Google unveils maps, photo, music features
Google's sixth annual conference for software developers opened Wednesday with a chance for the company to showcase its latest services. Announcements included new features for online games, maps and search, a new music-streaming service and enhancements to its Google Plus social network, including tools for sharing and enhancing photos.
The audience of about 6,000 people at "Google I/O" includes engineers and entrepreneurs who develop applications and other features that can make smartphones and tablets more appealing. Reporters from around the world also will be on hand, giving Google a chance to generate more hoopla about its latest innovations. The keynote was also available live on a YouTube webcast.
Android already has been activated on 900 million devices made by Samsung Electronics Co., HTC Corp. and other manufacturers. Android devices are the chief rivals to Apple's iPhones and iPads. Android has helped Google make more money because its search engine and other services, including maps, are usually built into the devices. That tie-in drives more visitors to Google and gives the Mountain View, Calif., company more opportunities to sell ads.
Google's conference was being held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
The keynote kicked off at about 9 a.m. PDT and lasted about three and a half hours. The conference goes through Friday.
Here's a running account of the event, presented in reverse chronological order. All times are PDT. Presenters include CEO Larry Page; Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president for engineering; Sundar Pichai, the head of Google's senior vice president for apps and the Chrome operating system for laptops; Hugo Barra, vice president for product management at Android; Ellie Powers, a product manager at Google; Brian McClendon, a vice president who oversees Google Maps; and Daniel Graf, director of Google Maps.
Page complaints about how laws haven't kept up with the pace of technology. He says trying to create a Google Health service for keeping track of medical records hasn't been easy because of regulations.
He also says it's necessary to start earlier to get girls and young women interested in technology. And he says smartphones need to become more affordable in poorer countries.
Page closes the keynote with a remark about being able to use his phone for just about everything he needs to run the company. He says it's remarkable to think of what can happen when more people can have such access.
As Page walks off the stage, Google announces that Billy Idol is the featured performer at Wednesday's after-hours party.
Google offers no new details on its Google Glass, which is an Internet-connected device and camera that can be worn on a person's face like a pair of spectacles. At last year's conference, Google co-founder Sergey Brin teased its potential by conducting a live video chat with a group of skydivers who were in a dirigible hovering above the convention. When they jumped, the skydivers' descent to the rooftop was shown live through the Google Glass camera.
Google Glass is now being tested by developers who bought a prototype edition, and Page doesn't know when it will be available to the general public. Page says Google is relying on developers to come up with scenarios on using the product.
Page takes the unusual step of inviting questions from the audience.
During the question-and-answer session, he talks about the importance of making rival systems work together rather than one company milking off another for its own benefit. Page takes aim at Microsoft and says, "We certainly struggle with people like Microsoft." Google says it recently made its chat service work with Microsoft's Outlook.com service but wasn't able to get Microsoft to reciprocate. Google didn't immediately elaborate.
Page also addresses Google's interest in developing super-fast Internet services in a few cities. He says it's sad that there's a lot of computing power out there, but "they are connected to each other through a tiny, tiny pipe that's super slow." He says that means most of those powerful computers "can't be used for anything useful."
Page complains about "the negativity of stories" in the news media. He says, "negativity isn't how we make progress. It's not zero-sum." He describes as "dumb" the stories that focus on rivalries, such as one between Google and Apple.
He also mentions his vision of driverless cars that will save people time and notes that "we are just scratching the surface of what is possible." Page says Google cooperated with Hollywood for the upcoming movie "The Internship" in order to address "a marketing problem" with technology.
Page appears on stage, a day after the CEO disclosed a problem with his vocal cords that makes it difficult for him to speak and breathe occasionally. Page has said he remains fit enough to keep running Google. Page doesn't always appear at Google conferences, and his appearance Wednesday could be meant to reassure people.
On stage, he talks about how his dad was interested in technology and once drove him across the country to attend a robotics conference. He says it's important to focus on technology and get more people involved.
He says, "Technology should do the hard work so people can get on doing the things that make them happiest in life."
His voice sounds raspy, but that is usual.
Google is also making images from its Google Earth service available on the Web browser. Before, you had to install separate software to use Google Earth. Google also demonstrates the ability to see a view of earth from space and rotate it around.
Google introduces new features for its mapping apps on Android devices and iPhones.
When you search for restaurants in a city or neighborhood, you'll get the names of the restaurants along with its ratings at the bottom of the screen. You can swipe through the results horizontally. The mapping app will also include Google Offers — deals akin to those from Groupon Inc. and LivingSocial.
McClendon says Google has been trying to make its mapping services more useful by combining data from authoritative sources and using contributions from users. He says Google recently added more details on North Korea, with more listings of streets and parks rather than just a river and the city's name.
Graf takes a jab at Apple in talking about the success Google's mapping app has had on iPhones. Apple replaced Google's mapping service with its own app last fall. It resulted in complaints about inaccuracies and missing features. Google returned with its own mapping app a few months later. At Wednesday's conference, Graf points out that its app is "let's not forget, accurate."
Google is trying to integrate what it knows about users with its search function, so it can reply to questions like "What's my gate number?" or "my restaurant reservation."
Google already makes this available through its Google Now service on Android devices, iPhones and iPads. Now, it's available to anyone using its Chrome browser on traditional computers.
Google unveils several tools for sharing photos on its Google Plus social network.
