May 15, 2013

Google unveils latest innovations

The message from Google’s showcase: Let technology do the walking ... and everything else.

Michael Liedtke / The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — For Google CEO Larry Page, happiness is a warm computer.

"Technology should do the hard work so people can get on doing the things that make them happiest in life," Page told a crowd of 6,000 software developers and entrepreneurs who flocked to San Francisco Wednesday for the opening day of Google's annual showcase for its latest breakthroughs.

In the latest display of its technological prowess and sweeping ambition, Google is rolling out another wave of products and services that will test how much more people want computers to control their lives and enhance their perceptions of reality.

This year's event mostly consisted of upgrades to existing Google services that have already become daily habits for millions of people -- one of Page's main goals. The new features assume most people want more help managing their lives from Google's brainy engineers and the sprawling data centers that house its millions of computers around the world.

Investors are increasingly becoming convinced that Google's tentacles are going to grasp more moneymaking opportunities as its dominant search engine and ancillary services become more pervasive on the mobile devices.

Google already has an enviable perch on the smartphones and tablets that have become people's constant companions. Its Android software has been activated on 900 million devices worldwide. In the first quarter of this year, Android devices held a 74 percent share of the global smartphone market followed by the Apple's iPhone at 18 percent, according to the research firm IDC. Android also led the tablet market with a 56.5 percent share versus 40 percent for Apple's iPad during the first quarter, according to another research firm, Gartner Inc.

Google's products and services have also made major inroads among users of the iPhone and iPad, despite Apple's recent efforts to cast aside some of Google's products.

In a show of Wall Street's faith, Google's stock surged past $900 for the first time Wednesday to propel the company's market value beyond $300 billion for the first time. Google shares gained $28.79, or more than 3 percent, to close at $915.89. The latest milestone came less than three months after Google shares surpassed $800 for the first time. The stock has increased 55 percent since Page, Google's co-founder, succeeded his mentor, Eric Schmidt, as CEO two years ago.

In contrast, investors have become exasperated with rival Apple's lack of breakthrough products since its visionary CEO Steve Jobs died in October 2011. Apple's stock has plunged by nearly 40 percent since last September, leaving the shares at $428.85. Still, Apple's market value remains nearly $100 billion higher than Google's.

Page, 40, seemed to share some of that frustration Wednesday in a rare 45-minute appearance that capped a 3½-hour presentation of Google's latest products.

Without mentioning Apple by name, Page said more companies need to develop products "outside their comfort zone." It's something that Page says he has also insisted on Google doing since he started the company with Sergey Brin in 1998. Some of the gambles, like expansions into digital mapping and email, have paid off. Others, such as creating an alternative to Wikipedia and a social networking service called Buzz, have been flops.

"Every time we have tried to do something crazy, we have usually made progress," Page said. "So we have been emboldened."

Here's a look at some of the announcements made Wednesday:

MUSIC STREAMING

All Access will blend songs you have already uploaded to your online libraries with millions of other tracks for a $10 monthly fee. This puts Google in competition with paid subscription plans such as Spotify and Rhapsody and free music services such as Pandora.

All Access became available in the U.S. on Wednesday and comes with a 30-day free trial. If you start the trial by June 30, the monthly fee drops to $8. That's $2 cheaper than leading competing plans. It is expected to roll out soon in 12 other countries where Google currently sells music -- 10 European countries as well as Australia and New Zealand.

The new service will allow you to search for songs, albums or artists directly, or peruse 22 different genres. Google curators will also offer recommendations based on your listening behavior and your existing library of songs. You can listen to any available song right away, or switch to a "radio" format that creates a playlist of songs that you might like. Radio playlists can be adjusted on the fly by deleting or re-ordering upcoming songs. Google describes all of this as "radio without rules."

By combining an unlimited-access subscription plan with music sold through Google's online Play store, All Access covers any gaps. Some artists, including Taylor Swift, keep recent releases away from streaming services for several months in order to boost download sales. All three major recording labels -- Vivendi's Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and Warner Music Group Corp. -- are participating in All Access.

MAPS, SEARCH AND CHAT

Google introduced new features for its mapping apps on Android devices and iPhones. When you search for restaurants in a city or neighborhood, you'll get the names of the restaurants along with their ratings at the bottom of the screen. You can swipe through the results horizontally. The mapping app will also include Google Offers -- deals akin to those from Groupon Inc. and LivingSocial.

