Faster Forward: Report from Google I/O

By Rob Pegoraro
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 6:14 PM

SAN FRANCISCO--Wednesday morning, Google will open its annual developers conference, Google I/O, with a keynote presentation outlining its major product developments. I'm expecting news about its Android smartphone operating system; its project to add Web software to TVs; such Web applications as Gmail, Google Calendar and its Buzz info-sharing service; and maybe its Chrome OS netbook software.

But the fun thing about these keynotes is that you never know quite what you'll get (even if the only surprise turns out to be an electrical malfunction that delays the whole event).


9:00 a.m. PST: The keynote starts with Google's vice president of engineering, Vic Gundotra, who welcomes the 5,000 attendees, notes that the keynote is being streamed live on YouTube for the first time, and offers a concise definition of Google's mission: "innovation in the open."

9:11 a.m. PST: Sundar Pichai, v.p. of product management, has come onstage to talk about , the next update to the Web's development language that should allow far more desktop-like Web applications. He cites a 117 percent increase in the time spent on the Web from 2004 to 2009 and the growing number of browsers that can handle most of HTML5's core features. One moment of intentional comedy: Pichai shows a slide comparing browser support for HTML5 and predicts that by the end of the year, "all of the major APIs [application programming interfaces] will be present in all the modern browsers." The chart shows Microsoft's Internet Explorer only does three of them, while Mozilla Firefox, Google's own Chrome, Apple's Safari and Opera handle all nine.

9:17 a.m. PST: It's demo time for HTML5 applications. We see how Gmail lets you drag and drop attachments to a message, MugTug.com lets you edit photos as if you were clicking away in Google's Picasa, and the TV-guide site Clicker.com offers smooth, simple navigation through its onscreen menus.

9:21 a.m. PST: Pichai returns to talk about how HTML5 offers direct, no-plug-in-needed support for video and says "We think video should have a great, free and open option."

9:25 a.m. PST: Pichai's news: Google is offering the VP8 video format it obtained when it bought On2 Technologies to the Web. "We are fully open-sourcing VP8 under a completely royalty-free license," he says. Google will package it with the open-source audio format Ogg Vorbis as "WebM."

9:31 a.m. PST: Mozilla's Mike Shaver and Opera's Hakon Lie demo how WebM works in development versions of their browsers. This is a big deal for Web video - but since Microsoft has already cast its vote for a more established, non-free format called H.264 (as has Apple), the squabble of what might replace Adobe's near-ubiquitous but widely-unloved Flash isn't over yet.

9:37 a.m. PST: And speaking of Adobe... its chief technical officer Kevin Lynch is now on stage to explain what the company is doing to support HTML5 in its Web-authoring tools. As he shows how apps like DreamWeaver let you build HTML5 pages, let me take a moment to explain why all this matters. First, having to rely on a third-party plug-in to play video online imposes extra maintenance work on the user to keep up with that plug-in's bug fixes and security patches. Second, leaving Web video as a proprietary format goes against how the rest of the Web works--no patents or licenses control HTML. Third, a format that requires that Web developers and publishers pay to use it can hold back the growth of video (H.264 is free through 2015 for many uses, but things could change afterwards). In giving away this format, Google is trying to solve those problems--which, if it causes more people to spend more time online, can only help Google's ad business.

9:40 a.m. PST: What about Flash? Lynch wraps up his demo by saying that the Flash Player will play VP8 video--which gets around IE not supporting VP8 directly.

9:48 a.m. PST: Pichai: It's hard to find Web apps and know which ones are good. That's not how things work on a smartphone. So Chrome will add an app store of its own, letting you buy a Web application and add it to a special listing of apps in the browser. He demos looking up and adding a Web-app version of the game Lego Star Wars from this Chrome Store, which looks like the 3-D game it is, not a Web page. That's a good demo of what HTML5 can make possible. Note that since the iPhone and Android browsers run on the same WebKit foundation as Chrome, apps like this could, to some degree, work on the iPhone--an end run around Apple's App Store gatekeeping.

9:53 a.m. PST: What's a representative from Sports Illustrated doing at a Google developer conference? Showing off an HTML5-enriched version of the magazine obtained from the Chrome Store that embeds video, lets you bookmark stories and clips, uses the magazine's own fonts and in general looks a lot like the printed product.

9:57 a.m. PST: Print publishers take note: The SI Web app includes rich, interactive ads, for which you can presumably charge a healthy premium.

10:02 a.m. PST: Pichai returns to offer some specifics about Chrome Store. He says app developers can reach 70-million users of Chrome, who will see this waiting in that browser's new-tab page. Google's upcoming Chrome OS software for netbooks will include the Store too. And since Chrome apps rely on Web standards, they should work in every other modern Web browser. (Read: IE users, you're out of luck.) I don't know if you'll be able to shop at the Store in Firefox, Safari or Opera, which also support those standards.

10:08 a.m. PST: The keynote has turned to Google Wave, the ambitious info-sharing/messaging/collaborative-creativity system Google launched at last year's I/O. It no longer requires an invitation to try and is part of Google Apps, its bundle of productivity applications. So if you're still wondering what the heck the big deal is about Wave (if so, I understand where you're coming from), you can now find out for yourself.

10:14 a.m. PST: Google director of engineering David Glazer steps on stage, wearing a modified San Jose Sharks hockey sweater with "WEB WORKERS" on the front and "HTML" on the back. Gets a big round of applause for his sartorial choices. He's here to talk about using Web apps for business, which he says is too hard today.

10:27 a.m. PST: Some lengthy demos of business Web apps ensue. The one that appeals to me involves writing an expense-reporting app in "less than 200 keystrokes," which then loads and runs in the browser in about half a second. Why is that interesting? Let's just say the expense-reporting app I'll use when I'm back in D.C. is... not quite as snappy.

10:36 a.m. PST: The presenter on stage, while showing off a tool designed to tune Web apps for performance, studies a graph and pronounces that "the network is horribly slow." That matches my experience in the audience. The next time you're frustrated by your wireless network's performance, you can take some comfort from the thought that even Google has trouble getting this to work. A few minutes later, he resorts to plugging in an Ethernet cable when he can't connect at all; the app returns to the browser window and everybody cheers. This sort of improvisation is one thing you never see at an Apple keynote.

10:42 a.m. PST: Another awkward moment as the WiFi refuses to support a demonstration of how this expense-reporting app works just fine on an Android phone (it did allow a demo of it on an iPad). Awk-ward!

10:53 a.m. PST: Google is introducing "Google App Engine for Business," a version of its app-hosting site that aims to give companies the support, guarantees and control they want, or at least think they want. (As Dilbert readers may know, it's unwise to understimate the resistance of corporate IT departments to outside services that don't include a whom-to-blame clause. Google needs to get over that hangup to make its Web services and the concept of Web applications in general as widespread a commercial reality as possible.)

A note about programming: Google booked the keynote to run an hour and a half. We are now nearing the two-hour mark.

11:02 a.m. PST: Glazer defends Web standards, telling developers that when they wrote Web apps two years ago, "you didn't know that you were writing for Android" and many other platforms--but since you wrote with the future in mind and stuck to open standards, your software works in all those new areas. And, presumably, in others we don't know about yet, but which might be in the works on Google's campus a few dozen miles south of here.

And that's a wrap. What did you think? What else would you like to know?

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