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How Google Aims to Delve Deeper Into Users' Lives

05/28/2015 | 05:58pm US/Eastern
By Alistair Barr 

Google Inc. showcased new offerings Thursday designed to embed the Internet giant more deeply into users' lives.

At its annual developers' conference, Google unveiled a mobile-payment system to tie people closer to its Android smartphones, previewed a new operating system for connected devices, launched a service to host photos and videos on Google's computers and highlighted technology to worm itself deeper into mobile apps.

"We want to make sure we leave no one behind," Google product chief Sundar Pichai told more than 1,000 developers at the I/O conference in San Francisco.

Google began in the late 1990s as a search engine harvesting information from websites and presenting relevant answers to queries. That helped build the world's largest digital advertising money machine. But the growing use of smartphones, and apps, has forced Google to adapt.

Its main strategy is to extend Android from phones to as many devices as possible. Mr. Pichai said Android now runs on more than 4,000 distinct devices, from tablet computers to watches, car dashboards and TVs.

"Google wants to be part of any device or service that can benefit from being smarter through technology," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research.

The approach will put Google at the heart of many products, but Mr. Dawson said it is unclear how Google will make money from many of its new endeavors. Despite a number of announcements, there was no blockbuster new product Thursday. Google shares dipped slightly during Thursday trading, leaving them down 2% over the past year, while Apple Inc. shares have risen 50% and Facebook Inc. has gained 30%. Google shares closed down 7 cents to $554.18 Thursday.

During his keynote address, Mr. Pichai unveiled a new operating system, called Brillo, and a communication standard called Weave to connect everyday devices and objects to the Internet.

Brillo is a stripped-down version of the Android mobile-operating system designed to run using little power. Weave will help devices talk to each other using a common language, so a smartphone can lock or unlock a "smart" door lock, for example. Brillo and Weave will be released by the end of 2015, Mr. Pichai said.

Google has always given away its Android operating system and tried to make money indirectly through advertising and app purchases. Jackdaw's Mr. Dawson expects that to be true for Brillo as well.

Google also unveiled a new mobile-payment system called Android Pay that will let Android phone users pay with their devices in more than 700,000 U.S. stores. An updated version of Android, due to be released later this year, will support fingerprint scans for users to authenticate purchases.

Google sees the service as a must-have feature for smartphones in part to keep pace with Apple's similar Apple Pay, introduced last year.

Apple takes a cut of transactions from credit-card and debit-card issuers. It is unclear how Google will get paid for Android Pay. An executive and a spokeswoman at the company said Thursday that the goal is to make Android phones more useful and declined further comment.

Another potentially popular product with an unclear path to revenue emerged Thursday in Google Photos, a way of storing and organizing photos and videos in Google's data centers. Google said it will offer unlimited free storage, though large images will be compressed when stored.

Van Baker, an analyst at research firm Gartner, said Photos is part of a long-term Google strategy to use its computing expertise to gather more data.

More than a decade ago, Google launched Gmail as a free email service with unlimited storage, gaining hundreds of millions of users. The company now sells ads based on the content in those messages. Mr. Baker expects Google to follow a similar approach with Photos, gaining as many users as possible, then using its computing power to analyze information and devise ways to generate revenue.

"The value of the data is worth more to Google than the cost of the storage," Mr. Baker said. "They can extract activities that people like to do, places they like to go, what they like to eat."

One place Google has struggled to get information is within mobile apps, which its computers can't crawl and index like websites. Thursday, Google threw many of its most-prized assets at the challenge.

The most promising example, according to Mr. Baker, was a new version of Google's digital assistant, known as Google Now. This uses the company's machine-learning capabilities and computing power to automatically suggest relevant information to users.

Google is expanding this technology to work inside mobile apps. In messaging and email apps, for example, Google Now will recommend content from other apps that are relevant to what is being discussed.

App developers have to agree to have their apps indexed by Google for these features to work, a Google executive said at the conference.

Write to Alistair Barr at alistair.barr@wsj.com

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