27 May 2013

My Trip to Google I/O: Part II

This is Part II of my retelling of my trip to Google I/O. For Part I, visit see: here. Part II will focus on the details of the main I/O keynote, what hoped to see, what I saw, and what was missing.

Time passed, and it was finally the day of I/O. What I had long been waiting for was here at last, and I was more than ready for it. Excitedly, I boarded a plane at the Portland (Maine) Jetport at 10AM and arrived, after some delays, at San Francisco Int’l at 6PM. My first task while in the city was to check-in at Moscone Center, a huge convention center that Google completely takes over for I/O every year. I took a bus from the airport with the help of Google Maps and made it just before closing time at Moscone. The check-in process was surprisingly simple: I scanned a QR code Google had sent to my email earlier in the week, and then lined up by my last name at a help desk where I picked up my NFC-enabled I/O badge, a t-shirt, and some helpful information about the sessions. 

But before all of the exciting sessions got started, there was the most exciting part of I/O: the main keynote. Historically, this is the time Google’s VP's show off all of the new products their teams have been working on, as well reveals exciting news about future products and give away some of these for developers to try out and build apps for. Last year, it notably featured Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin interrupting one of the speakers to reveal a skydiving stunt that made I/O history, and that showcased Google’s new Glass product. In other words, this year had a very tough act to follow.

Interestingly, I noticed, Google was starting to get flack in recent years for aiming their conference more at the general public, something more like Apple’s WWDC or even the yearly Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, events significantly more showroom-esque. The event’s original purpose and primary focus, of course, was development and developers. However, some were arguing that Google’s now-traditional giveaways led non-developers to purchase tickets and thereby prevented actual developers from being able to attend. I was interested in seeing whether Google would address this concern in any way, and how this I/O would compare to past years.

The main keynote is here. I arrived at Moscone a decent two hours prior to the start of the event, and even then, there was a line circling around the block to get inside. Mercifully, the line moved quickly, but once inside, another line for the main keynote was already forming. There seemed to be a sign hovering overhead saying “Abandon all hope of breakfast, ye who line up here”. While waiting, I took advantage of the opportunity to meet people around me, and was really excited to make friends at Box, Motorola, and Egnyte. They all came from different backgrounds and were very excited to be there at I/O.
No one was quite sure what to expect from this year’s conference; Google had managed to keep things relatively hush-hush when it came to any new products. However, earlier that morning, a leak promised we would see the next iteration of Android, in the form of 4.3 Key Lime Pie. Regardless of what would come, we all awaited excitedly to get inside. Once there, finding seats was a challenge given the thousands upon thousands of developers there; approximately 6,000, according to Google. About a million others were tuning in through live streams, as well. Suddenly, the countdown timer on the main screens began flashing all sorts of shapes and colors, and we knew it was almost time to start.

Pictured: Vic Gundotra
Credit: Yahoo!
From the moment Vic Gundotra welcomed everyone to Google I/O, we got the impression this I/O would be focused more than usual around developers. As we went forward in the keynote, through the announcements about new Android and Chrome APIs, development tools, even a brand new development environment for Android, it became clear that Google was doing their best to shift their focus to and around developers and away from devices and services. Sure, they announced things like Google Play All-Access (a brand-new music streaming service), the new Google Maps UI, and great new Google+ features, but the central theme was Google building tools for developers. As Sundar Pichai, Senior VP of Chrome, Android, and Google Apps, said, “that’s what this is about: what are we doing on top of these platforms, so that you can continue doing the great work you do”. Google attributed the almost 1 Billion Android device activations, more than double the number from last year, to the developers out there building great apps for consumers. Hugo Barra, VP of Product Management at Android, talked about Google Play’s 48 Billion app installs and mentioned that over the previous four months, Google had paid developers more than over all of last year. “You guys, Android developers, are really the heart of this ecosystem”, he said. “We’re here to show that we’re listening and we’re here because we really want you to thrive.”
My favorite announcement of I/O was probably Android Studio. As someone who spent the last semester building an iOS app, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of a great development environment. Android Studio brings a lot of the great features of iOS’s Xcode to the Android platform, and facilitates things for developers trying to build apps for the platform. On the topic of new Android developer features, the activity-tracking API’s announced hold extreme promise, in my opinion. It means anyone developing an app for Android will have the ability to track things like walking, biking, being inside a car, etc. easily and be able to provide a host of new features. On the Chrome side of things, Google spoke volumes about the new native web API’s soon to be available on all major browsers, such as real-time connectivity and P2P data transmission. In addition, they reiterated the improvements Chrome is making in the speed at which Javascript is rendered in the browser. Their WebM and WebP video and picture formats that compress more data into less space, they said, had the capability of halving the bandwidth used by websites.

