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Google Launches Newest Android, New Payments Products

Android M is Sundar's show: More seamless ties between Android, Chrome and apps.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

At its I/O developer conference on Thursday, Google unveiled Android M, the latest version of its globally dominant mobile OS, along with a pair of new mobile payments products.

Android M lacks the audacity of Lollipop, the version introduced last year that included new functionality for TV, wearable devices and cars. But the new version contains some updates for those platforms, as well as significant tweaks to lure more developers to the OS.

This is also very much executive Sundar Pichai’s Android. The new Android takes the three units he oversees — Android, Chrome and Apps — and more deeply intertwines them. The developer updates include several features to tighten the webbing between Google’s mobile and browser software and removes the barriers separating apps from the mobile Web.

While there isn’t a ton of new on the wearable front, Google announced that there are now over 4,000 apps for Android Wear and designers have created upward of 1,500 watch faces. Additionally, Google introduced a wave of new security and battery life features for Android, as well as fresh tools for the Play Store, gaming and Android TV.

Much more Google Now

One of the most notable new features is the deeper integration of Google Now, the smart personal assistant, into Android. Google Now cards will be able to appear everywhere in the phone, ready to be called up within apps or the Web via a feature Google calls Now on Tap.

An example: You’re writing an email to a friend about catching a movie. Tap and hold the phone or use a voice command, and a card with information on the movie pops up inside the email app. Google Now’s new ubiquity could elbow out competing offerings — a card on a movie, for instance, might replace the need to visit Amazon’s IMDB.

“The idea here is that you should be able to get quick answers to quick questions,” explained Aparna Chennapragada, who leads Google Now. “For developers, it’s a new way for them to reach users.”

And for Google, the feature is a significant step in the evolution of search on mobile, where it is desperate to retain relevance.

One other area Google is tweaking is the way Android owners give permission for an app to do things, say access contacts or use cellular data. In the past, users had to give permission when they installed a new app, without really even having a sense for how or why such permissions were needed. With M, the app will download and install without such agreement, but then ask for those permissions at the time it is first looking to take action, allowing customers to make the decision in context.

Android M, due out later this year, will also add operating system-level support for fingerprint readers. Samsung and HTC have included such readers in some devices for a while now, but Android itself hasn’t been using it as a primary means of authentication.

New developer treats

For developers, Google announced a host of things aimed at making them (and Google) more money. It added features to its main Android developer tool — Android Studio — designed to make it easier for game developers to use the type of code they prefer (C++) right alongside traditional Android development tools. Google is looking to make Android Studio, now up to version 1.3, the main way of writing Android apps.

“This is a tool everyone should be using,” said Jason Titus, senior director of the developer product group.

One of the key headaches for Android developers is testing their apps to make sure they run on as many of the 10,000 different devices as possible. Small developers often test just against the three or four devices they already own or buy a couple extra, while some developers contract with a testing firm to ensure coverage on more devices — it is an expensive and time consuming process. Google is adding a feature into its tools that lets developers run automated tests of their Android code against 20 popular devices at no charge. It builds on last year’s acquisition of Appurify. For those that want to test against more devices — or do testing throughout the development process — Google will offer that as a paid, cloud-based service.

Titus, who ran engineering for Shazam before joining Google a year ago, knows this pain firsthand. “We had cabinets full of devices from the places we could get them,” he said. “It was very painful. The services that were out there were pretty nascent. This is still a challenge for developers.” Even for big developers, he said, it is hard to get a hold of the devices popular in other countries.

Blending Chrome, Android and apps

Google will make the same kinds of notifications that have been available to developers for Android also available within iOS and the Chrome browser. It announced the Chrome expansion a couple weeks ago, but the iOS part is new. Google says 600,000 Android apps already use the company’s notification service. Developers will also be able to organize the content for which they offer notifications into different subjects.

Google is also making it easier for app developers to have their content indexed by the company’s search engine. Google will offer so-called deep links, into specific places within an app. It’s already offering that for Android apps, and now it’s expanding that to iOS.

Android developers will be able to have their own home page within Google Play and use it to promote a specific app, say a key update or new app. Google is also allowing developers to test different versions of Play Store listings to see which ones perform better. (It’s been piloting this for a bit.)

This year’s I/O also has a bigger focus on ad revenues. Starting with Android M, Google will will developers better tools to track where their app users are coming from — whether through paid advertising or via organic installations. It’s providing more targeting for ads, allowing developers to promote in-app purchases only toward customers that have shown a proclivity for making such purchases. Additionally, it’s rolling out a new app promotion tool within to give developers a centralized place to run, measure and serve ads across Google’s portfolio.

A payments overhaul

Android Pay, Google’s competitor to Apple’s mobile payment offering, is here. As is a revamped version of Google Wallet: The product, which has struggled to catch on since its 2011 debut, is converting to a peer-to-peer payment service, facing off against Facebook’s Messenger and apps like Venmo.

Pichai briefly teased Android Pay in March. Basically, it’s an app and application layer with three basic functions. First, like Apple Pay, it allows users to buy at NFC terminals. Second, users can make purchases within apps with a single tap; Google is integrating loyalty offers into this feature, courtesy of its recent acquisition of the technology from Softcard, the carrier-backed mobile wallet.

Third, Android Pay lets others — banks, retailers or e-commerce companies — build their own payment apps on top. “Any partner can jump in and provide some of the payment functionality,” said Brian Rakowski, VP of product development.

For new(ish) Android phones, the Android Pay app comes pre-installed on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile networks, again via the carrier deal. Others can download the app. Google said it had around 700,000 operating merchant partners, but did not mention specific bank or credit card partners. It is also unclear how or why partners will build payment apps, which ostensibly compete with Google’s. And there’s the competition from Samsung Pay, the coming wallet from Google’s biggest hardware partner.

Google is briefing the press later this afternoon, so stay tuned.

New Googley “nano-degrees”

Lastly, Google dropped news outside of Android updates: It’s moving into massive online education, via a partnership with Udacity, the startup founded by former Google X leader Sebastian Thrun. In October, Udacity began offering “nano-degrees” — online training certificates in a variety of speciality skills. Enrollees can now secure these degrees with courses taught by Googlers in four subject areas: Android, the Web, entrepreneurship and cloud computing.

More are on the way, said Thrun, who began the company in a bold bid to upend higher education. While several tech companies have formed ties with Udacity, Thrun’s former company, he argued, is committing at a more significant level. In November, Google plans to invite 50 of the top students from the new program to its campus, potentially for recruiting.

Thrun described Google’s approach to the partnership, from Google’s perspective: “In the past, we made the world’s information available. Now, we’re going to make the world’s skills available.”

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