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Why the New Google Play Services Make Android Better Than Ever

By Joe Levi May 15, 2013, 10:54 pm
Google Play Services

The keynote of Google I/O 2013 has come and gone. This would have been the time when Google announced a new version of Android. Instead they went into great detail about new features that are coming to Google Play Services.

To bring everyone up to speed, Google Play Services are a set of application programming interfaces (APIs) — hooks that developers use to make apps do awesome things. While some may argue that APIs alone don’t do much to help end users like you and I, others would say they provide a foundation upon which developers can write new applications and extend current apps with new features. These features may include the ability to do additional things, allow the developers to bring an app to market quicker, or even to help save battery life.


Probably bigger news than all that is what Google didn’t announce today: a new version of Android. Some are disappointed. Some are ticked off. To those people I say: patience. Google’s update to their core services is much bigger than a new version of Android! Don’t believe me? Google’s updates (which will be rolling out to users over the next several weeks) will be available for every version of Android from Froyo (2.2) on up to Jelly Bean (4.2.2). They’ll work on your Samsung, your HTC, your Nexus, or your Xperia (or any other Android, for that matter). In short, by updating the core APIs, Google just did an end-run around carriers and OEMs to bring you the latest and greatest tools for your device.

Google Maps Android API v2

Google Maps is nothing short of amazing. Ten years ago who would have thought of near-real-time traffic, directions, navigation, transit, terrain, and satellite, and even street-level imagery of large portion of the globe?! And in your pocket?! Sorcery! Today it’s just a normal part of life. Get it right, you’re golden. Get it wrong, you’re Apple Maps. (Google took a shot at them on stage, so I figured I could, too!)

The Google Maps API lets developers build Maps functionality right into their apps, and they’re getting whole new set of things they can do to bring maps-related information to a whole new level.

Location APIs

Three new location-related APIs, Fused Location Provider, Geofencing, and Activity Recognition were announced at Google I/O 2013.

Fused Location Provider uses the sensors built into your Android-powered phone or tablet to quickly figure out your location. The new location API can acquire your position faster, is more accurate, and somehow manages to do all that using less power than before! Google claims this new feature will use less than 1% of you battery per hour.

“Geofencing” is a concept that puts virtual “fences” up around specific areas (your house, work, school, gym, church, etc.) and will let developers define the perimeter around areas, allowing them to invoke specific behaviors or trigger various actions when you cross a “fence”.

Activity Recognition enables your device to figure out how you are moving (walking, driving, or cycling) based on internal sensors and some pretty snazzy logic. This will let apps present you with information based on your mode of travel — and it does it without using your GPS. How’s that for impressive?

Google Plus Sign-In

How many passwords do you have to remember for all the sites that you log into? If you’re like me the number is easily in the double-digits. This API lets you use your Google account credentials to sign you into your apps — if the developer has set it up. Today’s update introduces cross-platform single-sign, so you can sign into an app or web site on one device and be automatically be logged on when you open the app or website on another device. Not only that, if a website has an Android app, as part of your sign-on on their website, you can have the app downloaded and installed on your smartphone or tablet, so it’s ready and waiting for you.

Google Cloud Messaging

The Google Cloud Messaging API was introduced last year and is used for communications between apps and their back-end services. Cloud Messaging is now being built into Google Play Services, and it’s getting a new set of tricks! Thanks to web sockets, Cloud Messaging now supports persistent connections and upstream messaging (so your device can send replies back to the servers, not just the other way around).

Thanks to new upstream messaging, notifications that you get and dismiss on one device can be synced between your other devices. That why when you pick up your tablet you’re not inundated with a million notifications that you’ve already seen and acted on. Finally!

Game Services

Last, but certainly not least, Google showed off their new Gaming APIs — though their demonstration didn’t work as well as it could have.

The first API to talk about it Cloud Save. Finally users can save their progress to the cloud. This means that games which have hooked into this API will remember your progress when you switch between devices, or even when you upgrade to a new phone. (Plants vs. Zombies needs this yesterday!)

Next up are Achievements and Leaderboards. Leaderboards can not only show who the global leaders are, they can also be filtered by your circles, so you can see which of your friends is better than you — or vice versa!

What good are games unless you can harass your friends into playing with you? Google’s new Multiplayer API takes most of the difficult programming away from developers with their multiplayer API… oh, and it’s multiplatform, so you can play with (or against) your iOS buddies, too!

All of these APIs are available today and will be rolling out to devices running Android 2.2 Froyo and above soon. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the SDK was also released today, so it’s going to take some time for apps (both new and old) to be updated to take advantage of all the cool new features.


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