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Google entices developers with Android 4.1 innovations, Google Play enhancements

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Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) introduced a little bit of everything last week at its annual Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco. The company debuted its Android version 4.1, also called Jelly Bean. It introduced innovative Google-branded devices that will use the Android OS. And it enhanced the Google Play storefront to expand the reach and influence of the Android ecosystem.

The combined effect of all of this is more opportunities for developers, who must now evaluate the various new options and determine if, how and when to incorporate them into their app development strategies.

Google continues to offer developers one of the most important motivations for their work: a vast and growing market base for apps. The company said at the conference that 400 million Android devices have been activated worldwide and another million are activated every day. Customers have installed 20 billion apps from the Google Play storefront, which now sells premium Android apps in 132 countries and distributes free apps in 190 countries.

Google's Android OS also leads the market in terms of developer "mindshare."  The research firm VisionMobile found in a recent developer survey that 76 percent of developers have adopted the Android operating system, compared to 66 percent for Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS. But competition for developers' time and attention is increasing. VisionMobile said interest in Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone is brewing, with 57 percent of developers planning to adopt Windows Phone at some time. Whether Windows Phone actually draws significant numbers of developers and whether it affects Android's developer community remains to be seen, but Google knows that developer loyalty is not guaranteed, and it needs to continue to intrigue the community with improved software, tools and business opportunities.

Jelly Bean is now available for developer use

jelly bean

Android 4.1 is nicknamed "Jelly Bean."

Google announced that Jelly Bean is now available to developers via an SDK. The OS update offers some notable incremental improvements to Android, including a much smoother and faster user interface and a search and personal assistant service, called Google Now, which is intended to compete against Apple's Siri. Other enhancements include a more versatile and enriched notification feature, the ability to resize widgets, new encryption capabilities for paid apps to reduce risk of piracy, and more efficient tools for updating apps that are already available in the Google Play store.

Google said that Jelly Bean will appear first on the market in its new Nexus 7 tablet, which it announced at the event. The tablet, manufactured by Asus and co-branded by Google, will ship in mid-July with the OS pre-installed. Google said the Jelly Bean update will be distributed over-the-air to Galaxy Nexus, Motorola Xoom and Nexus S devices around that time.

But Jelly Bean's take-up on other devices will be needed to really drive developer adoption of the technology. So far, the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) update announced last year has only made it to about 7 percent of Android devices, further fragmenting the market for Android apps. Developers have expressed frustration over this delay and indicated their reluctance to develop apps for Ice Cream Sandwich given its limited market. There is no doubt that developers will be watching to see how the roll-out of Jelly Bean proceeds.

Frank Gillett, an analyst at Forrester Research, expressed disappointment over Google's inability to solve this problem, which he says has been caused by a failure of carriers and manufacturers to push out the new OS versions to their devices as well as the lack of adoption by users.

Google, he said, has not "addressed the continuing and growing fragmentation problem where few devices are updated to the current OS."

New Google-branded devices: the Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q media hub

Nexus 7

Google's Nexus 7 tablet

Google introduced two Google-branded devices that it will begin selling this summer: the Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q media hub for music and video streaming in the home.

Google especially needs the Nexus 7 to become a compelling Android tablet that will inspire Android developers to target the tablet form factor and market for their apps.

More than 50 percent of developers are now targeting tablets today, according to VisionMobile, because tablet apps can generate more revenue than smartphone apps. But so far, iOS developers are more likely than Android developers to create tablet apps, the firm found.

Forrester's Gillett noted that Google's user base for music, books and movies that can be delivered to tablets is not as strong as the end user markets that Apple and Amazon have for these types of content. He said Google will need time to build a strong customer base and it needs to make up for the lack of "compelling tablet-optimized apps."

"Google has yet to address how to motivate developers to fill the gap," Gillet said.

Broadening the offerings in Google Play

Google is working to beef up and extend the reach of Google Play, and the storefront factored into many of its announcements. The company announced, for example, that the storefront now supports digital movie purchases and will sell television show episodes and full series. Google Play will also sell magazines.

Google Play

Google Play added TV shows, magazines, and digital movie downloads to its storefront.

The company wants its new devices to stimulate innovation of new types of apps for Google Play.  The Nexus 7 tablet and the Nexus Q media hub are designed to immerse consumers in Google Play apps and content.

Google also announced some improvements to its developer services to streamline the publishing of Android apps in Google Play. It introduced a new developer console, available initially in beta, as part of its efforts to improve tools for publishing Android apps. The new developer console will provide, for example, better analytics that developers can use to manage and monitor the performance of their performance in the market, including the ability to respond to user reviews that are published in Google Play.