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Google's eye on the (Apple) prize

New cloud music storage, more competition with notebook computers, streaming movies and more are highlights of Google's annual developer get-together.

Google announced a gaggle of new consumer developments on Tuesday at its annual Google I/O developers conference, some of which were aimed squarely at achieving parity—and then some—with Apple.

In a keynote address on the first day of the two-day event, streamed live worldwide over the Internet from San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Google Android executives (with CEO Larry Page notably absent) outlined several new ventures in movies and music, discussed some major upgrades to various operating systems, and offered a glimpse into the future of Android systems controlling everything in the house.

With Android tablets doing less that stellar business in the marketplace — one study predicts that Apple’s iPad will capture 69 percent of the tablet market in 2011 —Google introduced an upgraded version of its tablet-oriented Honeycomb 3 system. Version 3.1 will offer USB support for virtually any device including keyboards, mice, and game joysticks, and will facilitate the transfer of photos and documents between computers and tablets.

Of real significance to the computer market, USB support will conceivably allow Android tablet users to fully utilize their devices as laptop computers: functionality denied by previous Android operating systems and currently unavailable on the iPad. Keyboards and mice functioning with a tablet could be a death blow to netbooks, and a significant item for consumers choosing between Android and iPad tablets. Android tablets with built-in USB ports appear to be in short supply--for the time being.

More important to the average Android user, many services planned or discussed only for Android tablet users will soon be available for smartphone users. Through a Google account — the same sign-in used for all other Google services such as Google Docs or the Android app store — consumers will be able to rent new movies (starting at $1.99) and TV shows through the Android Market. The market, now in full bloom via any Internet browser will now be available for all media: movies, music, books and apps (TV shows were not mentioned). Owners of Motorola Xoom tablets will have immediate access to this service; smartphone owners with Android 2.2 or greater will follow shortly.

For deeply troubled Google TV, introduced last year as an integrated TV and Internet system and all but ignored by techies and the marketplace, Honeycomb 3.1 will be the basis for Google TV’s new operating system. Coming this summer, Google TV owners will have full access to the Android Market, providing a wealth of new apps, services, games, movies, music, and more.

While shows will be streamed from the Internet “cloud,” Google will enable people to download or cache (or in Googlespeak, “pin”) unfinished program portions for later viewing. For example, passengers watching a film in an airport can pin their unfinished show to their tablet or smartphone so they can watch the rest while in the air.

A well-anticipated announcement was the unveiling of Music Beta by Google, Google’s music Internet storage program that lets people upload their personal music collection to the cloud for streaming to their computers and mobile Android devices. It both answers Amazon’s recent Cloud Player announcement and ups the ante for the amount of cloud-storable music. A new Windows music manager will provide complete music services from creating and managing playlists to supervising the uploading of music libraries into the cloud. An “Instant Mix” feature will allow you to pick a song, then recommend 25 songs from your collection that “fit” your collection—essentially your own mini-Pandora service.

The music service, now in beta and available by invitation only will allow you to upload up to 20,000 songs into your own cloud storage locker. What was not spelled out, however, is if the cloud service will remain free or will morph into a subscription charge.

The keynote also showed Google’s plans to become the hub for a wide variety of non-computer home devices such as washing machines and alarm clocks; the concept is called Android@Home. One onstage example showed how a workout session with Android-equipped exercise machines and smartphones could work together as an exercycle-cum-video game. One bulb manufacturer, Lighting Science, will release a light bulb by year’s end with a built-in chip that will allow it to be controlled from an Android smartphone. (Engadget has a more complete look at the bulb.)


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