing philosophic on an esoteric mix of questions from the audience.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was what the keynote didn't contain. In the weeks preceding the event, tech rumors hinted that Google would use the keynote to debut an updated Nexus 7 tablet, one with a higher resolution display, faster processor and a rear-facing camera. But said product never materialized. Nor did a new version of of Android -- not even a relatively minor, version 4.3 update -- that some Google watchers had expected.
Google Glass? Nothing new there hardware-wise. Maybe that's no surprise though, considering the flood of media attention that Google's prototype computing eyeglasses have gotten recently. When Saturday Night Live has fun at your expense, it may be time to give the PR effort a rest, at least temporarily. However, Facebook and Twitter announced Glass apps.
Another interesting aspect of the 2013 keynote: Google focused more on Chrome than Android, highlighting its efforts to add sophisticated capabilities to the former, while giving the latter relatively little attention.
Why the lack of Android and Nexus news? It's possible that Google is planning separate events for upcoming releases of these products, which are mainstream enough to warrant standalone media events. In fact, the techie developments highlighted at the 2013 keynote, such as some pretty interesting upgrades to Google+ and Chrome, might have gotten little media love (outside of the tech press) had Google devoted much of the event to Android and Nexus.
Check out our visual tour for more detail on the 10 most interesting announcements at Google I/O 2013.
Google is adding a personalized, crowdsourced sensibility to Maps. When you click a spot on a map -- a hotel, for instance -- Maps zeroes in on that location and shows relevant information, such as similar establishments nearby and transportation options to get there. It also incorporates more Yelp-like features, including business reviews with star ratings, photos and directions. Maps is more tightly integrated with Google+ too. For instance, if you're looking for a restaurant, it'll show eateries recommended by your Google+ pals. The overall presentation of the new Google Maps is pretty slick and a nice improvement. But will it convince more folks (beyond tech nerds) to give Google+ a try?
The merger of Google Earth, a free app for exploring just about every square kilometer of the planet, and Google Maps is a work in progress. Google used the I/O keynote to trumpet its latest bit of Maps-Earth collaboration. Maps' new Earth View feature, for instance, lets you view cities rendered in 3-D -- a boon to tablet-toting travelers traversing new places. You'll need a WebGL-enabled browser like Google Chrome to use Earth View, however. (Microsoft Internet Explorer 10 doesn't have native WebGL support, but rumors suggest the upcoming IE 11 might change that.) In addition to Earth View, Maps' new Carousel feature provides easy access to the full gallery of Google imagery, including Street View, photo tours and business images.
Spotify and Pandora have a new (and scary-big) competitor in Google Play Music All Access, a streaming service that offers unlimited listening to millions of songs in the Google Play library for $10/month, or $8/month if you sign up before June 30. Apple undoubtedly will launch a rival subscription service too, as its iTunes business model seems increasingly stodgy in the era of always-connected mobile devices and all-you-can-eat music plans.
Google also announced new services for game developers, as well as a special Samsung Galaxy S4 (sold exclusively in the Google Play store) with the same UI as Google's Nexus devices. One more thing: in an effort to get Google Apps, Nexus tablets and Chromebook laptops into the classroom, the Google Play for Education service will provide a place for developers to offer apps to schools.
Google's dominant search platform is the cash engine that funds its side projects, some of which develop into something big (e.g., Android) and not so big (Nexus Q, Google Health and so on).
However, the ways in which we use search are evolving, and search tools must evolve to meet our needs. Case in point: Google is adding spoken queries and answers to the desktop version of its Chrome browser, a Siri-like (only better) feature that users of Android, iPhone and iPad devices already enjoy. In addition, Google Search's Knowledge Graph, a summary box of relevant information on the search results page, now does a better job of providing answers to questions related to original queries, Google says. It also supports more languages, including Polish, Turkish and traditional and simplified Chinese.
Google Now, the personal assistant app for Android and iOS devices, is adding new reminders that nudge you at the appropriate time or place. For instance, if you create a reminder to buy milk and bread, and you happen to be in a grocery store, Google Now will remind you. And if you create a reminder to catch a train, Google Now will (figuratively) tap you on the shoulder and tell you it's time to head to the train station. It sounds both fascinating and maybe a little creepy. It'll be interesting to see how well mainstream users take to Google Now's assistant-like skills.
It's hard to believe that Google+, the search giant's answer to Facebook, is two years old. Google continues to tinker with its social media platform, and its latest efforts are noteworthy. For instance, Google+'s new multi-column layout, which varies from one to three columns, depending on the resolution and orientation (landscape or portrait) of your device, is visually appealing. And Google+ now scans posts and automatically adds hashtags to your stream, making it easier to browse related content. Granted, these aren't the kinds of jaw-droppers that will create a mass exodus from Facebook, but Google+ is certainly becoming an innovative place to hang.
Hangouts, the video-chat service embedded in Google+ and Gmail, is now a free standalone app available at Google Play, the Chrome Web Store and Apple's App Store. Conversations can include text, photo-sharing and live video too. Hangouts' new-found independence and multi-platform design should help it compete with Skype, the 800-pound behemoth of the VoIP world.
Google used the I/O keynote to tout Chrome's under-the-hood enhancement, including support for VP9 video compression, a next-gen codec that promises faster video streaming, and the requestAutocomplete API for faster digital wallet payments. It also showed off tech demos such as "A Journey Through Middle-Earth," which delivers an interactive and immersing gaming experience for mobile users.
Google+ just got some pretty cool upgrades to its photo management toolkit. It can automatically enhance photos by adjusting brightness, contrast, saturation and other factors. It can animate a series of photos that you upload, or stitch together family portraits and panoramas from a series of single images. Thumbnail strips highlight your best photos and de-emphasize (fade out) any duplicate, blurry or other poor images. And Google+ offers free automatic backup (up to 15 GB, shared with your Google Drive and Gmail accounts) of images at full resolution. Or you can back up an unlimited number of pics at standard (2048 pixels) size.
Speaking in soft, whispery tones brought on by his ongoing battle with vocal cord paralysis, Google CEO Larry Page ended Google's three-hour keynote with several interesting -- and often provocative -- remarks, such as wondering why people are so keen on keeping their medical records private. (Just a day earlier, Page had gone public with details of his voice affliction.) He also suggested that technologists should have a safe place -- the Free Nation of Google, perhaps? -- where they can "try out some new things" without being encumbered by governmental rules and regulations. Whether or not that ever happens, it's a great concept for a sci-fi action thriller.