Google announced numerous updates to individual Android apps during the I/O keynote, but a new version of Android was conspicuously missing.
Google made a slew of Android-related announcements on Wednesday, many of them centering on core Android functions. For example, Google offered developers a rich set of location tools and APIs to help improve the accuracy of location data while at the same time reducing the power needed to generate that data. Google's Cloud Messaging system now handles two-way syncing, so messages/notifications checked on one device will appear as read/checked on another device.
More forward-facing changes include a brand new music service that lets people stream radio stations to smartphones, tablets and desktops for $7.99 per month. Google also improved the functionality of Google Now by adding reminders and estimates on public transit arrival times. It dramatically improved its Google Talk application by merging it with Google+ Messenger. The new Google Hangouts app can be used to perform IM or video chats from smartphone to PC to tablet, and so on. (Google even released a Hangouts app compatible with iOS devices.) Further, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group said that Android will adopt the Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy spec, building the stack directly into the operating system.
Last, Google previewed the next generation of Google Maps for both the desktop and mobile devices. The new version of maps for Android (and iOS), besides having a redesigned user interface, will be able to dynamically reroute drivers if traffic conditions change ahead. It will also provide detailed alerts for certain types of traffic conditions. The new Google Maps won't be available until summer.
Google updated many of the apps that use these services, including Google Play Music, Google Books, Google Talk/Hangouts, Google Search, and others to take advantage of the new features.
These are all significant and welcome additions and improvements to the Android we already know and love. They didn't help stem the feeling of disappointment, however, that Google chose not to introduce a new version of Android.
Google announced Android 4.2 Jelly Bean in October of last year, which followed the June announcement (at I/O 2012) of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Google announced Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich in October 2011. The company has introduced a new version of Android about once every six months. The company was widely expected to provide another OS bump at I/O this year to Android 4.3. It didn't.
The company also failed to show off new Nexus gear. No one expected to see the Nexus 5, but an updated version of the Nexus 4 (including LTE) was supposed to be on deck. It didn't show up. Neither did the improved Nexus 7 tablet, which is said to be in production ahead of a July launch. The only hardware mentioned by Google was the stock Android version of the Samsung Galaxy S4. Google will sell the Galaxy S4 loaded with just native Android code (no carrier or Samsung bloatware) through the Google Play Store next month for the retail price of $649. It's not being called a Nexus device.
What does all this mean for the future of Android? Is Google waiting until later this year to show off a more significant update to its mobile platform? Why not show it off, even if only to preview it, at I/O? Surely Google has big plans for Android. It's highly possible that new Android chief Sundar Pichai wasn't yet ready to reveal anything about his plans for Android. He's been overseeing the platform for only a few months.
The problem is Google has left Apple an opening. Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference kicks off in a few weeks. The company is expected to preview the next version of iOS. The preview could give Apple plenty of focus and attention in the run-up to this fall, when the next-generation iPhone and iPad are expected. With no new version of Android to get worked up about, Apple and iOS 7 may steal the spotlight for a while.
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