This year's Google I/O developers' conference has gotten off to a surprising start -- but not for the reasons you might have been expecting.
While last year's I/O began with a boom -- both figuratively and literally, thanks to the slew of huge announcements and the skydiving stunt work provided by Sergey Brin -- this year's I/O kicked off with a far more subdued sort of tone.
That's not to say nothing significant was announced at this morning's I/O keynote in San Francisco's Moscone Center, but much of the big stuff within the world of Android was curiously missing in action.
So what has been announced? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Much of it revolves around developers, but Google also revealed numerous new things that'll directly affect you as a user.
Here are 11 things you should know about right now:
1. A new streaming music service.
One of Google's most significant I/O announcements was a new expanded music service called Google Play Music All Access. Think of it as Spotify meets Pandora, all integrated into your existing Google Play Music account.
For $9.99 a month -- the same you'd pay for Spotify -- the service will let you stream any music on demand from any device. In addition to the basic streaming, Google Play Music All Access can create custom "radio stations" on the fly based off of any song you like (hence the Pandora element). And your own personal collection -- anything you've uploaded to or bought from Google Play -- is all available alongside that.
Google Play Music All Access is open and ready to go; you can sign up for a free 30-day trial to see what you think. If you sign up for a trial by June 30 and decide to stick with it, your monthly rate for the service will be $7.99 a month instead of the usual $9.99.
2. A new Google+ design.
The new Google+ user interface brings the look of the Android tablet app to the desktop -- and man, is it fantastic. As I mused on Twitter earlier, if the Facebook UI was a steaming pile of garbage compared to G+ before (and trust me, it was), it's pretty much become the most foul trash imaginable now.
The new Google+ desktop UI is clean, minimalistic, and modern; it's full of slick-looking animations and transitions, too. All in all, it looks and feels more like an app than a website -- and in this day and age, that's a very good thing.
The new G+ UI is rolling out right now; if you don't see it yet, try signing into Google+ from your browser and then hitting refresh.
3. A ton of new Google+ photo tools.
Looks aside, the updated Google+ packs some serious punch in the photo department. The G+ photos section now features a new Auto Enhance mode that promises to figure out exactly what enhancements your images need -- anything from skin softening to noise reduction or white balancing -- and apply them automatically to make your pictures look as good as they can. (Of course, you can also opt to make individual adjustments manually on your own, if you'd prefer.)
In addition to that, Google+ can now process a set of images and pick out the "best" pictures for you by eliminating duplicates, blurred images, and so forth. It'll take a while to see how well that feature works, but it certainly sounds interesting.
And last but not least, the G+ photos section will now automatically perform a bunch of the alterations phones like the HTC One and Galaxy S4 are capable of performing. It'll create animated GIFs from sets of similar photos, for instance, and combine multiple group photos into a single image where everyone is smiling.
4. A new universal messaging system.
For a while now, Google's messaging services have been like overlapping little islands in their own individual worlds. No more: Google's new universal messaging system, called Hangouts, brings the services formerly known as Google+ Messenger and Google Talk (as well as Gmail Chat, depending on whom you ask) into a single easy-to-use and always-synced universe.
Google+ Hangouts is now the single Google chat service you'll use within Gmail, within Google+, or as an app on your mobile device. The service keeps all your conversations synced across multiple devices and platforms; it also archives all of your messages and even organizes chat-based images into photo albums for you.
The new Google+ Hangouts is available in Google+ and as a standalone app in the Google Play Store (the app will replace the old Google Talk program). It'll roll out to Gmail over the coming days and will appear initially as an optional switch.
5. Google Voice Search on the desktop.
If you have a current Android device, you know how awesome Google Voice Search is. Well, good news: You soon won't have to be on a phone or tablet in order to harness its power.
Google's new desktop version of Voice Search looks and works just like it does on Android: You simply say, "OK, Google" and then proceed to ask a question in natural language. The Voice Search genie (as I like to call her) will respond with information or an appropriate action based on your query.
