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Google's new goal: Make everything work together

The search giant has found a new purpose in all our lives: Bringing together the various products and services we use to work together as easily as possible.

Tech Industry
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Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product and the public face of its I/O developer conference, speaks Thursday at the Moscone Center In San Francisco, Calif. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Google wants to make computing simple again.

That's the hope at least, with the various products the company announced Thursday at its I/O developer conference, ranging from home automation software to a revamped photo storage service that works with mobile devices and nearly all of Google's various products, like search and maps. The company even announced a new service that watches what you're doing in an app and tries to help: If someone sends a text asking you to pick up dry cleaning, the service will ask if it should create a reminder.

Key to the Internet giant's ambitions is Android, its software designed to power devices ranging from smartphones and tablets to smartwatches, home appliances, your car and more. For Google, tying these devices together will make it easier for us to use the various products, and hopefully live less digitally complicated lives as a result. The hope is that consumers will be more inclined to stick with the Google family of products and services.

"It's about putting Google to work on important problems," said Sundar Pichai, Google's senior vice president of product and now the public face of I/O aside from occasional appearances by Google co-founders, as in the case of CEO Larry Page's last appearance here in 2013.

Google's efforts also mirror a larger trend in the technology industry. Gone are the days when successful companies released various products that hardly worked together. Nowadays, companies like Google are following the lead of those like Apple, which tightly stitches together all its various devices with the software and services that power them, offering an easy and consistent experience for customers. But instead of closing down its hardware and software, Google is trying to tie its software to everything.

Google isn't the only one following Apple's lead. Microsoft, another titan of the industry, known for its Windows software that powers more than 90 percent of the world's PCs, is revamping its efforts to bring together its disparate businesses as well. A key feature of the new version of Windows that's slated to be released later this year is that apps built for a smartphone are meant to be easily adaptable to a PC or a tablet, and vice versa.

For Google, this change in strategy is particularly stark. The company has long prided itself on offering both a wide range of software and services like email and word processing, while also showing off ambitious new technology like self-driving cars, robots and computers that can be worn on a person's face. There's good reason for this: Google's search and advertising business is still the most dominant in the world, making more than $50 billion a year. But as the Internet evolves, Page has been looking to where future revenue streams will come from.

The message this year wasn't about futuristic moonshot ideas -- like the discontinued Google Glass eyewear, which co-founder Sergey Brin introduced to the world by skydiving into Google's I/O conference three years ago -- but a Google more focused on making calculated and practical attempts to attract customers.

Google's software already powers a majority of the world's smartphones. Now the company's ambitions are to easily connect those smartphones to everything else.

Google gets smarter

Part of this new effort was unveiled in Google's new Android M software to power smartphones and tablets, expected to be released this fall. One of the biggest new features announced Thursday was an update to the company's Google Now automated assistant, that runs on mobile devices powered by Android since 2012. That service is designed to alert users about important information as they need it, such as an upcoming airplane flight or changing weather conditions. But Google's ambitions are bigger than that.

In an effort to tightly knit Google Now with the other functions of a customer's phone, Google announced a new feature called Now On Tap. The marquee feature is newly created software that watches what's happening on a phone, including what users are doing in an app.

"We want to proactively bring you answers," said Aparna Chennapragada, Google Now's product director. Google Now understands where you are and recognizes around 100 million locations, but Chennapragada said the service should go deeper. "Not just geometry, but when are they busy, when are they open, and what are you likely to need when you're there."

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Aparna Chennapragada, Google Now's product director, outlines "Now On Tap," a new Android feature that will let you bring the power of Google's array of services to any app. James Martin/CNET

If a customer is texting with friends about seeing an upcoming movie, for example, and then double-taps on the home button, they're greeted with information about the movie's reviews, show times and other relevant details. If a customer receives a text asking to buy take-out food for dinner this evening, Now On Tap will offer to create a reminder.

Google says this type of integration with apps and services will represent a new way to interact with mobile devices by offering people an easy way to switch between apps and perform tasks more simply. It also helps Google bring together many of the different services it offers on a phone -- like mapping, search, calendars and reminders -- and make them more relevant to users.

The company followed a similar approach with its revamped photos service, which launches Thursday. While the company has a long history of offering photo management services, ranging from the free-standing Picasa service it bought in July 2004 to the photo capabilities of its Google Plus social network, the company unveiled a new service meant to be both easy to use and accessible across a wide range of devices. The new service, called Google Photos, will bring modern photo storage capabilities, like facial recognition, a timeline that lets you scroll through your past and access to users' libraries.