Google is making images from its Google Earth service available on the Web browser. Before, you had to install separate software to use Google Earth. One feature demonstrated Wednesday is the ability to see a view of Earth from space and rotate it around.

Google Maps on the Web also has a new look, taking up the entire screen. Names of destinations that used to be on the left of the map are being embedded on the map itself.

For mobile devices, Google is optimizing its mapping app for tablet computers such as the iPad. That will allow the app to take advantage of the larger screen. It's due this summer.

Google will integrate what it knows about users with its search function, so it can reply to questions like "What's my gate number?" or "my restaurant reservation." Google already makes this available through its Google Now service on Android devices, iPhones and iPads. Now, it's available to anyone using its Chrome browser on traditional computers.

Meanwhile, Google is streamlining its communications tools, offering a new app to combine its chat and Hangout services. It keeps a record of past conversations, though there's a way to turn that off. It will be available for Android and Apple devices, as well as regular Web browsers on computers. The new application is called Hangouts.

GOOGLE PLUS

Google is adding 41 features to its Google Plus social network as it tries to turn it into a more formidable threat to Facebook. The new features started appearing Wednesday and draw upon the computing power, algorithms and other innovations that have made Google the leader in search.

A new photo-management tool will pick out the best shots from a wide assortment of photos. Just upload a bunch, and Google's machines will reject ones that are blurry or don't have people smiling. Another factor is Google's knowledge of who's important to you -- so family members or close friends are more likely to make the cut.

If the photos don't look quite right, Google is promising to enhance them, taking over a job that typically requires people to buy and master special photo-editing software. Computer-controlled editing tools will automatically remove red eyes, soften skin tones, sharpen colors and adjust contrast. Google offers something similar through an "I'm Feeling Lucky" button on its Picasa editing software.

Another feature promises to stitch together a sequence of photos taken of the same group of people or a panoramic scene. This stitching system can be used to create a single photo that pulls the best shots of everyone featured in a series of pictures. It will also produce an animated clip featuring the motions of people captured in a succession of photos taken against the same background.

Google is also expanding the storage limit for full-resolution photos. Instead of five gigabytes for free per account, you'll get 15 gigabytes.

Other enhancements to Google Plus include a newly designed stream of content, which moves away from the list of posts found on Facebook. It will also automatically add hash tags to identify the main topic being discussed in a post or featured in a photo, and it will use those tags to bring you related posts. Facebook doesn't use hash tags, though Twitter and Instagram do.

ONLINE GAMES

Google is adding leaderboards and the ability to match players in online games to its Android operating system for smartphones and tablet computers. The new features match those available in Apple's Game Center for the iPhone and iPad. Google is also making it possible to save game progress online, so players can pick up games where they left off, even on other devices.

Getting into gaming gives Google an opportunity to participate in one of the most popular activities on mobile devices.

Google says the leaderboards will also be available through a browser on regular computers. Apple's Game Center works on Mac computers, too.

NEW PHONE

A variant of Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy S4 phone will run a pure version of Android. That's the version that Google makes and distributes, not the one modified by Samsung to include a host of features that have been dismissed as confusing gimmicks in reviews by The Associated Press and others.

The new phone will be unlocked, meaning it will work with any carrier, including those abroad. But it also means the price won't be subsidized by the carrier. Google will sell it for $649 starting June 26, rather than the usual $200 or so with a two-year contract. Google says that the new phone will be able to get Android updates as they come. U.S. carriers sometimes block those updates from getting to locked phones.

DEVELOPER TOOLS

Google unveiled a number of tools that software developers could incorporate into their apps.

One will allow apps to track what users are doing, such as walking. It may appear creepy to users, but Android executive Hugo Barra says the tools will allow developers to create "a whole new category of awesome apps."

Another tool will help software developers make sure their apps work well on different screen sizes -- phones and mid-size or larger tablets..

SCHOOLS

Google Play for Education, launching this fall, is designed to help get Android tablets into schools. One feature will allow educators to distribute an app to hundreds of tablets with a single click. Schools will able to pay for apps by charging against an account set up ahead of time. Normally, a credit card is required, something difficult for schools to use for purchases.

 

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