Saturday, May 18, 2013

The big news of Google I/O 2013

The news that came out of Google's annual developer conference this past week has been called disappointing by many. There was no exciting new hardware, no updated Nexus 7, no new Nexus phone, and no new version of Android. A lot of people, especially traditional tech bloggers spent more time talking about the surprise announcement of a Google Edition Galaxy S4 than they did about anything else.

Most of the dedicated Android blogs, however, got it right. This year's I/O event marked a huge change in the way Google does things, and it's a much, much bigger deal than you might think.



Traditionally, each year Google has announced killer new features for Android (Navigation, Google Now, voice dictation, etc), and each new feature has always come with a new version of the OS. This means that every year, people with non-Nexus phones have to watch while the new features pass them by for months, often arriving on their phones over a year later, if ever. So if this year had followed that pattern, even those with the newest phones would have had to watch from the sidelines while they missed out on the coolest new stuff.

This year was different. Instead of a new OS, Google instead put their muscle behind something called Google Play Services. This boringly named setup is essentially the way apps are able to communicate with Google to do cool things. Traditionally, new features require new operating systems to accompany them, but Google decided to strip out as much of this back end communication from the OS as it could and build it into the Play Services system instead.

To the average consumer, what this means is that all the new features announced this year are available on older phones. Period. And any exciting new apps that are released to use the new gaming features, or location features, or social features? Those apps will also ALL work on older phones.

Two things in particular, the new Hangouts chat app (which replaced Google Talk) and the new Play Store Games multiplayer system both work on phones running Android 2.2 or newer. 

Did you catch that? Even those 2-3 year old phones stuck on Gingerbread will be able to use Hangouts and the new games system. That's incredibly good news. With the new Play Services, Google has found a way to take control of Android back from the carriers and manufactures and update things really quickly.

This year marks the turning point where version numbers don't matter so much. Sure it might be nice to have the latest and greatest OS, but you're not going to be missing out on the newest features anymore. This is a really big deal.

After the event on Wednesday, a coworker asked me what had been announced. I gave a quick summary of the announcements, but the best part was telling him that his phone (forever stuck on 4.0) will be able to use almost everything announced. 

So while we may not have gotten a new version of the OS that many were hoping for, I think what we did get is better and ultimately, more important.