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Beyond watches and wheels: the undersung heroes of Google I/O

By Evan Wade / June 27, 2014

Beyond watches and wheels: the undersung heroes of Google I/O

The world of app development is a massively complex, unbelievably intricate ecosystem with enough roles, responsibilities, and needs to spawn a billion different sub-industries. It goes without saying that any self-respecting tech monolith would want fingers in several of the delicious, revenue-bearing pies of the app world, and Google is all hands in.

That’s at least what we took from this year’s Google I/O, an increasingly important (and lengthy) meetup designed to showcase Mountain View’s ever-expanding suite of products and services to the world at large.

It’s this writer’s firm opinion that the products announced at this year’s opening speech set the mobile industry forward five years, maybe more. But for all the Wears, Autos, and Android-bearing TVs announced at the event, there was plenty more for devs and interested onlookers to drool over as the rest of the schedule moved on.

The biggest news? That depends on who you are, what you do, and what you find important. Whatever your answer, there’s no doubt this year’s event was an earth-shaker. Here are some of our un- (or under-) sung favorites from the show.

A focus on gaming

There’s a reason Google devoted so much time and floor space to everyone’s favorite two-thumbed hobby. If done right, Google Play can make a boatload of money. As the guys holding the party said, three-fourths of all Android users play games—an impressive penetration rate no matter what the user base.

Though footage of PC-style graphics on Android devices was quite impressive (despite a problematic flickering display), a scheduling decision on the post-keynote docket was perhaps just as telling. NVidia Tooling and Performance—a presentation designed to help devs get the most out of the eponymous company’s K1 mobile processor—took up two spots on Tuesday’s schedule. This move speaks to the number of game devs appearing at the event.

Then there are the services. Google Play Games, as cool as it is in its current state, lags behind its console counterparts in terms of overall functionality. Promised updates could help bridge that gap. The aptly named Saved Games will allow devs to create programs that store saved data in the cloud, thus letting end-users pick up the fun on any compatible device without losing progress in the switch. A revamped profile/matchmaking system will make sure hardcore types aren’t lumped into the same matches as less-experienced newbs, ensuring a better, more balanced experience for both parties.

Another appropriately-titled Games service, Quests, will give devs the option of placing meta-tasks in their titles, such as location-based challenges. In all cases, the service will work across across games, continuing the Play Games philosophy and more closely mirroring similar console-based services, e.g. Xbox Live.

Performance and battery: Google’s secret sauce

Having sat through the entire keynote, I can say without qualification that Project Volta—a power-performance initiative designed to help better manage battery life—got some of the longest, loudest applause of the show. In a crowd comprised mostly of developers, it’s easy to see why. Android devices haven’t been known for their stellar battery life, and end users are (perhaps understandably) quick to blame an app for guzzling a phone’s power instead of limitations introduced by the operating system it runs on.

On the consumer side, end users get a host of new tools to help determine exactly how their power is spent between charges. As this quick Gizmodo writeup explains, Battery Historian lets you see which apps are chewing up their juice—a fairly revolutionary idea/implementation in the overall scope of smart devices—while a new Battery Saver mode kills apps and ceases non-critical functions like WiFi and certain processor tasks, which Google says will squeeze out more time in low-power situations.

For developers, much of Project Volta’s impact comes in the form of education. Google’s so-called “lazy-first” approach—a topic broached in the above-linked video—puts huge emphasis on the order in which tasks are run, encouraging developers to ask themselves how long their app must run before it executes a non-critical task. Examples in the video include a “non-user facing network call” and other functions that can effectively wait longer than they might have otherwise.

Performance, too, is an obvious area of consideration for Google. As with the graphics example, many of these performance-related talks stemmed from Android’s any-and-all approach to hardware. With any number of manufacturers running the mobile OS on a huge variety of chips—and that’s before considering the upcoming slate of watches/cars/TVs—roadblocks and inefficiencies are bound to occur. Besides NVidia, the conference featured talks on optimizing for a number of other big-name, under-the-hood companies (Intel, ARM, and so on).

The platform will also see a major performance overhaul with the release of Android L. Better yet, much of that improvement requires no extra effort or intervention on developers’ parts. Some of this comes from a much-touted (and expected) runtime switch. Instead of Dalvik—the previous standard for Android—Google has formally introduced ART as the way of the future.

An Android Central update cites Google as “promising a 2x performance increase” with the switch. Whether that’s true or not, a Lifehacker piece on the differences between the two seems to indicate it’s a positive change. It’s also worth noting that the piece was written far before I/O ever took place, corroborating Google’s claims to some degree.

Data: Not just a Star Trek character

Much has been made of the revamped and expanded cloud offerings offered at I/O. While data collection—a topic we feel will be even more important with the advent of wearables—hasn’t been underreported, it’s at least worth bringing up again… especially considering the borderline magic Google is playing with here.

Take Eric Schmidt’s brief (but impressive) demonstration towards the end of the keynote, for example. Using a combination of Google’s cloud services and his own coding prowess, the Google Executive Chairman was able to create a “simple” app that analyzed millions of tweets in real-time to see exactly what people were talking about during a World Cup match. By providing an adaptable, scalable backend, the company claimed Google is giving developers a direct crack at their true area of expertise: collection and analysis of data.

A look at Google’s Cloud Platform blog reveals some interesting tidbits about the service. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is that the Cloud Dataflow service. Whether you’re wanting to mull over, say, app performance among a relatively small set of users or up-to-the-minute analysis of all Twitter posts on a certain topic, the service can help finding insights in all the numbers easier.

It’s still early in Cloud Dataflow’s life, and there’s likely a reason Google waited until the end of the keynote to announce it to the world, but mark our words: giving smaller teams the ability to do big-league level data analysis (both from a creation and comptutational-power standpoint) will have huge ramifications on the world of mobile data. Especially, considering the new form factors Google’s bringing to the table along with the service. If it’s not a new concept, it’s a Googlefied version of a highly useful idea, and that rarely turns out to be a bad thing for the people using it.

The future: defined and Googlefied

Google undoubtedly made one of the biggest contributions to the world of mobile data with this year’s I/O. Nothing they announced was unexpected or utterly shocking, but the wham-bang speed with which they brought all these new developments will undoubtedly alter the course of smart device history forever. At a conference where hot-button topics like Google Glass and self-driving cars were barely even mentioned, Mountain View managed to bring two or three years’ worth of new ideas to the table in a matter of one conference. Whatever ecosystem you happen to use, you have to admit what Google demonstrated is impressive. We can’t wait to see what happens now.

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