Developers rejoice: Android innovation rules at Google I/O

Google I/O delivered a smorgasbord of innovation, new services, and APIs that promise to extend the reach of the Android platform

Forget about the dorkiness of Google Glass, those dreams of "Jetsons"-like smart homes, and nightmares of invasions by Google robots. At its I/O conference this week, Google instead laid out its Android-everywhere ambitions and delivered a rich trove for developers.

Like Apple at WWDC eschewing mention of a new iPhone, iWatch, or iTV, Google I/O lacked many of the expected "wow" factor items. As Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond told Computerworld, "If you look at the stuff they didn't say anything about, it's the more 'whiz bang' stuff. They talked about new SDKs instead of the things that will change people's lives," such as robots, drones, satellites, or Internet-delivering balloons.

What Google delivered was a smorgasbord of Android innovation, new services, and APIs designed to make mobile and desktop experiences more similar and extend the reach of Google's platform to your wrist, your car, and your TV. Wired says, "Android is becoming contextually aware, flowing from place to place with you, and taking advantage of any input you throw at it -- be it your voice aimed at a device on your wrist, a button on your steering wheel, your mouse on your laptop, or a gaming control on your TV."

Foremost, Google unveiled the Android L developer preview, which -- with some 5,000 new APIs -- is the first major retooling of the OS's UI since Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Android L (dessert-themed guesses for its final name range from Licorice to Lollipop to Lemon Meringue Pie) sports a visual redesign with minimalistic new Android buttons and a shift from square to round icons. This new unified look, which Google calls "material design," will be rolled out across all Google's platforms, including Chrome OS. With Android L, developers will be able to "create a design for one device and easily port it to others with different screen sizes."

Android L also supports 64-bit processing, bringing Android to parity with Apple's iOS 7, and it runs exclusively on the much faster Android RunTime (ART), rather than the Dalvik virtual machine that has been the subject of legal battles between Oracle and Google. In addition to supporting ahead-of-time and just-in-time compilation and interpreted code, ART "offers improved memory efficiency and supports ARM, x86, and MIPS hardware. Back-end compilers were optimized, resulting in a two-fold performance improvement over the previous Dalvik virtual machine.... [and] applications inherit Art's performance improvement without developers having to make any code changes," according to InfoWorld's Paul Krill.

To further improve performance, L offers the Android Extension Pack with tessellation, geometry shaders, compute shaders, and advanced adaptive scalable texture compression. "Quite literally, this is PC gaming graphics in your pocket," said Dave Burke, senior director of engineering for Android at Google.

Android wasn't the only Google stalwart getting a makeover. The company has been criticized for not making enough improvements to its Docs office cloud suite over the years. Now QuickOffice, which Google bought two years ago, has been merged into Docs, giving users native capabilities to open and edit Microsoft Office files created with Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Other enhancements include the availability of the Slides presentation app for creating PowerPoint-like presentations on Android or iOS devices, and improved support for tracking changes when working collaboratively.

In response to growing pressure from Microsoft Office 365, Google also launched a premium edition of Apps. Essentially Apps for Business with an extra set of features, Drive for Work removes the 30GB-per-user storage ceiling and adds IT management abilities such as control over which users can install the Drive desktop sync client and a more granular audit for tracking users' actions on Drive. The Vault email archiving and compliance tool is now included with Drive for Work and covers all files stored in Drive, not just emails.

Google also quietly released a new set of Gmail APIs at I/O, in what the Wall Street Journal calls "a first step toward turning Gmail into a platform for developers who want to leverage the contents of users' email for productivity and other applications." The idea is not a new one -- Microsoft announced a similar move in March -- but with the Gmail API Google hopes to make it easier than with the commonly used but complex IMAP email standard for developers to build apps that leverage hundreds of millions of Gmail users. Google said users with privacy concerns will be able to opt in and authorize each app to access their Gmail accounts.

"This could be one of the biggest app platforms out there because all the data is there and all the users are there," said Aleem Mawani, a former product manager at Google and co-founder of startup Streak, which has built a customer-relationship-management application for Gmail. However, ZDnet's Ed Bott cautions: "Moving away from reliance on IMAP for interoperability is probably in the better interests of everyone who uses the Internet. But moving to a completely proprietary standard as Google is doing with Gmail is problematic as well."

If all that weren't enough for developers to absorb, Google rolled out new tools designed to help them improve how their apps are running on Google's hosted services. Cloud Monitoring, Cloud Trace, and Cloud Debugger can, for example, help developers determine why a program on a Google service is running slowly or a database returning a large number of errors.

The preshow buzz for Google I/O came nowhere near the pre-WWDC hype, but the depth and breadth of Google's announcements were impressive. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman says, "In terms of ambition, Google is promising to do in one year what Apple promised to do in two years. And Google's reach is a bit broader than Apple's." It's a compelling vision -- if it comes together.

This article, "Developers rejoice: Android innovation rules at Google I/O," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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