Google I/O, Google’s annual developer’s conference, kicked off yesterday with a massive keynote, spanning over three hours. But, this wasn’t quite the same kind of keynote that we’ve become accustomed to seeing from major tech companies in the past few years. There were no major device announcements or details, save for one quick reveal that we’ll get to later. There were no major operating system updates, either. Instead, Google took time to focus on how they’re making their core services – the things that Google has really built its success and fame on – more useful. Maps, Search, Chrome, and Google+ are all getting upgrades ranging from significant to subtle, taking what Google has made and rebuilding in a way that tries to be both familiar and improved.
There’s nothing more central to Google’s core concept than its search engine. Last year, Knowledge Graph was unveiled, which now provides answers to your queries, in addition to search results. The first tweak here is that those Knowledge Graph answers will be coming along with answers to questions you haven’t even asked yet. Google will try its best to anticipate any follow-up search queries you might have, and provide those answers before you ask. The example provided was a search for the population of India, which was generated along with data comparing that population with other countries from around the world.
Contextual, natural language voice search is also on its way, to mobile devices and the Web. This includes your own personal information – if you use Google Calendar, or have information (or photos) stashed away on your Google+ profile or any other Google app, Google search will be able to retrieve that information. So, asking “When does my flight leave?” will generate that information, provided Google has access to it somewhere. The contextual part was impressive in the demo – after a couple queries about a certain location, the presenter was able to ask “How far is it from here?” – based on context, Google was able to supply the distance between her present location and the destination in question, despite the lack of specifics in the spoken search query. Reminders can also be set using voice commands.
Google Maps is already pretty hard to top, given Google’s enormous edge in data. The new version of maps has a stronger focus on personalization – each account will have its own unique map. As you visit and review places around where you live, Google will add them as landmarks to your map, then use those landmarks to recommend new places. Also, instead of throwing up a limited number of pins after a query, Google will show all results on the map, marked with smaller red circles. Clicking on a location will display an information card about that location. Clicking on that location will light up new locations on the map that are somehow related, and you can go on exploring from there.
Directions from those locations will be automatically provided, using your location or whatever you have marked as home as the starting point. All roads between points A and B will then be highlighted and clearly labelled, along with a comparison between public transportation and driving directions. Public transportation directions will now be far more robust, with specific weekly schedule information made immediately available. If you choose to drive, you’ll be happy to know that Google Maps will have real-time incident coverage – if there’s an accident on your route, Google Maps will set up the next best detour for you to take.
There are some other small tweaks – the maps will be vector-based, and will feature more images. You can now get a 3D Google Earth view of locations around the world, along with an interior tour of famous places using images that the community at large has uploaded to Google Maps. You’ll even be able to take a peek inside a new restaurant you’re thinking about going to, all within Google Maps.
Finally, as maybe a nod to Google’s ever-expanding ambition, Google Maps zoomed out to view the whole Earth, complete with cloud formations in real-time. Going even further reveals all the stars in their proper places, and the Earth’s current position in orbit, with the correct side of the Earth doused in sunlight, in real-time. I guess now we know where the star maps of the future will be coming from.
With some updates to its browser, Google introduced its most subtle improvements – WebP and VP9. Those are two new file formats, which offer more compression and smaller file sizes without a drop in quality. For mobile users, this means less data will be consumed against wireless plans, for watching the same videos and looking at the same images. For websites that aren’t using Google’s new file types, the Chrome browser will automatically convert those other files to ensure low data consumption. WebGL is a developer tool that will allow for some serious gaming (in terms of graphical output) right from a Web browser. And, for shopping, Chrome will now be able to remember your full payment details. When you want to buy something, you’ll be able to do it with one click, and no forms. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not that’s a good thing.
Google is continuing to make their services even more integrated with each other and with the Google data tank that powers everything. Google+ is still very much a part of that. And so, Google has announced a couple changes to make the service more useful and more attractive.
