After a song by Empire of the Sun, a slick Australian techno band, Google opened with a jaw-dropping video montage and music video. Face-mapping? 3-D visualizations? Customized maps? Sure. And, how about drag-and-drop, touch-enabled Web interfaces that snap into action? The video prepped the crowd for what I'd call the new face of Google: well-designed, usable, colorful, and speedy.
The big headliners: a new single-button Google Checkout system, a way to play a game where multiple tablets and phones connect to form one big touchscreen, the "All Access" music service that will rival Spotify, an app store for education, brand new Google+ features, and some big improvements to search.
One Google to Rule Them All
The big theme behind this year's conference is unification. Google has started connect disparate services like maps, search, mobile apps, and social networking with a consistent look and feel and better cross-pollination. Each device will match up better with your business life. Dismiss an alert on your phone, and you won't see it on a tablet. Leave for work, and your phone will know you are driving.
Keynote speaker Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president of Google Chrome and Apps, started things off by explaining how the proliferation of mobile devices is now taking over the world. "It is a multi-screen world with a lot of computing power," he said.
He mentioned how phone sensors now can see, hear, and compute in real-time and in the moment. (Small businesses, take note here: If you do not have a mobile strategy now, you have probably been living under a rock since 2005 when this revolution started.)
One of the most critical shifts, he argued, is that Chrome is now essentially the operating system of the Web. "Android and Chrome are designed to build amazing experiences," he said. And he's right--one of the best examples is Google Now, a speech-enabled assistant.
Pichai announced that Android, the mobile OS, expects 900 million Android "activations" this year--e.g., the total of registered users. That's a wake-up call for any app developer. There have been 48 billion app installs so far and 2.5 billion installs just in the last month.
Because mobile is so pervasive to people's lives, Google is working on making activity monitoring even more sophisticated. Android apps will know when you are biking, driving, or walking. This is a good step forward in "thinking machines" that predict what you need--say, a walking map that automatically avoids dangerous intersections and health monitors that track your movements.
A New Music Service
News leaked yesterday that Google was planning a "Spotify killer" and the keynote confirmed it: The company announced the Google All Access music service. It will let you stream any album for $9.99 per month on any Android device. Rdio, you might want to pay attention to this, too.
Google+, starting today, is going to look a bit different. The design resembles Google Now, which is a good thing. You can change the columns around (say, one row for your phone and three for a tablet) and use pop-out menus.
Importantly, they added an auto hashtag feature. Google examines your posts and shows related content--say, other posts about a new CRM tool. It will analyze the images you post as well. The idea is to add rocket-fuel to search optimization. As any SEO expert knows, good metatags lead to better pageviews. Google intends to automate this process.
Hangouts is getting a boost. The Web conferencing tool, which many small businesses use because it is integrated into Gmail, now keeps a better archive of your video conversations--saving videos, text chats, and photos. Essentially, it's like Facebook Timeline but with more of a focus on archiving your collaborations. The archive can detect images and group them for you automatically--say, picking photos of smiling people.
Google then saved the best for last. They call it "answer, converse, and anticipate" search and I'm a big fan of the concept. Search today is a bit archaic: Type a phrase, see results. It's a question-and-answer approach we've used for decades. New improvement like "no interface" search mean you can have a two-way conversation by voice. You can say "show me popular places to visit in New York" and see suggestions. You can also ask to see photos you took last year, and Google will show them to you.
Google search will know where you are, the time of day, and your life plans. You can say "when does my flight leave today" and get the answer. You can set up a business meeting by saying the name of your contact, speaking the message, and stating the date and time. Then, you can set a reminder for yourself to leave for the meeting in time for the commute.
Google will also update their maps app on tablets and phones. Ratings and info from Zagat, reviews from other users, a crisper display, and customized landmarks based on places you've visited are coming this summer and later this year. Maps will also change based on your clicks--say, revealing important routes and street names.
Let Technology Do the Work
Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google, who announced earlier this week he has dealt with a health issue related to his vocal chords, then took the stage. His voice a whisper, he explained how mobile advances will continue this year. Speaking, as he suggested, does seem to strain him and taps his energy. "Technology should do the hard work so that people can get on with doing the things that make them happiest in life," he said. Automated cars, by the way, will be one of the great tech advances.
What was missing? There may have been a number of Google Glass wearers in the audience, but the company had very little to say about the much-hyped device.