Expect games, social, and Now at Google I/O 2013

Google rumors and leaks pick up speed as Google I/O 2013 arrives this week. Here are some of our predictions for the annual Google developers confab.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
5 min read
Google I/O 2013 logo

"Are you still jumping out of windows in expensive clothes?" asks Tom Waits in his song, "Who are you?"

It would be beyond surprising to see Google fling more of its hardware out of low-flying dirigibles, strapped to wingsuits and courageous stuntmen, at this year's Google I/O, which begins on Wednesday.

But make no mistake: Google knows exactly "who" it is, and it's taking the confidence earned from a year of solid hits and few misses, and a strong first quarter of 2013, to define the parameters that it wants other tech companies to play by.

Now in its sixth year, the annual confab at San Francisco's Moscone Center will feature a slightly changed format from past. Since the debut of Android at I/O 2008, the show has featured two keynotes that loosely can be split into an Android and hardware-focused keynote on day one, followed by a Chrome and software and services on day two.

This year, there will be one unified keynote. It's possible that the change augurs the long-rumored push to begin merging Android and Chrome, but that's not likely to happen just yet. The company has taken several steps in the past year to make it easier to jump from Chrome to Android and back again, but what that's really about has been getting the desktops that run Google's trend-setting browser to communicate with less effort to Google's mobile devices.

Google's argument to the average consumer is that Chrome is an excellent browser. Its argument to developers is that Chrome is its non-Android hook, used by around 17 percent of people with desktops worldwide. That's an enormous number of people, even with desktop growth slowing down.

The personal assistant and predictive search Google Now arrived last month on Apple's iPhone and iPad. Google

With last year's announcement of Chrome for iOS, Google successfully brought its browser to every major platform. This year, expect announcements to emphasize that fact to developers.

How big is Now? The personal assistant and predictive search tool Google Now is another service that we can expect to hear a lot more about. The company believes it has something of a hit on its hands with the feature, announced at last year's I/O for Android, and has publicly cited Google Now as a reason for people becoming more active with its services.

For Google, the future is "Now"
Watch this: For Google, the future is "Now"

Google is big on developing two key components of Now that the service relies on: its Voice Search, not to be confused with Google Voice, which came from a company Google bought in 2007 called GrandCentral; and the Knowledge Graph, the complex database that, at its simplest, uses context to tell you the difference between Batman the comic book character and Batman the Australian explorer.

For Google, Now is massive. Now's cards appear as Google Glass's on-board interface. If it's a major component of Glass, you can rest assured that Google will want to spread its influence as far as possible. To that end, the company recently updated Google Search app on Apple's iOS with Google Now, and an announcement about Google Now for desktops via Chrome, possibly as a replacement for the shuttering iGoogle, wouldn't be a surprise on Wednesday.

We're also looking at a cross-service hip-check into gaming. Perhaps the worst-kept secret of I/O 2013 is that Google is readying massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming via Android and Google+. A prerelease version of the app, which could compete directly with Apple's Game Center, indicates that leaderboards and syncing will be part of the experience, while the social aspect could be used to help games go viral.

The hits and misses of Google I/O (pictures)

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Another possible announcement will be indoor positioning for Google Maps. There's a scheduled session on the subject, as well as two indoor events for the game Ingress -- again, a gaming component.

There's scant evidence to suggest that there will be a self-driving car announcement, except that we know that Google has been working on them. If Google was looking for a "big show" moment, maybe Sergey Brin will show up in a limo with an empty driver's seat. But then again, San Francisco had more than 800 incidents of vehicles striking pedestrians in 2012. An empty driver's seat wouldn't shock anybody.

Google Wallet is expected to see an update, too, with more incentives to get people to use it. Wallet has been a curious experiment. The digital payment realm is wide-open, which would make it seem ripe for a big Google push, but no company has made the broad moves necessary to get consumers fired up about the concept. The rumored branded Wallet card won't be announced at I/O 2013, apparently.

I/O: For the developers Keep in mind that I/O is first and foremost a developer's conference. Google's pitch, that it not only gives you the best toys, but that it gives you the best and most diverse platforms to develop for, is carefully constructed. What Google is doing is too nuanced to merely portray the Android portion of the show as hardware, and the Chrome portion as software and services.

Google Nexus Q
The Nexus Q, a high-profile product that bombed big-time in 2012.

And there are numerous Google I/O failures. It quickly rectified last year's lead balloon, the Nexus Q, by giving free ones to people who had pre-ordered the $299 device. Does anybody recall OpenSocial? Or its first attempt at a unified social network, Google Wave? Or Google TV? Or offline support for Google Docs, which still struggles to work properly more than two years after it was first announced?

It's too much to expect any single reveal to top last year's impressive, headline-making, extreme sports debut of Google Glass. This year, Google will say that from Glass, to Chrome, and Android, and Fiber, and Now, and Google+, and whatever the gaming service is actually called, and probably some surprises we haven't even guessed at, the company knows exactly what it is, where it's going, and why developers should join it.

The company might not have anybody jumping out of windows in expensive clothes this year, they will say, but that doesn't mean that they've lost their tune. Google is clearly in the middle of a massive expansion of services, one that gets them to harmonize via Google Now and Google+. The question is, will developers find the song irresistible, or will the company hit the wrong notes?

CNET will be live-blogging the three-hour keynote when Google takes the stage. Join us on Wednesday, May 15, at 8:45 a.m. PT.