San Francisco: Google used its annual conference for software developers, Google I/O, to unveil several new products, services and features. They include enhancements for online games, maps, search, music and photos and are meant to help the company cement its role in people’s technological lives. Here’s a look at some of the announcements made at Wednesday’s keynote at Google I/O.
All Access will blend songs you have already uploaded to your online libraries with millions of other tracks for a $10 monthly fee. This puts Google in competition with paid subscription plans such as Spotify and Rhapsody and free music services such as Pandora.
All Access became available in the U.S. on Wednesday and comes with a 30-day free trial. If you start the trial by June 30, the monthly fee drops to $8. That’s $2 cheaper than leading competing plans. It is expected to roll out soon in 12 other countries where Google currently sells music – 10 European countries such as the U.K., France and Germany, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
The new service will allow you to search for songs, albums or artists directly, or peruse 22 different genres. Google curators will also offer recommendations based on your listening behavior and your existing library of songs. You can listen to any available song right away, or switch to a “radio” format that creates a playlist of songs that you might like. Radio playlists can be adjusted on the fly by deleting or re-ordering upcoming songs. Google describes all of this as “radio without rules.”
By combining an unlimited-access subscription plan with music sold through Google’s online Play store, All Access covers any gaps. Some artists, including Taylor Swift, keep recent releases away from streaming services for several months in order to boost download sales. All three major recording labels – Vivendi’s Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group Corp. – are participating in All Access.
Google is adding 41 features to its Google Plus social network as it tries to turn it into a more formidable threat to Facebook. The new features started appearing Wednesday and draw upon the computing power, algorithms and other innovations that have made Google the leader in search.
A new photo-management tool 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 buy and master special photo-editing software. Computer-controlled editing tools will automatically remove red eyes, soften skin tones, sharpen colors and adjust contrast. Google offers something similar through an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button on its Picasa editing software.
Another feature promises to stitch together a sequence of photos taken of the same group of people or a panoramic scene. This stitching system can be used to create a single photo that pulls the best shots of everyone featured in a series of pictures. It will also produce an animated clip featuring the motions of people captured in a succession of photos taken against the same background.
Google is also expanding the storage limit for full-resolution photos. Instead of five gigabytes for free per account, you’ll get 15 gigabytes.
Other enhancements to Google Plus include a newly designed stream of content, which moves away from the list of posts found on Facebook. It will also automatically add hash tags to identify the main topic being discussed in a post or featured in a photo, and it will use those tags to bring you related posts. Facebook doesn’t use hash tags, though Twitter and Instagram do.
Google is adding leaderboards and the ability to match players in online games to its Android operating system for smartphones and tablet computers. The new features match those available in Apple’s Game Center for the iPhone and iPad. Google is also making it possible to save game progress online, so players can pick up games where they left off, even on other devices.
Getting into gaming gives Google an opportunity to participate in one of the most popular activities on mobile devices.
Google says the leaderboards will also be available through a browser on regular computers. Apple’s Game Center works on Mac computers, too.
Maps, search and chat:
Google introduced 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 their 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.
Google is making images from its Google Earth service available on the Web browser. Before, you had to install separate software to use Google Earth. One feature demonstrated Wednesday is the ability to see a view of earth from space and rotate it around.
Google Maps on the Web also has a new look, taking up the entire screen. Names of destinations that used to be on the left of the map are being embedded on the map itself.
For mobile devices, Google is optimizing its mapping app for tablet computers such as the iPad. That will allow the app to take advantage of the larger screen. It’s expected this summer.
Google will 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.
Meanwhile, Google is streamlining its communications tools, offering a new app to combine its chat and Hangout services. It keeps a record of past conversations, though there’s a way to turn that off. It will be available for Android and Apple devices, as well as regular Web browsers on computers. The new application is called Hangouts.
A variant of Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy S4 phone will run a pure version of Android. That’s the version that Google makes and distributes, not the one modified by Samsung to include a host of features that have been dismissed as confusing gimmicks in reviews by The Associated Press and others.
The new phone 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 that the new phone will be able to get Android updates as they come. U.S. carriers sometimes block those updates from getting to locked phones.
Google unveiled a number of tools that software developers could incorporate into their apps.
One will allow apps to track what users are doing, such as walking. It may appear creepy to users, but Android executive Hugo Barra says the tools will allow developers to create “a whole new category of awesome apps.”
Another tool will 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.
Other tools promise to help developers get more users and make more money through their apps, such as by better understanding how effective their ads are in getting people to download their apps.
Some of the new tools will help Android users directly. With new technology for syncing notifications on different devices, a notification you dismiss on a phone won’t reappear when you check your tablet. Google also says its Google 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.
Google Play for Education, launching this fall, is designed to help 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, something difficult for schools to use for purchases.