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Google's new standalone photo software will offer unlimited storage for free, the company said Wednesday. James Martin/CNET

The real linchpin, however, is the cost. Google is offering unlimited storage for free, a strong incentive to switch from competing services like cloud storage company Dropbox, Apple's own photo software powered by iCloud or Yahoo-owned Flickr. Facebook, one of the largest and most popular websites for photos, also offers unlimited storage.

Though there was no news about Nest, the smart-home appliance maker Google purchased in January for $3.2 billion, Google did announce a new effort in that field called Project Brillo. An Android-powered smart-home platform, Brillo will act as an interconnecting software for the so-called Internet of Things, a catch-all phrase meaning any and every device outfitted with sensors and designed to talk to one another, from smart clothing and door locks to washing machines, thermostats and refrigerators (Apple, it's worth noting, offers a similar technology called HomeKit).

Brillo will use a new coding language, called Weave, and make it easier for customers to both interact with all the various devices in their homes and control their capabilities. It will launch later this year, Google said.

Android everywhere

Google isn't just focused on making its devices all work together, of course. It is also increasing competition against companies like Apple, often by going head-to-head offering competing products that tie into its software instead.

For instance: Google announced an update to its own mobile payments software, Android Pay, that will function in much the same fashion as Apple's own Apple Pay. Both services will let consumers pay with their smartphones by holding the device up against terminals equipped with NFC (near-field communications) technology and found at select retailers around the country. Authorization can be done with a passcode or your fingerprint.

Android Pay was initially announced in March, but Google at the time provided scant details on the service. Google Wallet, the company's earlier effort to spread adoption of mobile payments, was not mentioned during the Android Pay announcement.

Android TV, on the other hand, is Google's effort to battle both Apple and Amazon in the living room. Both companies offer set-top boxes, called Apple TV and Fire TV respectively, that hope to become the go-to devices to connect big-screen TVs to the Internet.

Google's new Android TV software, an update from the service it launched last year, is designed to help users more easily search through media like movies, TV shows and music. Instead of looking for something on the streaming service Netflix, users can search -- using their voice if they so choose -- for a movie or show and find every service with which it's available alongside search information like trailers on YouTube or critic ratings from the popular online aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

Android TV, besides powering televisions from Sony and other manufacturers, will also power dedicated devices like the Nvidia Shield. A cross between a Roku streaming box and an Xbox game console, the Shield is aimed at customers who want a more robust streaming box capable of streaming television and playing high-quality games with a controller while also being the media center of their living room.

Nvidia's box will begin shipping Thursday, after being announced in March. CNET's David Katzmaier said in his review the device's cost and lack of apps will likely hurt its appeal .

Google also fielded updates for its Chromecast device, a $35 device that's slightly larger than a USB thumb drive and uses stripped-down software designed to help mobile devices stream media to a TV for very little money. Google said Thursday it's sold 17 million of them since the launch two years ago.

Google closed out its keynote with perhaps its most excitable announcement: A new version of its Cardboard virtual reality device. Cardboard was announced at last year's I/O conference as a do-it-yourself, low-cost way to experience virtual reality that contrasts with the expensive offerings of Facebook-owned Oculus, Samsung, Sony and others. (It's literally a folded piece of cardboard, with a few extra pieces like lenses and a button).

Google's new Cardboard virtual reality headset will let users of Android handsets or the iPhone use the DIY kit. Screenshot by CNET

Cardboard lets you construct eyewear, using Velcro and rubber bands, to hold your smartphone screen against your eyes. A pair of lenses help adjust the focal length, allowing for an experience similar to what you get from more expensive headsets like the Oculus Rift, which is designed to display images from a PC.

Google expanded Cardboard to work with more than the handful of phones it did last year. Now Cardboard will fit any device with a screen up to six inches, including Apple's iPhone. Google said its Cardboard mobile app had been downloaded more than 1 million times over the past year.

Along with Cardboard, Google also unveiled Expeditions, a new VR tool for schools. It will allow teachers to take students on virtual tours of different locations. The company also introduced the Jump system, designed to capture VR video. It's partnering with GoPro on the device, which is made of three parts -- a camera rig, an assembler that turns raw footage into VR video and a player. The rigs include 16 camera modules mounted in a circular array, and users will be able to view the virtual reality videos on YouTube starting this summer.

"Jump is about capturing the world's places in VR video," Bavor said. "Expeditions lets teachers take field trips to anywhere. ... And Cardboard is about VR for virtually everyone."

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