One feature will pick out the best shots from a wide assortment of photos. Just upload a bunch, and Google's machines will reject ones that are blurry or don't have people smiling. Another factor is Google's knowledge of who's important to you — so family members or close friends are more likely to make the cut.
If the photos don't look quite right, Google is promising to enhance them, taking over a job that typically requires people to use special photo-editing software such as Adobe System Inc.'s Photoshop, Apple's iPhoto or Google's Picasa. Computer-controlled editing tools will automatically soften skin tones and sharpen colors, for instance.
Google is also expanding the storage limit for full-resolution photos. Instead of five gigabytes for free per account, you'll get 15 gigabytes. Gundotra says that when you have an important photo, you don't want to sacrifice its quality to save space.
Google is introducing 41 new features to its Google Plus social network, which Google is positioning as an alternative to Facebook.
Among them is a newly designed stream of content — one designed to be dynamic, rather than a long list seen in Facebook.
Google Plus will start to display automatic hash tags to identify the main topic being discussed in a post or featured in a photo. You'll have the option to turn it off or remove it for a specific post. Google will also help you discover content by pulling up other posts with that hash tag. Facebook doesn't currently use hash tags.
Google is also streamlining its communications tools, offering a new app to combine its chat and Hangout services. Gundotra notes that Google's own services can be fragmented and confusing at time. The new app is designed to address that and can keep a record of past conversations. It will be available for Android and Apple devices, as well as regular Web browsers on computers.
The changes will start appearing Wednesday afternoon.
Google unveils a program to get Android tablets into schools. One feature will allow educators to distribute an app to hundreds of tablets with a single click. Schools will able to pay for apps by charging against an account set up ahead of time. Normally, a credit card is required.
Google says Google Play for Education will launch this fall.
Everyone in the audience is getting a free Chromebook Pixel, a high-end laptop developed by Google. It has a high-resolution touch-screen display and usually carries a high price tag — starting at $1,299. It runs Google's Chrome operating system, which is meant mostly for online use.
Google has said that selling Pixels isn't the company's main goal with the machine. Rather, the company made it to showcase Google's vision for the future of computing. So giving Pixels away to engineers and entrepreneurs is consistent with that strategy.
Google demonstrates the ability to play games simultaneously on its Chrome browser. Everything stays in sync even though the devices used varied.
Google's stock broke $900 for the first time shortly before the conference started. At 10:10 a.m. PDT (1:10 p.m. EDT), it was up $18.72, or 2.1 percent, at $905.84. Google's market value also surpassed $300 billion for the first time.
There's a new phone from Google. It will run on a newer version of the Android operating system, version 4.2. The Android version will still be called Jelly Bean, rather than Key Lime Pie — the next in a series of dessert-themed code names.
It will be unlocked, meaning it will work with any carrier, including those abroad. But it also means the price won't be subsidized by the carrier. Google will sell it for $649 starting June 26, rather than the usual $200 or so with a two-year contract.
Google says the new phone is a variant of Samsung's Galaxy S4 phone, which was recently released.
Google also says that the new phone will be able to get Android updates as we come. U.S. carriers sometimes block those updates from getting to locked phones.
Google unveils a music service called All Access. The streaming service will allow Android users to listen to their favorite songs and artists for a monthly fee.
Google wants to not only offer access to millions of songs, but also help guide you to music you might like. You can choose one of 22 music genres and see key albums that define the genre along with recommendations from Google's curators. You can listen to any track right away, or switch to a "radio station" format featuring songs you'll likely want to hear. You can adjust the playlist as you go.
The cost is $9.99 a month in the U.S., after a 30-day free trial. It launches in the U.S. Wednesday. If you start the trial by June 30, the monthly fee will drop to $7.99. It will be available in other countries later.
Google's All Access will be competing with Spotify and other popular music services.
Google says its online Play store will make recommendations for apps, books, movies and music based on the device you are using. After all, what works well on a tablet might not on a phone.
Powers introduces a service to help software developers get more users and make more money through their apps.
It will tell a developer, for instance, that an app is particularly popular in Russia, so that the developer could consider making a Russian-language version. Google is offering an app-translation service to help with that.
Another feature is designed to help developers understand how effective their ads are in getting people to download their apps.
Google unveils a tool to help software developers make sure their apps work well on different screen sizes. That's important because some people use phones and others use mid-size or larger tablets. Developers will want to make sure their apps are pleasant across the board.
Google introduces a technology for syncing notifications on different devices. The idea is when you dismiss a notification about a new Facebook message, for instance, it wouldn't reappear when you check your tablet.
Google also unveils new gaming tools. You can save where you are in a game and pick up on another device. You can also see how you rank on new leaderboards. This appears similar to what Apple offers on iPhones and iPads through its Game Center. Getting into gaming gives Google an opportunity to participate in one of the most popular activities on mobile devices.
Barra introduces a few tools for software developers to incorporate into their apps. One allows apps to track what users are doing, such as walking. It may appear creepy to users, but Barra says the tools will allow developers to create "a whole new category of awesome apps."
Pichai talks about Google having two large, fast-growing platforms: Android for smartphones and tablets and Chrome for laptops.
He says Android has grown from being on 100 million devices in 2011, 400 million in 2012 to 900 million now. He calls the growth "extraordinary." He suggests there's still room for growth with 7 billion people in the world.
After a brief multimedia presentation, Gundotra appears on stage to open the conference.