What Developers Can Expect at Google I/O 2012

Since when does a vendor-sponsored developer conference sell out 5,500 seats in just 20 minutes? That's what happened when tickets for Google I/O 2012 went on sale this week. It beat last year's record of an hour, which had also raised eyebrows.

One easy answer is that Google I/O sells out because of the swag. Tickets aren't cheap, but each attendee gets a gift bag with a street value that typically exceeds the price of entry. Last year's goodies included a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet and a Chromebook. Previous years' attendees received Android smartphones.

This has led to lots of grumbling that too few ticket buyers are "real developers" anymore. Others claim the event's rising ticket price and limited supply have made it undemocratic or "too corporate." That hasn't been my experience. In years past, Google I/O has attracted a diverse range of developers. That's largely because the conference features some of the best developer content available from across Google's increasingly diverse developer ecosystem, from the Web to Android and beyond.

The conference itself doesn't take place until late June, but there's lots to look forward to. Here are a few ideas of what we can expect from this year's show.

Android marches forward

Google's mobile OS will of course feature heavily. The question is whether the search giant will roll out a new version at the show. Rumors place a possible launch date for Android 5.0, code-named "Jelly Bean," within that timeframe.

That's worrying to some. Last year's conference was all about Android 3.0 "Honeycomb." Google released the next version, code-named "Ice Cream Sandwich" (ICS), in the interim. And yet, as of today the mobile carriers have rolled out ICS to just 1 percent of Android smartphones. Even the flagship Android tablet from last year's Google I/O goodie bag has yet to receive the update. If Google launches another Android version in June, ICS will have effectively been passed over by the industry.

Still, the show must go on. If smartphone and tablet makers skip ICS for "Jelly Bean," that's one fewer version to add to the so-called Android fragmentation problem.

More than the OS, however, what could really use some attention is Android hardware. The Android smartphone market is poorly diversified. Too many devices have similar specs, and makers have been slow to adopt Google's more cutting-edge ideas, like near-field communication (NFC). I wouldn't be surprised if Google I/O brought us a new Nexus smartphone that raised the bar for Android hardware (and gave Apple something to worry about). Android tablets, too, could use a jump-start. So far, they've competed poorly against the iPad. Google can't afford to let this market fizzle now. A new reference tablet with an improved screen and an emphasis on multimedia doesn't sound like a bad bet.

Enter the Web platform

Technically speaking, the HTML5 spec isn't even finished yet. But already Google, Mozilla, and others have been distancing themselves from using the term "HTML5" for the current Web standards. The term they're using now is "the Web platform." You'll hear it a lot at Google I/O, guaranteed.

I covered one developing aspect of the Web platform in last week's column about the Web Components project. I expect we'll see those technologies fleshed out further in Google I/O sessions this year.

There are other new Web technologies on the way as well; Google is playing a significant role in developing many of them. One example is Web Intents, a framework that enables interoperability between Web applications. Google I/O conference sessions generally offer good coverage of such upcoming Web technologies.

Naturally, there will be updates to Google's Chrome browser to accompany all of this. By the time the show opens in June, I expect many of the improvements currently found in Chrome Canary, Google's bleeding-edge browser branch, will have made their way into the mainstream branch. Among them is another 25 percent improvement in JavaScript performance over the current builds.

Getting serious about games
Game development will probably get a fair amount of coverage at Google I/O. Entertainment, in general, has been an area of growing emphasis for Google. Notice how it relaunched the Android Market as Google Play, a new store that combines apps with e-books and multimedia.

Games have long been among the top downloads for Android. Now Google aims to make games a showcase for the Web platform, too. Notice that it launched the Google I/O conference website with a browser-based puzzle game. That means there will be Google I/O sessions showcasing browser features of particular interest to game developers. These include the latest HTML5 features, but also Chrome-specific features such as hardware-accelerated graphics rendering and Native Client (NaCl).

The cloud and beyond

You can also expect the perennial developer sessions on Google's more prosaic services, including AdSense and AdWords. There will be talk of cloud computing, including Google Apps and App Engine, as well. Those services may even receive upgrades timed with the conference.

I expect one of the bigger focus areas for this year's show, however, will be Google+. Although it has struggled to build an audience, don't underestimate how important Google+ is to the search giant's strategy. The fledgling social network is critical, not just to Google's competition with Facebook, but to its search and advertising businesses, as well. To that end, I expect to see further revamps of the Google+ APIs announced at the show, as well as increased integration with other services, both from Google and third parties.

But you may well ask, what's the point? If tickets have already sold out and I can't attend the show, what's the use of knowing what will be presented there?

The good news is that Google plans to stream the keynote and many sessions live. The remainder of the sessions will be recorded and made available online later. Even if you can't take advantage of any free gifts given out at the show, you can still take advantage of its most valuable aspects. It is, after all, a developer conference -- an important one.

This article, "What developers can expect at Google I/O 2012," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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