New gadgets not required at Google jamboree
By Chris Nuttall

While Google I/O, the technology group’s annual developer conference, last year celebrated gadgets – with skydivers jumping into the proceedings wearing Google Glasses – this year was all about the software and services. A new music offering made its debut on Wednesday and improvements to Google Maps, Google Plus and Search were unveiled.

Google Play Music All Access (rating: 4/5)
The biggest display of hardware at Google I/O in San Francisco came from an army of robots and steampunk-inspired vehicles that invaded the opening night party. After wowing us last year with weird and wonderful devices such as glasses with built-in video screens and a glowing audio orb called Nexus Q, Google stuck to its software and search strengths this time.

Improvements in the Google Plus social network and Search will be rolled out over the next few days but I was able to convert my Google Play Music account to the new All Access service instantly. Other countries, including the UK, are expected to have it shortly.

I have used Google’s free music service fitfully to date – buying digital albums and tracks when available at bargain prices and allowing its Music Manager software to upload the music collection on my PC to its cloud. This allowed me to access my music on the web or any Android device (a Google app for Apple devices is not available, unlike Amazon and its Cloud Player).

But All Access fills out the Google service into a more complete offering. It adds a Pandora-style radio service, where you can choose an artist or song you like and have it create an internet radio station built around your choice. The service displays a list of 25 upcoming songs, which I could switch around, and I did not suffer any interruptions from advertisements while trying it. I preferred Google’s implementation to Pandora’s, where I’m not sure what song is coming next. However, adding All Access means the service costs $10 a month ($8 if you sign up by the end of June), while my version of Pandora is free.

All Access compares well with the subscription version of Spotify’s music service, which has also added “radio” to its existing streaming of songs. Google also allows you to stream millions of tracks, combined with storing your digital music in the cloud and having radio stations constructed to your tastes, All Access should have plenty of appeal for Android tablet and smartphone owners. However, it lacks the cross-platform capabilities of Spotify’s apps, which are equally at home on an Apple or Android device. Nonetheless, Google has gained an advantage over Apple in being first to offer streaming and Pandora-style radio.

Google Maps (rating: 5/5)
Google Maps has now been given a much cleaner look, with the map taking up nearly all of the page and a small search box in the top right having a drop-down function offering more options. Destinations and places of interest are clearly labelled on the map itself, rather than the previous markers, which were labelled A, B, C and so on. Clicking on a name brings up a new information box, with restaurant reviews, for example, along with what friends thought of it, a link to directions, photos and the panoramic Street View.
I also liked improvements to directions for public transport that showed me
a timeline across the top of the page that displayed the best timetable options as I scrolled through the day.

Google Earth is tightly integrated, allowing you to zoom in and tilt satellite imagery to reveal buildings in 3D. Zooming out can take you as far as an image of the globe with current cloud formations, spinning it shows the parts of the world in darkness, while the sun and the galaxies around us move with it.

Back on earth, I/O also revealed a more appealing Google Plus social network. with a design makeover and automatic enhancements for uploaded photos.

Look out also for improvements to Search that will let you say “OK Google” by voice and search as if having a conversation.

OK Google, that’s plenty of innovations to look forward to this year, without the need for new gadgets to try them on.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013


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