Almost a week has passed since I returned from Google I/O. I put this exercise to write a retrospective blog post onto my schedule and it is “planned” to be one week late as I wanted to give myself and others some time to digest the news. I’ll try to structure the retrospective into 2 parts – a general part where I’m trying to discuss the key announcements and changes and a more commerce-related final part where I’m trying to answer the question how some of the announcements could affect commerce in the future.
Almost all announcements were made during the keynote. But not all. One notable missing announcement was the addition of PHP as a new language supported by Google’s App Engine platform. I am not sure why they missed on this one, maybe because there was no other related news and PHP’s standing among some of the Java (Android) developers is not the best. Other than that, the big news announced can be put into the Android and Chrome buckets. “Native mobile” and “Web”.
General – Android
While the big news for Android was missing, for example no new or overhauled device announcements, there were a lot of evolutionary updates announced. The key ones that still stick in my mind were the updates to the Google Play Services Frameworks. The APIs that are contained in this upgradeable app will be made available to all phones running Android 2.3 and up. When it comes to location and mapping, Google announced pretty cool updates:
- The “Fused Location Provider” is a new location provider that takes sensors other than the GPS sensor and WiFi into account. By smartly using all these sensors, the total battery consumption per hour dropped to about 1%, which is a huge improvement. This new location provider will – in my opinion – make a lot of location-hungry apps, also games, possible. If you’ve played Ingress (Google’s Location Based Game) before, you know how fast it drains your battery. Screen: on – GPS: on – Data: on. That’s a horrible combination. At least one part is now solved to some degree, leaves smart solutions missing for the screen and data connections. We’ll see.
- Geofencing APIs. Finally :-) At hybris we have been using Geofencing in some of our demos, e.g. the Wishlist application that reminds users about nearby stores, that are open and carry the product you (customer) wants to have. We’ve had to do a form of smart polling to check with the server regularly in order to get this done. The APIs available formerly included some kind of geofencing but honestly that never ever worked for me. The new geofencing APIs allow you to register client-side geofences, up to 100 for each app and user. This is enough for most use cases and in case you need more, there are some ideas in my head that allow you to increase this number with a little extra battery drain (more abou this later).
- Activity Recognition is another cool location feature. You can now get a callback whether the user is walking, biking or driving.
All theses location features will be improved over time. So for geofencing, right now you can only specify circular geofences. Other shapes will be added over time in even more “evlutionary” updates.
In other android news, Google Cloud Messaging is now supporting persistent connections (great for large number of message deliveries), upstream messages (mobile device to server) and notification sync (invalidate notifications on other devices a user might be using, so he does not need to remove messages twice). Another missing API so far was the Google Play Game Services – now there is support for saving game stats, levels, leaderboards, etc.
One accouncement in the Android section that is purely touching the developers and was really well received is the addition of an IntelliJ IDEA-based development environment. A lot of Ecipse users have been complaining, including myself, about the stability and speed. It seems Google listened and tries to change this issue but adding and supporting an IntelliJ IDEA-based tool. For now the Android Studio is super beta, but promises to be a great new tool in the mid-time.
When it comes to rolling out Android Apps in the Google Play store, so far some pretty important features like staged rollouts, alpha- and beta testing groups were missing. These features were now added and I’ll shortly try these out for our own hybris conferencing app. So far the experience was smooth, you can specify a Google+ Community which is your group of people that will get access to the beta and alpha versions.
One issue that Google is actively fighting is that most manufacturers ship their devices with a somewhat-deeply modified user interface. This creates compatibility issues and it’s a nightmare for developers having to test on many many more devices (compared to iOS development for example). It feels a bit like J2ME to be honest, but is mostly restricted to the UI. One great announcement was the S4 Google Edition, a smartphone similar to the Samsung S4 but sold by Google via the play store and running vanilla android – nothing else – at a steep price of $649 and US-only first…
General – Chrome
Google’s second platform, and most arguably still the more important platform – is the Web. The web is bit more anachistic and Google is trying to capture and control it via it’s very own Google Chrome browser and the Chrome OS, which pretty much runs a Chrome browser (only). Every attendee got a Chromebook Pixel, a super high-end gadget… but to be honest that laptop is a browser at a staggering price of $1299 – would you buy that? Now that I looked a bit into the other Chromebooks available, I might even recommend one at a lower price to my parents or so. It’s nice to get automatic updates, and most of the times these devices are used in WiFi-enabled areas (it is pretty useless without a connection).
