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Google’s next advance will be hard fought

Surfboards lean against a wall at the Google office in Santa Monica, Calif.


After a quiet few months during which many of its rivals took turns in the public spotlight, Google will hold its own high-profile event on Wednesday, looking to re-energize its product line.

Google's annual "I/O" conference is mostly aimed at Google's massive ecosystem of developers and engineers, but also functions as a means for the search engine to make some of its biggest product announcements of the year.

This year, there are plenty of rumours, with many observers expecting an upgrade of the Android operating system for mobile devices.

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Android is likely the most popular smartphone operating system in the world, because Google allows almost anyone to use the software. But even though companies such as Samsung and HTC rely on the software, Android has been heavily criticized for being a fragmented operating system. Because Google frequently updates the software, only a relatively small number of smartphones are running the latest version of Android at any given time.

The latest version of Android (which, if the company continues its trend of naming upgrades after desserts, should be called Jelly Bean) will help Google make up ground on rival operating systems from Apple and Microsoft, but may also exacerbate the fragmentation problem if manufacturers and consumers don't have an easy way of upgrading.

Google is also expected to announce updates and upgrades to its cloud and social networking services. In both areas, the company faces stiff competition from some of the tech industry's heavyweights, as it seeks to catch up to Amazon in the cloud services industry and Facebook in social networking.

But perhaps the biggest – and riskiest – potential announcement from Google this week will be a new piece of hardware. The company is expected to unveil a new, Google-branded tablet. Such a device would mirror the Google Nexus smartphones, which the company had previously tried to market directly to consumers, with mixed success.

Plenty of third-party tablets run on Android, but none have managed to make a dent in Apple's market share, as the iPad continues to dominate the tablet market. Entries from other tech firms – such as Research In Motion's PlayBook and Hewlett-Packard's TouchPad – have also flopped.

With a branded tablet, Google can attempt to focus consumers' attention on a single Android device, making it easier to compete with the iPad. However the move is not without risk. When Google first released its own smartphone, many of its hardware partners were not pleased that a company they considered to be an ally in the software business would now be competing with them in the hardware market (a concern that came up once more when Google purchased Motorola Mobility). The company may see similar complaints should it decide to enter the tablet hardware market directly.

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