Liz Gannes

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I/O Preview: Google Set This Week to Challenge Amazon, Sonos, Apple and … Oh, Just Fill in the Blank Here

This week, some 5,500 developers will converge in San Francisco for Google I/O to listen to the search giant’s latest and greatest plans for Android, Chrome and other products.

And, of course, to pick up the best swag in the conference business.

Tickets to the sold-out show — which buyers assume include at least a couple shiny new Google-powered devices — have gone for as much as $4,500 on eBay.

But Google I/O isn’t going to be the place to get an overarching view of Google’s priorities for the next year — CEO Larry Page isn’t even expected to speak, given that he’s lost his voice.

Instead, the summit focuses on Google’s developer-centric offerings, such as Android and Chrome, and not its mainstay — and bill-paying — search and advertising products.

Past presentations don’t necessarily reflect projects that are ready for primetime — remember the hypnotizing effect of the first Google Wave demo in 2009, or the comedy of errors when Google TV failed to work in its debut in 2010?

A spokeswoman for Google said the main areas expected to be covered in the 2012 keynotes are Google Maps, cloud, Google Drive and Android.

In addition to the keynotes, there will be some 130 sessions across all Google product areas, as well as more than 300 organized viewing parties for the I/O livestream.

The spokeswoman also noted that Google had purchased 1,500 pounds of snacks for the Moscone event. (Sweet treats apparently aren’t just for Android update names.)

These are the big product announcements we expect at I/O, which runs from Wednesday to Friday at Moscone Center in San Francisco:

Google cloud: Google is working on a cloud services platform, as GigaOM has reported. The offering would compete with Amazon’s popular EC2 infrastructure-as-a-service platform and would also be aimed at enterprise developers.

Android home entertainment device: This is to be the first product out of Google’s Android@Home division, which was annnounced with much fanfare, but no products, at last year’s I/O. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, the device is meant to compete with Sonos, and will wirelessly stream music and probably video, while being controlled by a smartphone or tablet. It’s being designed and marketed under the Google name, rather than with a hardware platform.

Tablet: Google is widely expected to produce its own take on the tablet, much the way it has done on the phone side with its Nexus series of devices. On the phone side, Nexus has provided a way for Google to show what it thinks an Android device should look like — both in terms of hardware features and also in Google software and services.

The interesting thing to look out for is what Google articulates as missing from the tablet market. Arguably, there is plenty of hardware out there. There are devices from seven inches to 13 inches, and at every price point. Some are inexpensive Wi-Fi-only models, while others are high-end devices with built-in cellular modems.

The big things missing, thus far, have been compelling applications and services. Google has pushed hard to get developers to write more tablet-specific programs, but the effort has drawn only modest success, as the company fights the inevitable chicken-and-egg problem. There is more opportunity for Google on the services side, assuming the company is able to bring more content — or content in new ways and business models — to the tablet.

Android Jelly Bean: Continuing in its alphabetical list of sugary treats, Jelly Bean is the next version of Android. Google tipped its hand last week that the operating system is likely to be Android 4.1 — which would seem to indicate a modest, though not major, update to the software. It’s not all that clear what new features the software will bring, but it is likely to come to at least some new devices by the end of the year, as well as to some of Google’s existing Nexus products.

Maps: It’s less clear what Google will do to update its popular mapping products, but it’s a timely topic, given that Apple just debuted its new Google-free iOS maps application. An iOS SDK for Google Maps would be a start. Earlier this month, Google had teased new features such as 3-D models and offline mode for Android.

“We look forward to providing amazing Google Maps experiences on iOS,” wrote Jeff Huber, Google’s head of commerce and local, in a Google+ post this past weekend.

Wallet: We’ve heard indications that Google was likely to introduce a mobile payments app. Such a move could indicate a shift away from NFC and toward a cloud-based approach to physical payments, which would be similar to rival PayPal.

Google+: Somewhat surprisingly, we haven’t heard much about plans for a full Google+ API at I/O, even though the company had publicly projected that it would be an upcoming launch. A platform would seem important for the supposed “ghost town” social network to get more content flowing into and out of its system. Google’s head of social, Vic Gundotra, is a fixture at I/O as perhaps the biggest showman at Google and its most zestful deliverer of jabs at competitors like Apple and Facebook. Sources said he’s expected to appear onstage.

(Images courtesy of Igor Stepovik/Shutterstock; Google)

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