Google Now -- the fantastic card-based information center introduced with Android 4.1 -- is gaining a few new tricks of its own. Google Now now has the ability to let you set intelligent reminders with simple voice commands; you can instruct it to remind you of things at a specific time or place, among other real-world conditions.
The new Now reminders can integrate with public transit commute times -- if you want to get an alert when the last train home for the night is about to leave, for example -- as well as with things like book, music, TV show, and video game release dates (because hey, who doesn't want to be reminded when the next Miley Cyrus album is about to drop?).
NEXT PAGE: Maps, games, the stock Galaxy S4, Gmail money transfers, and Google TV
7. A new and improved Google Maps.
Google Maps is getting a major overhaul. The revamped Maps features a new look and a bevy of fresh features, including custom-made suggestions, local highlights, and integrated review data from Zagat. There are more images throughout the Maps experience now, too, including complete "tours" of popular locations generated from user-submitted photos.
The new Google Maps is currently in preview mode and will eventually reach both the desktop and mobile apps; you can request an invite if you want early access.
8. Google Play Game Services.
Gaming on Android is about to get a whole lot cooler thanks to the new Google Play Game Services. Google Play Game Services is a behind-the-scenes framework that lets developers connect their games to a giant Google-powered network -- and users are the ones who'll benefit from the union.
With Google Play Game Services, games will gain a host of new capabilities, like being able to let users save their settings and game progress and then pick up play from any other device. There'll be a cross-platform multiplayer invitation system as well as achievement tracking and leaderboards.
Google Play Game Services is available now on a variety of games; the list of compatible titles will expand as more developers add support for the service.
9. A Galaxy S4 with stock Android.
Like the Galaxy S4 but hate Samsung's TouchWiz software? You aren't alone. And now, there's a solution: Google will soon sell a Nexus-like version of the Galaxy S4 -- basically, the Samsung phone but with pure Google Android 4.2 software. And Google promises it'll receive future upgrades "promptly," though it didn't go into detail about how promptly that'll be compared to an actual Nexus device.
Before you get too excited, there are a couple of caveats to consider: First, the Galaxy S4 still has Samsung's awkward hybrid button configuration. (So, no: It isn't actually a true Nexus device, designed with Google's close involvement; it's just a version of the Galaxy S4 with stock Google Android software.) And second, it'll set you back $650. Compared to the $300 to $350 price of the Nexus 4, that sure ain't cheap.
The Galaxy S4 will be sold directly through Google Play starting June 26th. The phone will be unlocked and will work with AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S., with LTE.
10. A new way to send money via Gmail.
This one didn't get mentioned in the keynote but slipped in under the radar shortly thereafter: Google will soon offer a way for you to transfer money directly to anyone using Gmail and Google Wallet. All you'll do is compose a new Gmail message to the person you want to pay, click a dollar-sign icon that'll appear within Gmail's attachment menu, and then type in the amount of money you want to send.
You'll need to have an active Wallet account connected to your Google username in order for the process to work -- and naturally, you'll need to have either a bank account or credit card connected to Wallet or a prepaid Wallet balance as well.
The service will roll out to all U.S.-based Gmail users 18 and older "over the coming months."
Wondering why Google TV didn't get a mention anywhere in today's I/O keynote? So was I. Then I discovered that Google TV didn't get ignored; it just didn't make it into the main event.
But have no fear: Google TV is alive and well -- and it has quite the major update on the way. Google is pushing Android 4.2.2 to Google TV over the "coming months," the company has confirmed, and is also changing the way updates will be delivered to the platform in the future.
According to Google, the platform has been "refactored" (whatever that means) so that manufacturers can update their devices to future Android releases "in a matter of weeks rather than months." Google TV will now use the newest version of Chrome, too, which means users will get updates to the browser far more frequently than they have in the past.
Whew! Lots of stuff to digest, right? And I/O isn't over yet; we've got tons of sessions left on the agenda over the next couple of days. Odds are, there are more interesting nuggets of info that have yet to be divulged.
I'll be here at Moscone Center soaking it all in. Stay tuned for more I/O thoughts and analysis -- and come hang with me on Google+ to get all the sights and sounds and join the 'round-the-clock conversation.