At Google I/O, developers are all in

Google's innovations and attitude at its annual I/O confab seemed to get a big thumbs-up from the developers in attendance.

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Google's plans for Android Wear and its line of smartwatches have developers excited. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Google faithful are riding high going into the second day of the Google I/O developer's confab.

Google spent around two and a half hours yesterday revealing its plans to dominate screens large and small, from new Android Wear-powered smartwatches all the way up to yet another stab at the smart TV market. Somewhere between its big bet on unproven watches and a third attempt at Internet-connected television, Google found time to pay more than just lip service to "L," the next version of Android -- a new, ambitious move to unify the look of apps, sites, and services as users switch between desktops, mobile, and even cars (with Android Auto).

Google even debuted a hilarious take on virtual reality headsets, for those left disappointed after Glass no-showed during the keynote.

Developers ate it all up with a spoon and asked for more.

Norm McGarry, an Ann Arbor, Mich., resident who works for the development firm Hook, was contacted by Google to build one of the first games for Chromecast. (Big Web Quiz is exactly what it sounds like: a Chromecast-based quiz show for the Internet set that uses phones for controllers.)

Google announced new features for Chromecast on Wednesday that included allowing the streaming media stick to broadcast anything from your phone or tablet to your TV, and allowing it to work without Wi-Fi. McGarry was upbeat about the company's various announcements.

"Seeing all the integrations," he said, "the Android Wear stuff is incredibly cool." McGarry said he found it annoying that when he would swipe away a notification on his Pebble smartwatch, it would still appear on his phone. Android Wear promises to avoid the rival gadget's limitation in this area. McGarry was enthusiastic about cloud announcements too.

"Cloud Monitoring is a huge productivity thing," he said of Google's new cloud-based developer analysis tools. "Without the right tools, you can spend days figuring out where performance problems are."

Silvia Curioni, who built a recipe-cataloging and -sharing app called AllTheCooks with her husband Rafael Sanchez, has been using the Android Wear-powered LG G Watch for the past week to make a smartwatch version of her app.

Lacking a keyboard, the watch relies heavily on voice control. And that's appropriate for Curioni's app: the watch may be water-resistant, but it's not necessarily cooking-oil-resistant.

The Android Wear interface and Google Now voice controls "recognize my accent, which is awesome," said Curioni, who's Brazilian-Italian. "A year ago Glass had problems with it, but they must have fixed something."

Google began rolling out better accent comprehension and multilingual support in Google Now on Wednesday, though that announcement was made separately from the conference.

Liz Dickinson is CEO of Mio Global, which sells a Bluetooth-connected heart rate monitor that works even when people are exercising and moving. She said the new Google Fit interface will help Mio Global's business. Currently, the monitor is available only for Apple's iOS mobile operating system, but Google Fit solves some of Android's problems.

"This levels the playing field for Android," Dickinson said. "Because of the fragmentation that existed on Android, it was easier to do on iOS." But the Fit interface, which will let Android apps tap into Mio Global's heart-rate data, "allows us to have a broader access to Android phones."

Scott Hirsch, CEO of Appsbar, a free app-development platform for people who don't want to hire a developer (or can't), thinks Google's updates to Android will benefit small businesses that want to make apps.

"This can give the small businesses a playing field like never before," he said. "Imagine being able to push discounts through your apps when someone walks by your store. It appears that L can make that a reality."

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Google gave developers their first taste of Android L, the next generation of its mobile operating system. James Martin/CNET

Despite the improvements to Android, cross-platform developers were acutely aware of the differences between coding for iOS and coding for Google's mobile operating system.

One pain-point is the simulation software that lets them test their app on the PC where they're doing their programming. Apple's is faster, which means programmers can more quickly write and test changes.

Apple's "Xcode and the iOS simulator are way ahead of Android," said Mohamed El-Shinnawy, chief technology officer of Egypt-based software-development company Emerge Technology. "HAXM [Intel software to speed up Android emulation] is not enough."

On the other hand, AllTheCooks' Curioni and Sanchez noted that Google's app-store model gives them more control over how they distribute apps than Apple's does.

"We end up doing all the development on Android first because we get fast feedback -- 1 or 2 out of 10 releases we have to update immediately to fix" minor bugs, Sanchez said.

Another problem is that not all developers work on all platforms. While there are tools like Cordova to facilitate cross-platform development, many developers simply don't want the hassle.

"I was hoping that the Chromebook would be more useful for developers," said Curioni. The Chromebook update promises to mirror Android L apps. Though that may get Curioni's app on the Chromebook, it's not going to be much help to people with traditional Windows, Mac, or Linux machines. And, Curioni said, "I don't do Web development."

Google's developer acolytes have another concern: What if Google is promising too much, too soon?

McGarry worried that too much of what was announced would be little more than a code-tease. He pointed to Project Tango -- next-generation smartphones on display at the conference, which feature 3D computer vision -- as well as to other initiatives.

"Project Tango, the [new Android] TV, [Android] L -- those aren't going to be released for some time," McGarry said. "I'm curious to see how that's actually implemented. There are always hurdles when actually implementing."

Still, I/O seemed to impress him more than Apple's recent WWDC developers conference: "I don't feel like Apple really came out with as much new stuff."

 

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