The annual Google I/O event has come and gone, with plenty of news specific to Android. While the event focuses on developers, consumers will see benefits in Android thanks to improvements in Google’s core services and many new APIs for developers to use in Android apps. There was no new Nexus phone, no update to the Nexus 7 tablet, nor a new Nexus 11 tablet. But for those willing to shell out $649, there is a modified Galaxy S 4 coming soon.
Google announced that in June, customers can order the handset through the Google Play store. Instead of the phone running Samsung’s customized TouchWiz software, it will instead run on pure Android, just like the Nexus 4. That means it will get future software updates directly through Google and not Samsung or a network provider.
Of course, some of the newest Samsung features won’t be present on the phone: I wouldn’t expect Samsung’s new camera modes to be there, nor would I expect gestures to work for hands-free scrolling or swiping. Still, in light of no new Nexus hardware, the unlocked handset could appeal to hardcore Android enthusiasts.
So without the release of Android 4.3 at Google I/O, does that mean Android hasn’t improved? Not at all; in fact, Google essentially boosted Android’s software without needing to wait for carriers and handset makers to upgrade the software. How did this happen? A large part of the 3.5 hour Google I/O keynote was dedicated to new Android services and APIs, plus a new application called Hangouts.
The new Hangouts app replaces Google Talk and is Google’s effort to unify its messaging platform. The app supports video calls with up to 10 participants, SMS notifications of incoming chat requests when offline, text chat and works across platforms: You can communication with other users on the web or on iOS devices. Hangouts also highlights a great new feature in Android: Support for synchronized notifications. If you get a notification on one device and take action, the notification won’t appear on other devices or in the Chrome browser.
Google also introduced its music subscription and discovery service called Google Play Music All Access. For a $9.99 monthly fee — $7.99 if you start a 30-day trial by June 30 — you get unlimited access to stream tracks thought the Play Music app and on the web. Human curators surface top songs and albums while music recommendations come from Google’s Knowledge Graph and your Google+ circles.
Gaming got a supercharge in Android as well. Developers can use the new Google Play Games services that allow cross-platform gaming complete with achievements and leaderboards. Game progress can also be saved to the cloud, allowing gamers to pick up where the left off, even from another device.
Android also saw one other big announcement this week, but it didn’t happen at Google I/O. The Bluetooth SIG announced that Android will gain support for Bluetooth Smart and Smart Ready devices in the coming months. That’s likely to be included in an actual Android release as some developers told me that Google will be completely changing the Bluetooth software stack in Android. Regardless, this means widespread support for Bluetooth 4.0 Smart and Smart Ready accessories such as watches, heart rate monitors and other low-powered companion devices.