One change is the layout – posts will now appear in a multi-column format, with some major stories stretching out across all columns. If you prefer the single column look, you can still revert to that, too. Regardless, posts will now be a little bit like flashcards – you can flip them over for more information and related stories. This is going to work best with pictures, which are getting boosted by related hashtags. Google will be able to analyze your photos and tag relevant keywords. It’ll even be able to identify famous landmarks in pictures, without needing any text clues. Google+ will then link to related stories and images from other Google+ users – which you can opt out of, if you don’t want your stuff popping up anywhere besides your private circles.
Next up is Hangouts, an app based on the Google+ chat feature of the same name. It’s a chat app, except that doesn’t do it justice – it might be the most robust chat app available. Conversations can be one-on-one or between groups, and are persistent – people can drop in and out of conversations and share pictures at their leisure. And, the conversation can shift over to video chat at any time, including group video chat, for free. And, on top of that, there are rumors of SMS integration to come in the future. Free group video chat alone makes this one a must-try.
Google+ is also adding a bunch of new picture functionality. Auto-enhance will add touch-ups to photos automatically (you can turn this on and off), but in practice it doesn’t seem like a huge departure from the I’m Feeling Lucky button in Picasa – at least for now, in the early going. Auto-awesome will do all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff, like creating an animated gif (actually, probably using the new WebP format) out of a series of photos taken in succession, or automatically stitching together photos for a panoramic shot. The most impressive new feature might be that Google can take a series of photos of people, and create a brand new photo where everyone is smiling. Highlights will save you from the trouble of having to find and tag your best vacation photos – Google will parse through your hundreds of photos and pick out the very best, based on image quality, landmarks present, and contacts pictured. Powerful doesn’t begin to describe it.
All Access is Google’s answer to streaming music services like Spotify and Rdio. You’ll be able to access your own tracks that you’ve uploaded, in addition to millions of others available via subscription. With the All Access library, you can add tracks to your personal library, and turn each track into a radio station on the fly. But, Google does one better by letting you view all of the upcoming tracks in that radio station, and allowing you to rearrange or remove songs if you so choose. You’ll also be able to set up radio stations by genre.
Listen Now will be the personalized hub of All Access. Here, you’ll see recently played and recently added tracks, in addition to new music from artists already in your library. All of those are used to create personalized recommendations and radio stations for you to listen to. Expert curated playlists and radio stations can be found, too.
The big question mark is library – a lot of people make their choices based on which exclusives or hard-to-find band libraries a particular service has – but in terms of functionality, All Access looks solid. And, if you want a good recommendation engine suited to your tastes, Google is probably the best-equipped company to put something like that together. The subscription will be $9.99 per month, but everyone gets a 30-day free trial, and if you start your free trial before June 30, the monthly cost will be just $7.99.
And yes, finally, there was one piece of hardware shown off briefly at Google I/O. It’s not totally new, though – it’s the Samsung Galaxy S4, but with Samsung’s TouchWiz UI stripped off. Stock Android fans will be able to get the new Galaxy S4 unlocked on Google Play for $649 on June 26. It’ll only be available as a GSM phone, so only AT&T and T-Mobile users need be concerned. One final note – being a stock Android device, there will be no waiting for the upgrade to become available when a new version of Android sees release.
Google made a lot of ambitious moves at Google I/O. More than that, they showed off the immense muscle they have thanks to all of that data they’ve collected over the years. It’s a strong advantage for Google – with all of these images and data at Google’s fingertips, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could top services like Google Search and Google Maps anytime soon, a point they drove home with some convincing demonstrations.
A lot of the features introduced – particularly conversational search and the photo enhancements – are probably going to be very hit or miss in the early going, as is the nature of both services. But, with the technological know-how, immense cash flow, and data capital Google has, it’s easy to imagine that they’re poised to have much more success in those areas than a lot of their competitors.
The main gist of the keynote was that Google was trying its best to make its services as convenient as possible, so that you need to spend less time actually using them, and more time doing fun human things that maybe don’t involve technology so much. With what Google showed off, it seems like that’s definitely going to be more possible than ever, especially where Maps are concerned. That said, there are also a lot of new toys to lose yourself in, too. The sentiment might change come the next time a major company holds a press conference, but at least for now, it seems an awful lot like it’s Google’s world, and we’re just living in it.