Takeaways from Google's developer conference
The geeky event included urban skydiving and some huge product announcements.
Here are some takeaways from day one of the conference.
Android Jelly Bean
While an operating system upgrade from 4.0 to 4.1 doesn't sound so amazing, it belies the massive leaps forward that it represents for the Android operating system.
In iOS 6, Apple unceremoniously booted Google Maps out of the iPhone (you can still use it, but it would be pretty redundant) in favor of a homemade Apple alternative. The new iOS maps will include not-so-relevant check-ins and very relevant reviews from Yelp (YELP).
Unfortunately, there will be no transit directions. That's right, all you writhing masses of pox-ridden straphangers with your faces in strangers' armpits. Apple isn't going to help you find your way.
Android Jelly Bean, however, takes transit directions to a new level of efficiency and outright creepiness. Jelly Bean comes with Google Now, which improves search based on your location, the time, and your personal calendar and search history. If you have a plane to catch, your Android will keep track of the flight status and let you know if you need to rush. If you are just sitting near a bus station (it doesn't know about subways yet), Android offers a card that will show when the next buses will arrive. The app figures out what your daily commute is (creepy) and will give you alternate directions in case of traffic (very useful).
Apple's Siri, the voice that might keep your lonely heart comforted, but is otherwise a complete disaster, is the biggest data hog for iPhone users. This matters when only Sprint (S) and Sprint alone offers unlimited data nationwide. Siri on the iPhone 4S is a beta at best, and Google's answer looks like version 2.0. A voice search in Jelly Bean can talk back to you (in much more natural-sounding English than Siri) and pulls up a card from the Google knowledge graph to answer your query. It's like searching without having to sift through search results.
Other than those big ones, the notifications drawer has gotten a lot better with more visual updates that are somewhat reminiscent of Live Tiles in Windows Phone (MSFT). The UI is measurably smoother as well. It also features offline voice typing, which cuts down on data use.
This latest version of Android will be available over the air for Galaxy Nexus owners next month. But for about 99% of Android users, Jelly Bean is a non-event. It will take a while for phone manufacturers to include it in their next phones, and that is only after they "enhance" the design with pointless features that slow down performance and annoy users. Besides, the big manufacturers like Samsung (SSNLF) have already announced their flagship handsets for the year, mostly running on Ice Cream Sandwich.
According to Google’s count, there are 400 million total Android activations as of today.
Nexus 7 tablet
Just like the Microsoft Surface, this isn't an iPad killer. But all of the dull, low-end Android tablets, especially the Amazon (AMZN) Kindle Fire, are now obsolete.
The Fire is a forked version of Android with its own app and media store. Especially compared to the magic-like beauty of the iPad, the Fire looks and feels like a cheap copy from Canal Street that you settle for because it's cheaper. Starting next month, you can get a much more powerful tablet with access to the full Google Play store for the same price of $199.
The Nexus 7 tablet is produced with Asustek. It's a 7-incher, making it more viable to hold in one hand than an iPad, and the HD screen looks first-rate at 1280 x 800. It has a quad-core Tegra 3 CPU and a 12-core graphics processor, and offers nine hours of video play on each charge. And it weighs 340 grams (just under 21 ounces), a bit more than half the weight of the newest iPad. Judging by the demonstrations, its capabilities are nothing to shrug at. Video, interactive magazines, and 3D gaming work smoothly. It has a front-facing camera , but nothing on the back, making it more suited to video chat than awkward tabletography. Maps on the Nexus 7 are even more powerful. You can even take a look inside buildings for a 360 degree view; you can even download entire cities for offline use.
Nexus Q - Made in the USA
Ahead of the conference, pictures of a mysterious spherical device leaked out to the blogs. This long-rumored device is Google's home entertainment hub, the Nexus Q. Nothing extremely special, just a pretty neat cloud-based boom box for the connected home. It’s on sale for $299 at the Play store, which is about three times the cost of an Apple TV.
That’s before you include the speakers.
What this represents for Google is a first: Its own hardware device. Google doesn’t even make the Nexus tablet or Galaxy Nexus phones that are basically flagship Google-branded items with pure, unadulterated Android. Hardware isn’t an easy business. It is very competitive, margins are low, and obsolescence risk is high. Google has zero experience here.
Furthermore, as the promotion video showed with little subtlety, the Nexus Q will be manufactured in the United States. As Apple’s experience shows, as patriotic as it sounds, building in the U.S. is just not as easy. It isn’t just about the price, but the agility of the factories. Nevertheless, it is nice to add to the growing high-end manufacturing sector in the USA.
If the 6,000+ crowd of developers will remember one thing from today, it will probably be the phenomenally ridiculous promotion stunt that Googlers did for Project Glass, the Terminator-esque augmented reality glasses that make you look really really cool.
Sergey Brin came on stage in an obvious hurry and announced that there were "500 ways" the next thing can go wrong. The screen showed the stream of a Google Plus Hangout involving several people wearing the glasses, giving us several points of view as they jump out of a blimp a mile over San Francisco and base jumped to the roof of the convention center. Never mind the safety and regulatory concerns here. After landing on the roof somehow, they passed a Project Glass to some stunt BMXers who did jumps over the roof and handed it off to a guy that rappelled down to the entrance and another biker that brought the package to Brin on stage. The whole thing was caught on video from several angles and broadcast as a hangout. It is a surprise that they all had a working Internet connection and nobody died.
Several first-person points of view of urban base jumping filmed by Project Glass
Some developers then talked a bit about the project, which will be available a year from now. The developers present will get the first crack at it, and the price will be rather steep at $1,500. The fact that it makes you look ridiculous won’t be the only thing holding back mainstream acceptance of Geordi La Forge-style face-computers.
Doubling down on Google Plus
About a year after the debut of Google+ -- the Facebook (FB)-like-but-not-Facebook thing where tumbleweeds roll past the last trite status update you left in August -- Google isn't giving up on social networking.
Rather than just doubling down and taking aim at Facebook, Google is trying to carve out some sort of relevance for Google+, and it is finding it in the Hangouts function. At the conference, Google announced a new feature called Events, which add a sort of collaborative, collective functionality to events like parties.
Google is probably wise to orient Google+ as a collaboration, rather than sharing tool. Twitter and Facebook have that covered, but for making events, those are harder to work with. This ad video also positions Google+ as a collaboration tool for astronomers.
At the conference, Google claimed that there are 250 million active Google+ accounts and 150 million monthly active users, and that 50% sign in daily. Active users spend an average of 12 minutes per day looking at their streams. Do you know any of these people? Twitter claimed only 100 million active users back in October, but its certainly more, ahem, active than Google+.
Thursday, day two of the conference will focus on Chrome.
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