Google I/O 2013 keynote roundup: Unlocked Galaxy S4, improved Maps, new music service

The opening day at Google I/O was filled to the brim with interesting announcements. While Mountain View was focused heavily on new tools and services for developers, a few snazzy consumer-facing features made their way into the keynote as well. No, there wasn’t any sign of fancy new hardware, but Google is clearly taking usability and consumer-friendly interfaces very seriously going forward.

Android

Last year, Google boasted 400 million Android activations, and that was a fourfold increase from 2011. This year, an amazing 900 million Android devices have been activated to date. With over 48 billion app installs, Google is clearly focused on monetising all of these users. Year over year, Android app revenue has increased 2.5 times. In fact, Google paid out developers more in the first four months of this year than it did in all of 2012.

Finally, developers are starting to make real money with Android. More importantly, Android developers are getting access to more APIs to make new apps: Better Google Maps, cross platform sign-on, upstream messages to Google servers, notification syncing, and brand new gaming services. Devices running Froyo and above will all be able to take advantage of these new APIs once they start rolling out.

Strangely, Google announced that it will be selling an unlocked version of the Samsung Galaxy S4. Instead of using Samsung’s custom software, it will be running a vanilla version of Android directly from Google.

Starting 26 June over in the States, this version of the S4 will be available unlocked for $649 (£425). It's pricey, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful pieces of Android hardware available. Whether it will be available over in the UK is still to be confirmed.

Chrome

The Chrome portion of the presentation was mostly spent talking about existing technologies. Sure, the Chrome team can now boast over 750 million users, but there just isn’t anything all that exciting to hang their hats on. Google’s WebM and WebP technologies save bandwidth, but that’s old news. It’s somewhat strange to see this kind of information featured so prominently in the keynote.

Perhaps most interestingly, Google has been working on optimising JavaScript to make high-end tasks like gaming a possibility on Chromebooks, tablets, and smartphones. While JavaScript rendering has sped up about 24 per cent on the desktop, mobile performance has seen well over 50 per cent performance gains. Now that they’re optimising for asm.js, even complex games written in C++ can be ported to run directly in a web browser with no plugins required.

Music

One of the most consumer-focused aspects of the entire event was the announcement of Google Play Music All Access. Starting today over in the States, Google is now offering an all-you-can-eat music subscription service for $9.99 (£6.57) a month. You can stream music from your own library or Google’s catalogue as much as you want on the web and on mobile devices. Essentially, think of this as a Spotify competitor. It has a 30-day free trial, and an initial offer price of $7.99 (£5.25) per month for those who sign up before the end of June in the US. Note that this service is US-only to begin with, but it will roll out to other countries in the coming months.

Google+

41 new features are now rolling out on Google’s social network. Not only will we see a new dynamic layout with one-to-three columns and animated UI elements, but the data analysis is getting a lot creepier. When you make posts on Google+, it will automatically scan your content, and attach metadata in the form of hashtags. It’s not just text, though. It’s actively analysing your images to guess at what objects are featured in the photos. It’s certainly impressive technology, but it’s kind of scary at the same time.

Hangouts are getting their own app on iOS and Android now, and it bills itself as the best place to chat with all of your friends. More importantly, Google is attacking photography head-on. Now with 15GB of free storage to keep your high-res photos, the Google data centres will now automatically de-wrinkle your faces, stitch panoramas together, and even construct high dynamic range (HDR) photos from multiple shots. It’s obvious that Google is going for Facebook’s jugular with these announcements.

Google isn’t giving up on innovating in the search market either. With Google search on the web and Google Now on mobile devices, the search team is working on making the experience more seamless. By harnessing over 570 million entities in the Google Knowledge Graph, natural language searches can provide rich information right from the results page. More importantly, Google can use contextual information to surface relevant information before you even search for it.

It’s not all text-based, though. Siri clearly scared the pants off the engineering team, so better voice search is being implemented across all devices. Even at the desktop, you’ll now be able to search for information using natural speech. Even better, Google+ integration allows you to surface your private information just as easily as you can with indexed pages from around the web.

Maps

Maps have been a point of Google pride for years. Especially since Apple’s mapping misstep last year, Google has taken the opportunity to step up its game. Google Maps is being completely redesigned on the web, Android, and iOS this year. With ratings from the public, your friends, and Zagat, the next step with Google Maps is to highlight potentially interesting locations automatically.

Going forward, Google is ditching pins, and having all of the important information labelled directly on the map itself. As the presenters said: “The map is the user interface.” Undoubtedly the best new feature is the ability to view 3D-modelled cities right in the browser. You can even zoom out to get a shot of the whole globe with real-time clouds rolling across the surface. This new version of Maps will be rolling out on the web starting today via invites, and mobile users will get to experience these improvements at some point this summer. Now Apple and Microsoft have even more catching up to do.