At Google I/O, developer services hogged the spotlight
Forget Glass, self-driving cars or a smartwatch. Developers, not physical consumer products, were Google's darlings at the company's annual I/O conference this week.
Google brands I/O as a conference for developers, and this year, with a range of new tools unveiled to attract more outside developers -- and boost the revenue from their services -- the company sought to deliver the goods to I/O's intended audience.
"Giving back to the developer community was a big theme," said Andrew Levy, CEO at Crittercism, an app performance management company, who attended the conference.
It was a stark contrast to last year's show, which saw a group of skydivers wearing Glass, the company's closely watched augmented reality system, land on top of San Francisco's Moscone convention center during a lively keynote address delivered by Google co-founder Sergey Brin.
This year, the company talked about, well, APIs (application programming interfaces). Integrated programming languages. App activity analysis tools. Usage metrics. Revenue graphs.
"All these things matter to developers, but they're not particularly sexy," said Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey.
Sexy or not, Google is right to be focusing on developer tools if it's serious about its forays beyond search, such as maps, gaming, social networking, mobile payments, and now streaming music.
Instead of the entertainment surrounding Glass at last year's show, I/O 2013 "was about getting down to business," said Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi.
Google's business is a lot different from, say, a consumer electronics company such as Apple. "For Apple to have a show and not have a product would be a big deal," Milanesi said. "But Google has so many different things, and right now they need to prove that their ecosystem is profitable."
"That's what the show was about," she said.
That ecosystem is closely tied to Google's Android mobile operating system, launched in 2008, which now has 900 million users, Android and Chrome vice president Sundar Pichai reported at the outset of I/O's four-hour opening keynote on Wednesday.
Google has big ambitions with Android. "There are over 7 billion people in the world. We have a long way to go," Pichai said.
More than 30 sessions that were focused on Android took place during the three-day show.
One new Android service launched at the show was Android Studio, an IDE (integrated development environment) designed to simplify the creation of Android-based apps.
Other technically oriented announcements at the show included new features to speed up the performance of Google's Chrome browser on mobile and a new Android gaming API for developers to build in more features such as cloud-synced game progression and Google+ integration. New tools for the Google Play Developer Console, such as referral tracking for monitoring ad effectiveness, were also announced.
There were several consumer-friendly product announcements at I/O. Google Maps on the Web and mobile received numerous enhancements, such as 3D rotating views. Google+ now automatically "enhances" people's photos by softening skin blemishes and reducing wrinkles. Chrome on the desktop will soon start letting people search by voice.
Google also unveiled its rumored music subscription service during I/O, but whether it will add much value over what is already offered by Pandora and Spotify is still an open question. Some say it might be too little, too late, especially without a free, ad-funded option.
But despite I/O's focus on developers, Google couldn't let go completely of Glass. Staffed by Glass-wearing Google employees, that product's booth attracted legions of fans, power users and the just plain curious during the conference.
The government has been getting curious about Glass, too. On Thursday, a U.S. congressional group wrote to Google CEO Larry Page requesting information on how the device handles privacy issues. As the letter was sent, wearers at I/O said they could generally be trusted with it.
As authorities demanded answers, the Google confab chugged along, with a room full of developers taking in the latest on coding for Glass.