Anyway, back to the announcements. The Chrome browser is now having 750+ million active users and Chrome is definitely pushing the limits when it comes to new features and performance. The chrome part of the keynote was – in my opinion – pretty much dominated to announcements related to actual Google products and services. Vic Gundotra presented the most important bits here, all about Google+. There were 31 new features announced and mostly ready to try out that same day. A new multi-column newspaper/magazine style look, automatic tagging, lot’s of improvements to the photo upload functionality (effects, auto-categorization, auto-optimization, increased storage, etc.). Google also unified it’s many chat services under the new “Hangouts” application which is now also available as an app for devices. Gmail is now using Hangouts instead of GTalk. When it comes to Google’s most widely used service, Search, Johanne Wright, the VP of Search & Assist, gave an excellent Google Voice Search demo. Talking to your phone or browser might seem a bit awkward, but it is working really well. I might think we could get used to it.
Also, Google Maps got a facelift (sign up for beta here) and got improved. The map is now the central component, not just a sidebar. The map is full-browser, all results are on top and the map is personalized based on your past usage. Your map is not another’s map. Personalization to bubble up the important things I am looking for sounds like a good thing (and less spooky than many believe… actually most will not even notice).
Finally, Larry Page, founder of Google, came on stage. I figured out a day later that he had blogged about his voice illness, so now I understand why he sounded a bit strange. At first I did not quite understand that. He allowed questions and one person I still remember asked about whether the web would be become a first class citizen on mobile devices. I think Larry found a good answer here, but reading between the lines tells me that they are clearly pushing native on smartphones way more than browser integration. For the next years, at least.
Some other products announced over the long (3hr) keynote included Google Play Music All Access (what a $%^#@ name!), a music subscription service which is for now US-only (it feels so bad coming back, realizing some of the services are not available elsewhere). Google Play for Education launched, a service helping teachers to install and maintain class-room devices (e.g. provision books, apps).
Google Glass was missing from the keynote, no spectacular skydiving this year, but Google Glass was all around. There were Glass office hours but it was still hard for a normal, non-us, non-gifted with $1500 dollars person to try out Glass. There were way too few Google employees walking around which would let you try Glass. I finally tried Google Glass via a new friend connection. It is an interesting experience and we’ll have some ideas for Glass once we obtained one. But walking around all the time with it…. getting tweets directly (above) my view all day long… not sure, but interesting and we’ll try it out!
As a tech strategist for hybris, I did of course walk around with my commerce hat on and tried to spot trends that I find interesting for commerce. Google+ Sign In should be pretty interesting, as Google+ emerges as one of the 3 most dominant social networks and commerce can benefit from social by using it for smart personalization, easy login and registration and sharing to friends for reach for example. Google+ got several improvements, mostly around the native integration for Android and iOS and it feels like a pretty solid and probably Android-dominating solution for social sharing (I said Android-dominating!).
Google Wallet is now natively available for developers, too, and open for using it for purchases for physical goods. Wallet is ready to go for many customers, as they set it up for the Play Store already (bought from Google’s Play store – books, music, apps? – got a ready to use wallet). The payment process is pretty easy and requires little changes to the backend payment processing, as Wallet simply creates pseudo credit card data that is valid for a limited time and can be used “just like any other card”. The limiting factors for wallet (native) include a US-only availability, unclear international rollout-plans and no long-term commitment to not charging in the end for this service (right now the usage of wallet is free – this does not mean your payment processing is free…).
Some facts that came clear…
While I was visiting Google I/O primarlily, I also had a stop at my old workplace – Yahoo! – and I visited other places like Twitter, too. I also met friends at Flickr (Yahoo!, I know, but still a pretty independent bunch of people in downtown SF… btw right before the big Flickr Announcement) and old colleags and discussed a lot. One topic that often comes up and that I am pretty much sold right now is the “hybrid vs. native” discussion. To say it quickly: none of the people I met, that’s including people from Yahoo!’s and Flickr’s mobile teams, Twitter, Expedia believe in hybrid apps. They all did native, and many have tried out hybrid apps and it just came short in terms of quality and promises. Taking into account that Twitter and Facebook, just to name two big ones, all went native after trying hybrid, is another big sign that we should interpret accordingly.
Having said that, there is room for hybrid apps. Maybe backend-faceing apps, etc. but definitely not for top-notch butter-smooth frontend apps that you might want to develop.
My 2 cents. Well, a bit more. Sorry for the long post… Will add links later on.