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Google I/O: 3 Hits, Up Close

Google Maps, Search and Google+ changes stand out among news announced at Google I/O thus far. Take a closer look.

Google Apps To Microsoft Office 365: 10 Lessons
Google Apps To Microsoft Office 365: 10 Lessons
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The opening keynote at Google I/O began and a developer conference broke out.

The only honest-to-goodness new product Google unveiled at its annual developer conference was Google Play Music All Access, a subscription-based Spotify competitor. There wasn't a new Motorola phone, nothing like Google TV or Nexus Q or Google Glass, no new tablets, nor skydiving co-founder ... just one, Google CEO Larry Page, who finally spoke after more than a year of speculation about his health.

Despite the lack of glitz, Google managed to shine brightly. On one hand, the company made most of its core products better, with sometimes profound and promising enhancements. On the other hand, Google continued its quest to be the company that collects and manages the world's data, making it all more useful.

[ A new Android version did not materialize. See Google I/O: Where's Android? ]

Developers are a crucial accelerant for Google. Many of the company's technologies are, after all, services as much as they are products. The more developers exploit Google Maps, Google+, Google Drive, Google Wallet and other Google services through APIs, the richer those services become. Consider that more than 1 million websites use Google Maps, and that exposes Maps to more than 1 billion people every week -- a number that easily surpasses visits to native Google Maps alone, according to Google Maps VP Brian McClendon.

I spent a little time with some of the new enhancements just to get a feel for what's in store. Take a closer look at three highlights:

1. Google Maps Rethought

Google has the world's dominant mapping service, thanks to years of data discovery through Street View trucks, a variety of crowdsourced data, and aerial imagery, which is especially useful for 3-D geometry.

Now, Google has redesigned Maps. "The map is the user interface," said Maps lead designer, Jonah Jones. That's an apt description. Zoom in or out on the map as you normally would, or just start clicking on destinations on the map. Or type a destination in the search bar, which quickly turns into an information-packed card. For instance, I searched for parks in Colorado, and dozens of them were populated on the map. I could even filter my search by getting recommendations from experts or friends, from my Google+ Circles, naturally. (This will likely limit the amount of useful data I get from this feature since my Circles aren't as lively as either my Twitter or Facebook connections). I could even narrow my search to dog parks.

The map displays content-rich pins that provide deeper information, some of it available simply by hovering, then more in-depth via selecting the item. Further exploration reveals immersive images (user generated -- with some you can actually tour the inside of a landmark building), street views and more. Getting directions layers various routes (depending on mode of transportation) right onto the map. Maps includes transit routes and schedules, and even puts the schedule into a Google Calendar view right on Maps. (I couldn't seem to make this present itself, but Google showed it off in its demonstration.)

The map can discover new places, and lets you explore a geographic area based on categories, like restaurants or cafes. Maps can create a customized experience, adapting to what you do, Jones said.

A new Google Maps for mobile (iOS and Android) is also in the works, and will have similar features. It will include the ability to rate destinations, swipe through result sets and Zagat information on restaurants. It will offer live incident alerts, better routes and re-routing around incidents, said Daniel Graf, Google's director of Maps.

To get the new Maps, you need to request an invitation.

2. Google Search Gets Smarter

It's "the end of search as we know it," proclaimed Amit Singhal, Google's senior VP and Google Fellow. Last year at Google I/O, the company unveiled Google Now, with the promise that it would become your mobile digital assistant, answering questions, following your personal interests and travel habits, and anticipating your needs. It was a start.

As we all use Google services, Google Search learns. And it learns not just about people, places and things, Singhal said, but the relationships among them. The Google knowledge graph can anticipate your informational needs. Singhal demonstrated how a search for the population growth of India can also provide a comparison to the population growth of China and the U.S., which tends to be the next thing people want to know.

You should be able to ask Google for information on your upcoming flights, or a package that is about to arrive, or even vacation photos, Singhal said. But you should also be able to simply converse with it using both natural language and voice recognition. Google VP Johanna Wright demonstrated a concept known as "hotwording," where a spoken phrase ("OK Google") awakens it to voice-provided search query. Wright demonstrated the exploratory aspects in Maps, asking Google for things to do in Santa Cruz, Calif., calling up directions and so on. As Wright conversed with Google, it provided spoken answers.

Google Now will get public transit cards, and cards for media based on your perceived interests (music, TV, books, video games). You can also set reminders through Google Now. These new features haven't started showing up for me yet, so I wasn't able to test them.

The power of conversational, anticipatory search is exciting, to be sure. And the ability to tap into other Google services on a personalized basis is incredibly helpful, but getting the most out of Google Now, and Google search generally, requires using more Google services -- Google Calendar, Maps, Play, Wallet, Activity Recognition and so forth. Are consumers willing to let Google's applications and services see deep into their activities and obsessions?

Google is bound and determined to make Google+ matter more. For now, it's third in a three-horse race, but that hasn't stopped the company from making improvements, starting with a multi-column design that presents more content. The goal: "Design and depth," said Google's senior VP of engineering, Vic Gundotra. The menu of options slides in and out; cards flip and fade.

Google is adding the concept of hashtags to Google+ entries, and Gundotra said that these are automatically generated. (I'm still seeing plenty of cards without hashtags; Gundotra said that users can disable this feature, or correct it.) The hashtags are used not just to search content, but to explore it. The tags are displayed on the cards, and when you select one, the card flips, revealing more content around the tag; you can flip through various related posts. This is the "depth" part of the "design and depth" concept.

Google also spun out Hangouts, a video-chat service that was one of the most useful Google+ features. Now Hangouts will become Google's messaging app, essentially replacing Google Talk, but combining video, presence and group communication features. It will work on Android and iOS, as well as in the Chrome browser and directly from Gmail. The first thing you'll notice is that Hangouts starts with a list of conversations. It's easy to add people to the conversations, to switch from text to video, to add photos. Conversations can also be saved and stored in the cloud. (See this related article on The Verge for a deeper dive into the evolution of Hangouts.)

Finally, Google has enhanced the Google+ photo features, promising that the company's technology will take over labor-intensive photo enhancing tasks. For one thing, it includes a Highlights function that uses a variety of filters to display your most important photos, based on aesthetic quality, affinity (it recognizes who is important to you) and more. I don't have many photos in Google+, so I uploaded as many as I could and found that the Highlights did a reasonably good job of selecting photos, although it wasn't clear how I could instruct Google+ to filter differently. I also suspect that affinity is based on Google+ Circles, and there just isn't enough data there (in my own photos, or Circles) to provide any insight.

You can also have Google+ automatically enhance your images -- say if they are over- or under-exposed, or grainy, or lack structure in part of the image. The software can soften your skin -- it recognizes faces and treats human faces like a photo touch-up professional would. I experimented with this a bit, and did see some improvements, but I was mostly working with photos I had already kept because they didn't have those aforementioned problems.

You can also use features that Google calls "Auto Awesome." These include "Smile" (Google will construct a new image from multiple photos to make sure each subject is smiling), panoramic mode and motion. With motion, Google stitches together similar photos for an animated GIF. It worked amazingly well.

I'm not sure that the 41 new features Google has added to Google+ will make Facebook tremble, but they will give people more reason to try out the service, or use it more -- if not for the service itself, then for the benefits it provides to other applications like Search and Google Maps. We're likely to see Google continue to push here, because without a strong, populated social offering it loses a vital thread between almost every other service.

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