Google had a lot to say during Wednesday’s Google I/O keynote – so would you, if you had three-and-a-half hours to fill. And while new features in voice-powered search functionality, Google Maps and other pronouncements from the search giant were certainly eye-catching, just how much of what was said at this week’s developer conference should make iOS device owners sit up and take notice?
Quite a bit, actually, though there was nothing that’ll cause a parade of iPhone and iPad users to swap their devices for the Android counterparts. With the understanding that Google will still need to deliver on many of the promises it made this week – and that Apple has a developers’ conference of its own in a month’s time – more than a few Google I/O announcements deserve your attention, even if the only way you’ll give up your iPhone is when it’s pried out of your grip. After all, it’s a safe bet that more than a few people in Cupertino were keeping a close eye on Google I/O this week.
I/O is a developers’ confab first and foremost, so it stands to reason that Google would start off its keynote highlighting new tools and features with special appeal for software makers.
- Improved location APIs: Google says its new APIs for finding a user’s current location will reduce power consumption. The company is also introducing new tools for apps to create ‘geofences’, so that notifications can be triggered based on where the user is. Such features have been part of iOS for some time.
- Games services: the company also unveiled new APIs for cloud-based gaming features. That way developers can sync game progress across devices, log player achievements and simplify tasks related to multiplayer games. This is another case of Google playing catch-up with iOS (and Mountain Lion, too), in this case, with Game Centre. Now, Google’s gaming offering will offer one distinct advantage over Game Centre, which is that it will be accessible across multiple platforms – Android and iOS alike.
- Development tools: Google showed off new code-editor features, including the ability to generate previews of what an app would look like on different Android devices. That feature is familiar to iOS developers, who have far fewer devices to check compatibility with. Other new development features, however, are unique, most notably an automated translation system. Developers can browse different translation options, at various price ranges, to get foreign language translations for the snippets of text in their apps. Other new features for Android developers include better analytics options for seeing where customers found their apps, and the ability for developers to gradually roll out alpha and beta versions of their apps and features.
- The store: developers also care plenty about the stores where their apps are sold. Google showed off a Google Play redesign, which adds features like algorithmic app recommendations and indications of when apps are tablet-optimised.
What it means for Apple: Google has caught up with Apple on geofencing. Neither the gaming nor the store announcements will cause any sweaty palms in Cupertino – this is all old hat for Apple, its developers and its customers. As for the development tools, iOS app makers will be listening closely during June’s Worldwide Developers Conference to see if similar features – long wished for, never available – are finally announced by Apple.
Google Play Music All Access
Google’s new US$10/month subscription music service doesn’t have a direct counterpart in the Apple ecosystem. The closest service Apple offers is iTunes Match, and that’s not close at all. Google Play Music All Access gives unlimited access to music and curated playlists, where iTunes Match – a US$25/year service – only lets you stream music you already own.
What it means for Apple: there’s yet another competitor in the streaming music business, should Apple ever decide to wade into those waters. And that’s no sure bet.
Google’s Chrome-related announcements focused on the company’s aim to make that browser faster. Google pointed to technologies like its WebP image format and VP9 video codec, which it says lead to smaller download times without sacrificing quality. Apple’s Safari web browser doesn’t support those formats, but then again, neither do most websites.
Should Google’s formats take off, expect support for them to land in Safari. Of course, unless support for such formats comes to Safari and Internet Explorer, many larger websites may be hesitant to bother implementing them.
Google also talked about a new mobile interface for shopping with its Chrome browser, claiming to cut the typical 21-some-step checkout process to just three for Chrome users – by syncing shopping data to your Google account. Safari has no direct match for that feature.
And the company highlighted its continued support for web standards and implementing them in efficient ways. Apple’s WebKit development team would likely – and justifiably – make the same argument for Safari.
What it means for Apple: the company may need to pay more attention to improving mobile Safari not just by making it faster, but by thinking about clever solutions to common mobile surfing problems, including shopping.
Google announced a slew of improvements to its desktop and mobile Maps apps, including a new design and better search results. Apple doesn’t offer a web-based map solution at all, so all of Google’s advantages on that front – including its new, on-map search results display – best Apple’s nonexistent offering.
On the mobile side, Google Maps also gains some new features that Apple’s Maps app on iOS can’t match. Among them: integrated restaurant reviews, in-app deals to use at nearby businesses and socially-generated recommendations. (Apple’s Maps app includes the first two, powered by Yelp, but Google’s approach will make discovery of each much simpler, with a more integrated feel.) Those features won’t arrive until this summer, so it’s possible that iOS 7 – still also theoretical – will match some of them.
What it means for Apple: Apple’s own Maps must continue its long, uphill slog and try not to get lost.
Finally, Google showed off significant upgrades to Google Now, its voice-based, Siri-esque personal assistant. Google gave a lot of attention to Google Now’s newfound ability to handle voice-created reminders, a feature incorporated into Siri (including geofenced reminders) since Apple’s service’s debuted in 2011.
Other features of Google Now aren’t quite matched by Apple – specifically, its cards-based notifications that are built into Android, and available via the Google Search app on iOS. That offering, which can provide contextual alerts based on messages in your inbox and your personal, Google-connected history, has no direct match on iOS. Some features, like Google Now’s ability to pop up information related to travel or coupons as you arrive at certain locations, is matched nicely by Apple’s Passbook offering. But Apple as yet offers no other contextual awareness like that provided by Google Now.
What it means for Apple: it’s time for Siri to come out of beta. Siri should work on Macs and iOS devices alike. And it needs to keep gaining Google Now-style smarts to avoid becoming an also-ran.
Apple vs. Google
Rest assured, Apple developers and fans, it’s not yet time to panic in the streets. While Google announced some significant advances this week, Apple continues to enjoy its own edges, and WWDC is still a few weeks away.
But if WWDC comes and goes without a significant improvement to developer tools, don’t be shocked if some iOS developers start peeking over the virtual fence a bit more at the Android side of things. If Google Play customers increasingly show a willingness to spend in that store the way App Store customers do today – admittedly, a very big if – Google’s impressive options for making developers’ lives easier may well cause a shift in the development landscape.
And Google’s improvements in other areas, if nothing else, should provide ample fuel to fire up Apple’s competitive spirit. When tech giants compete by releasing great stuff, we all win.
by Lex Friedman, Macworld