Thursday, 27 September 2012

The best thing about Google Play Services that nobody is telling you about (this is big)

Is there more to Google Play Services?

If you've been paying attention to your RSS feeds or daily-click tech news sites, you may have seen that Google is now commencing the roll out of Google Play Services. Google Play Services were announced at this years Google I/O conference, and bring a few really nice developer- and user-facing features to Android. Knowing how clued-up the readership is here I expect you're probably already aware of what these changes mean, so I won't waste your time recounting them here. Instead, what I want to do is talk about another really great upcoming feature that will be enabled by the roll out of Play Services.

A couple of weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend a Google developers meeting here in Auckland, one that was attended by Google representative Ankur Kotwal, who works for Google as an Android Developer Advocate. He was attending to basically refresh the developers group about changes heralded by Jelly Bean that have a bearing on what they do, and how they can offer the best user-facing experience in their apps most easily.

During the talk he naturally raised Google Play Services and discussed what they're about. Now, I'm not a developer, and as I already understood (or thought I understood) what this meant for me, my eyes were dangerously close to glazing over when he mentioned something else tied up with Play Services: app backups. I realise right now that your eyes are probably dangerously close to glazing-over, since you probably know that Android already sports an app backup service (of sorts). Stay with me here though, this is different.

Right now the backup service works if the developer chooses to utilise it, but it doesn't backup data, and it typically doesn't work very well in any case (as someone who registers a dozen new Android devices or so a year I have plenty of opportunities to see how well the present service works). The new service that Google is working on will still require the developer to choose to utilise it, but given the huge user-benefits of this solution I struggle to imagine it suffering poor uptake. You see, the new service will back up apps and their data. The good news doesn't stop there though, because it will also back them up to the cloud via Google Drive and allow you to transfer them between devices. The specific example Ankur gave to highlight the usefulness of this is being able to preserve your Angry Birds save data in perpetuity, and across multiple devices, for example phone and tablet.

This is a service I've been wanting Android to have, well, basically forever. No longer will user-friendly and data-complete app backup and restoration be restricted to savvy risk-takers who are OK with voiding their warranty. Great news, and I'm genuinely puzzled that Google didn't make a hoopla over this at I/O. In terms of timing Ankur couldn't/wasn't at liberty to say anything more definitive than within the next few months, which likely means at some stage in Q4. That said, Google has as times dragged the chain badly on delivering on promises to developers - large app installs direct from the Play Store are a good example of that, with Google taking many months longer than they'd intimated to bring it into active use - so even Ankur's general suggestion of time frames should be taken with a grain of salt.

Finally, there was one other thing that Ankur foreshadowed as being on the way for Android devs - secure app encryption. Obviously this is targeted at reducing piracy, and I'm all for that - if it encourages developers to move to, and stay with Android as a platform that only benefits us as users also. It may well break some things that many of us have come to rely on as staple parts of our Android experience though - examples that spring to mind being Titanium Backup and recompiled versions of Apks with alternate themes, friendlier permissions or removal of regional restrictions. It'll be interesting to see how app encryption plays out, I'm tentatively for it for the reasons given above, but it may not be unalloyed good news for those of us in user-land...