In Praise of Google's Boring 2015 Developer Conference

Nobody jumped out of blimps this year, but who cares when Google's products, services and platforms are getting this polished?

Google I/O 2015 2

As a veteran of four Google I/O conferences, it's clear that this year's event was the least exciting for users and attendees, but it was definitely the most exciting for serious developers.

Unlike at past I/Os, nobody jumped out of blimps to deliver Google Glass to Sergey Brin. Rock star CEO Larry Page didn't give a hushed and momentous surprise speech. Google didn't give away a ridiculously expensive assortment of unreleased gadgets to attendees. The vast majority of announcements this year were either announced or leaked earlier, reducing the surprise factor. Even the food was poor cafeteria fare.

Some attendees were stunned by the conspicuous absence of such Google products as Google Glass, Chromebooks, Google+, Nexus smartphones, Project Ara and Project Fi.

But those are the complaints of shallow and entitled crybabies. Serious developers were thrilled by what they saw and heard at Google I/O.

The unofficial theme of this year's Google I/O should be "delivery on things promised in the past."

These days Google's biggest risk factor is the company's own fickleness. It launches and promises things, then often either fails to support and improve them, or it kills them outright.

This year's Google I/O showed a more clear-thinking and mature Google, bent on refocusing on its core strengths of Web-based everything, machine intelligence, massive compute scale and—yeah, I'll say it—elegant interface design.

Let's start with the world's most popular operating system.

Developers care about and look forward to seeing each new version of Android. Google trotted out the "M" version without designating a sugary snack food name for it. Android M is a refined, polished and updated version of the new approach to Android unveiled last year. Last year's Material Design and card-centric interface is greatly enhanced with a huge number of tweaks and changes.

Android Gets a Better Virtual Assistant

Most impressively, the long-existing Google Now got a new feature called "Now on Tap," which enables developers to build Google Now access into their apps. Once this integration is effected, users of apps can ask Google Now questions, and the app itself provides the context. For example, a music app can enable the user to simply talk and say, "Who sings this?" Google Now will use the data from the app itself to know who "this" is and can answer without leaving the app.

Google Now has integrations with more than 100 services. The virtual assistant service taps into Google's Knowledge Graph, which contains more than one billion "entities" (sports teams, recipes and other "things").

Google Now has gained a new sense of both context and agency, which means you can have it do things for you like order groceries for delivery by talking at it (courtesy of an Instacart integration).

Another subtle point to be made about Google Now is that it has (perhaps accidentally) become the best reason for users (and possibly developers) to choose Android over iOS. The reason is that the integrations Google can enable on its own operating system are impossible with Apple's tightly controlled, relatively exclusionary and unapologetically closed iOS.

One killer example is that for Android M, the user can press and hold the home button on any app, which tells Google Now to launch, read what's going on with the screen and provide on-the-fly contextual information about whatever's there.

Google Now was great. Now it's really great.

Android Gets a Better Virtual Wallet

Google was an early mover on mobile payments, and its first Google Wallet offering landed with a thud and failed to catch on. More recently, Apple launched the more successful Apple Pay. This week Google officially trotted out Android Pay, which does more or less what Google Wallet did. OK, it does less. And that's the point.

Android Pay is a near-field communication-based tap-to-pay system for Android devices. It's for buying stuff in stores, rather than doubling (as Google Wallet did) as a peer-to-peer payment system and virtual debit card.

Apple Pay smoked Google Wallet because buying things involved simply touching the fingerprint sensor while taping the phone on the register. Likewise, Android Pay dumps the app gymnastics and enables instant, fingerprint-authenticated payments.