Speaking of the web, Google gave everyone in the audience a Chromebook Pixel, an announcement that surely made the day of a web developer or two in the audience (myself included). With the thousands of developers, tinkerers, and hackers that now have their hands on a Pixel, I'm sure it won’t be long before we hear all sorts of exciting news regarding the high-end device. The brilliant part of Google’s Chromebook strategy, I believe, is that as that regardless of what platform you’re developing on, the web is universal. Thus, any developments made for the Chromebook, Chrome for Android or Chrome for OS X can, for the most part, be used anywhere and on any system. As I heard it described the other day, it’s Google’s “trojan horse”: it’s on every major platform, is the world’s most popular web browser, and it’s just waiting to have developers build great apps that run universally.
Yet another exciting announcement came when Google showed off a Samsung Galaxy S 4 running Android in its stock form, their only hardware announced that night. Developers are notorious for loving stock versions of Android, generally only available on Google’s line of Nexus devices, that are free of manufacturer and carrier add-ons and restrictions. Though it may not come with some of the features provided by manufacturers (which are rarely, but occasionally good), stock Android is generally much faster, easier to hack, and most importantly, is easily and painlessly upgraded to new versions of Android when they come around. I was amused to hear everyone extremely excited and pumped during the announcement of the device, that is until Google announced the price of the S 4: $649 off contract and unlocked, in stark contrast to Google’s own Nexus 4 which retails for $299 in its entry-level form. There was an audible sigh of disappointment when Google revealed the price, but I suppose you can’t win every battle.

Pictured: Larry Page; Credit: Wired
However, the most exciting part of the Keynote was decidedly Larry Page’s concluding statements, something I recommend everyone watch (available here). The crowd was more than enthusiastic to see the Google CEO on stage. He had many statements to make regarding the current state of technology and innovation in the world, though unfortunately he struggled to speak due to an unexplained case of vocal cord paralysis he revealed the day prior. Still, he gave an inspiring address and managed to make time for a rare Q and A from the audience. Among his many remarks, he said he believed it was ridiculous that every article he saw about Google on the news was about “Google vs some other company...or some stupid thing”, and that he thought the focus should instead be on each company’s innovative technologies. Another interesting statement he made was regarding governments holding back technology; he said he thought it would be great to set apart a certain portion of the world to trial crazy, innovative, new technologies before rolling them out to the rest of the world. “Technology should do the hard work so that people can get on with doing the things that make them happiest in life”, Page said. Again, I highly recommend you watch Larry Page’s concluding statements yourself.

Pictured: Stock Galaxy S 4; Credit: IGN
Because of the development focus of the event, there was a lot we did not hear about in terms of hardware devices. While Google has traditionally used the opportunity to reveal their new handsets and tablets, we didn’t see any new Android hardware at I/O aside from the Samsung Galaxy S 4. There was no news of an updated Nexus 7 tablet, the $199 7” tablet that took the Android community by storm when it was announced during last year’s I/O. Additionally, there was no refreshed Nexus 10 nor was there a new addition to the Nexus phone line. We also heard nothing about the long-rumored Motorola X phone that Google is said to be working on with Motorola Mobility, a company Google acquired last year. Most conspicuously absent: no new Google Glass news was announced during the keynote. Least conspicuously absent: no new Google TV hardware/software news, and nothing regarding the ill-fated Nexus Q media streamer. All of these “missing” device announcements and product news have led me to believe that Google will most likely be holding a dedicated event for these and the next version of Android, possibly within the next month or so.