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Google’s Android Is Learning How To Reach Straight Into Your Wallet

The Platform is a regular column by mobile editor Dan Rowinski. Ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and pervasive networks are changing the way humans interact with everything.  

What do you get when you take the greatest advertising company on the planet, computers that live in people’s pockets, software that guesses where you are and what you’re doing—and add access to people’s credit cards?

For Google, you get the ability to buy anything, anywhere and everywhere, targeted to users’ specific interests. And for Apple and Amazon, you get trouble.

Tracking the history of Android, Google’s operating system for all things mobile, everything that Google has done has more or less led to this point. Every seemingly unrelated update, every feature, every new app from Google has turned it into a platform for Google to access consumers wallets. In the past, that mission was far more opaque, but each successive iteration of software for Android brings new clarity to what Google is trying to accomplish.

Quick Thought: A Smaller Surface

Microsoft is holding a “small” event for its Surface tablet in New York City on May 20. The speculation is that Microsoft will unveil a smaller Surface tablet based on Window 8 RT to compliment its two-in-one Surface tablets using Windows 8.1.

Windows 8 RT is the albatross of the Windows family: a confused version of the operating system that has tried to be both tablet and PC. The Surface 2 did not perform particularly well as either a tablet or a PC and Microsoft has eaten hundreds of millions of dollars on the Surface line since it was introduced a couple of years ago.

If Microsoft can come out with an RT-based tablet that functions more specifically like a tablet, it may be able to garner some interest among consumers that have been more prone to buying iPads and Android tablets. I’ll be in New York for the event, so stay tuned for details and analysis.

Take, for instance, the latest version of Google Play Services, the software that turns your Android device into a buying machine.

A Play For Your Wallets, And Developers’ Hearts

Google is beginning to tick off its check boxes ahead of its annual Google I/O developer conference. The biggest stories at I/O this year will be Android Wear—Google’s software for smartwatches and other wearable gadgets—Google Maps, gaming, Google Apps Engine and Google Play Services.

Google is preparing for I/O by delivering updates to its core developer groups. Google Maps has seen several updates in the last month while Android Wear was the big news in March. Yesterday, Google issued its second update to Google Play Services this year, one that updates the Maps application programming interface, mobile ads, activity recognition and Google Wallet. 

If you aren’t familiar with Google Play Services, you should be. It’s the vehicle that controls all of the Google apps on an Android phone, one that also provides a platform for developers to build on top of those apps.

In older versions of Android, Google’s core apps—Maps, Gmail, Talk/Hangouts, etc.—were tied to the operating system. To update those apps, users would need an update to the Android operating system. In later versions of Android, Google decoupled the operating system from its core apps, which are now controlled and updated directly from Google through Google Play Services.

Activity Tracking, Location, Ads And Instant Buying

Google Play Services’ latest update—version 4.4—gives developers new capabilities in five categories.

  • Activity Recognition: Google’s Location API allows for developers to see if users are in a vehicle, sitting still, on a bicycle or on foot. The latest version adds new capabilities to the Location API to see if users are running or walking. The new Location API capabilities are an extension of the sensor capabilities found in Android 4.4 KitKat.
  • Google Maps Android: Google Maps is one of the company’s more interesting developer products because of its cross-platform ubiquity—it runs on PCs, browsers, mobile apps and operating systems like iOS. The latest update is for the app’s Android API, which allows developers to implement Street View (the ability to see ground level images directly from Maps) within Android apps.
  • Games: In Google Play Services 4.3 (released in March), Google enabled developer tools for implementing gift-giving between players. In version 4.4, Google is extending that capability so that users can give gifts to multiple recipients.
  • Advertising: Google is the king of context when it comes to advertising. An Android smartphone knows basically everything about its user, which makes for pretty effective advertising. Hence, in-app ads are the bread and butter for Google to make money off of Android and to help developers get paid. The new Ads API for publishers make possible in-app promo advertisements that let users purchase goods directly. 
  • Wallet: Google has also taken steps to simplify the process of adding its “Buy With Google” button to apps with updates to the Instant Buy API. Google also introduced a new API called WalletFragment to assist in this process.

Android: The Real-World Purchasing Platform

Take a step back from the minutiae of these updates and you can see what Google is moving toward. Add the location capabilities (including Indoor Maps) with activity recognition, contextually aware advertisements and the ability to buy instantly from anywhere, and it’s clear that Google is taking its advertising platform to the real world, directly into people’s pockets.

Quote Of The Day: “App.net was envisioned from the beginning as a service that could be sustainable, something intended to operate on a longer timescale than a typical online service. It is often the case that services that are important to people can get caught on the wrong side of a boom-and-bust cycle, which is something we explicitly wanted to avoid.” —App.net founder Dalton Caldwell in a blog post announcing that the social network platform will no longer have any full-time employees.

Google doesn’t make its own smartphones, at least not now that it’s selling Motorola to Lenovo. Google doesn’t make money by licensing Android to smartphone and tablet manufacturers. The Android Open Source Project (AOSP) is free and open source.

Of course, Google hasn’t poured billions of dollars of development into Android out of altruism. In the beginning, Android was just another way to get people onto the Internet, where Google could serve them ads. Now, the power to live inside people’s pockets is emerging as an extraordinarily powerful tool.

In other words, the central mission of Android has fundamentally evolved. This evolution is turning it into a powerful delivery platform for information, advertising and actions—like the ability to buy something through your phone from the street.

The mobile era is gradually bringing real-world actions into convergence with our digital lives. I’ve long likened smartphones to keys that open the door to a world of digital information … basically, all the world’s accumulated knowledge in our pockets. That door historically has swung one way: the user wants information and goes to get it.

The trend now is for the door to swing both ways. Now the providers of the platforms can swing back through the door to give you things you may need based on what they know about you, what you’re interested and where you happen to be.

Every company wants to get a foot in this doorway. Apple is rumored to be pondering a mobile payments mechanism in its upcoming iOS 8, one that would presumably be centered around beacons—Bluetooth and Wi-Fi enabled sensors in the physical world that can detect where people are and send or receive information.

Amazon, likewise, is the king of digital commerce and knows just about everything about its customers. But its ability to connect to consumers in the physical world is limited because it mostly has to rely on Apple, Google and Microsoft to reach them on mobile—at least outside of its Kindle Fire tablets and, possibly, its rumored smartphone.

Google has the lead in the the convergence of digital and real world commerce because it controls all the pertinent stacks. Android has a huge base of users; a strong developer following armed with Google’s latest tools for personalizing app interactions with users; and an insane amount of information about its users thanks to apps like search, Maps and Gmail.

Its approach is also far more subtle than that of, say, Facebook, which seems to constantly remind its users that they’re mostly there to sell ads against. Google delivers its targeting through a myriad of apps and related services, a tentacular and almost invisible approach that obscures just what it’s really about.

Which is pretty simple: Google wants to reach through the Internet aether and put its hand in your wallet. And it hopes to make you grateful that it’s done so, too.

More On Google Play Services, Maps And Android

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