So much for my hardware predictions of what to expect at Google I/O(s goog). Instead of an updated Nexus 7 tablet or a new Chromebook model, Google spent three hours during Wednesday’s keynote to discuss services and feature upgrades for both Chrome and Android. I do think that in the coming months we’ll see improved Google devices, but that’s not what this year’s I/O event is all about. And even though I’m a gadget guy, I can appreciate the message Google is sending this week.
Unification was the big theme
As I tweeted during our live blog, there was a very common theme throughout the keynote and it had absolutely nothing to do with hardware:
If I could describe #io13 in one word it would be "unification". Same features, services, UI and experiences on Chrome and Android.
— Kevin C. Tofel (@KevinCTofel) May 15, 2013
Any thoughts of Chrome merging with Android in the traditional sense can be dismissed based on what I heard at the keynote. Instead, the two distinct platforms are sharing services, APIs, and design cues. What does that mean? Whatever Google services you use on an Android phone or tablet can be used on a desktop or laptop in Chrome, for example. For the first time, Chrome as a browser is good enough to be the glue that ties user experiences together between mobile devices and traditional computers.
Where are the commonalities between web, tablet and phone now?
How so? Take a look at the new Google+ stream. It appears more card-based — akin to Google Now — and looks the same whether you’re viewing it in Chrome on a Windows(s msft) PC or on a Nexus 10 tablet. And although it’s a smaller screen, the same basic view appears in Google+ on an Android phone or an iPhone for that matter.
The phones only show a single column of information and you can have the exact same Google+ view in Chrome, or you can set the browser to show two columns. (Hint: Click More in Google+ on Chrome, scroll to the bottom of the menu and you’ll see the Stream Layout option)
Here’s another example (and one I’m very happy to see): not only can developers take advantage of Google Cloud Messaging for push notifications in apps or web, but Google is synchronizing notifications. So if you get a new Google+ comment notification on your Android device and read the comment, that same notification won’t appear in Chrome. Or vice versa, of course. Many of the the same services — including the new Google Play Games services — are supported Chrome, Android and even iOS, now so Google is unifying the experience, making it irrelevant whether you’re using the web, a phone or a tablet.
Google definitely has a two platform approach
Google has said in the past that we’ll see a merger of sorts between Chrome and Android. Now it has shown what it means: Iterate and mature the browser with new technologies that can provide the same experience as some native apps in Android and iOS. It won’t matter what you use in the future in Google’s world: Chrome is the realm of the desktop and laptop while Android (which also has a Chrome app) will power phones and tablets.
The services and APIs that Google offers, however, will allow developers to extend their reach across both of these platforms. With the new Google+ single sign on service, for example, users can get access to a web app or its Android counterpart. In fact, I was most impressed when Google demonstrated a web app that, upon signing in, asked if it should remotely install the Android application on a phone. These services are the glue that will tie Google’s two platforms together.
So what about the next version of Android and hardware?
Frankly — and in hindsight — I’m not sure Google needed to introduce an Android update, a refreshed Nexus 7 tablet a new Nexus phone. The story today was about making the experience better and seamless on existing hardware. And we still have tens of millions of devices that haven’t been upgraded to the Jelly Bean version of Android: Iterating it again only exacerbates the Android update challenges. Instead, Google has provided developers new tools to further improve their web and Android apps at the same time.
I can already see the benefits on my Chromebook Pixel: Google+ is already better, the new Hangouts messaging is improved and my preview of the updated Maps app is incredible. Using the touchscreen, I could zoom out to see the Earth with real-time cloud cover, see the stars where they’re supposed to be and then zoom back in to view panoramic virtual tours of historic locations. The new photo editing in Chrome is on my Pixel, as well, and Google’s cloud power is making my photos look better automatically.
Do I wish there was new hardware? Perhaps, but that’s just the gadget geek in me speaking. Software and services are just as important as hardware and, so far, I like what I see there. As long as Google continues to unify the Chrome web and Android experience in a positive way, I can live with my old phone and tablet.