Google I/O: A lower-key Android keynote, but devs get huge set of new tools

New integrated development environment, game tools, and wide array of Google Play upgrades puts developers at center stage.

Those hoping for a major new Android version or splashy device launch were likely disappointed by the Android portion of the keynote today at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco – but developers may have gotten more than they bargained for.

Google promised a stronger focus on developers than at last year’s event – which saw the company roll out a new version of Android and a well-received tablet, among other things – and delivered in no uncertain terms. Among the new dev-focused features announced this morning was an all-new integrated development environment, dubbed “Android Studio.”

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Studio provides software makers with a number of built-in simplifications and previewing features, allowing them to adjust screen layouts based on localization and display size on the fly, rather than directly editing code. It also provides previews of color and icon appearance alongside the relevant lines, among other handy functionality.

Google also announced major additions to its cloud messaging system, which originally rolled out at last year’s I/O. Essentially a Google-managed method for developers to push data to apps, GCM is now under the umbrella of Google Play Services. It now supports continuous connectivity, the ability to handle upstream messaging, and syncs notifications between Android devices on the same account. (Which means, among other things, no more blizzards of “new email” notifications when users turn on infrequently used devices.)

Location-based services also got a substantial update, as Google rolled out a “complete rewrite” of that code, which it advertised as faster, more accurate and far easier on battery life than the previous version. Developers can now also build “geo-fencing” and activity recognition into their software, which means that they can make apps behave differently in designated areas and identify whether a user is walking, biking or riding in a car.

Google Play was the focus of much of the day’s Android announcements. Along with the ability to deploy and manage access to alpha and beta tests of new software versions, new analytics and localization options and more, the Play Games framework – which had leaked before the show – made its official debut. While the demo didn’t go so well – product management vice president Hugo Barra couldn’t get a three-way racing game session to work on stage – Play Games promises matchmaking, shared high scores among friends, cloud-based save games, and other built-in multiplayer features for Android game developers.

Finally, Google Plus got some love with support for cross-platform single sign-on capabilities, allowing for more robust sync between web, Android and even iOS.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold, but remember that he’s disappointed there were no skydivers this time around.

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