SAN FRANCISCO -- Google (GOOG) kicked off its annual developers conference Wednesday by launching a subscription-based streaming music service to compete with the likes of Pandora and Spotify, along with a host of new and highly personalized services for online maps, Internet search and photo storage.
CEO Larry Page made a surprise speaking appearance, capping a program that emphasized the power of online software instead of flashy hardware gadgets.
In contrast with last year's Google I/O conference, there were no sky divers beaming video from the company's wearable computer, Glass. Instead, Page spoke quietly but passionately about the importance of making long-term bets on building new technology that has the potential to change lives.
"Every time we've tried to do something crazy, we've made progress," Page said, recalling that people questioned why Google began offering its own Web-based email service years ago.
Just one day after he disclosed that he's suffering from a long-term nerve impairment of his vocal cords, Page seemed determined to show that his condition is not a major impediment. Although hoarse, he spoke for 45 minutes and even took questions from the audience of nearly 6,000 software developers and other techies at the Moscone convention center.
Since taking over as CEO two years ago, the Google co-founder has presided over a surge in the company's stock. Google shares soared above $900 for the first time Wednesday, closing at $915.89. That gave the company its highest-ever market value of $303.4 billion, trailing only Exxon Mobil and Apple (AAPL) among U.S. firms.
Analysts said Google's new products show the company is determined to hold its own, and more, in a tech industry where the leading companies are increasingly offering a broad range of services to capture consumers' interest and dollars.
"Google is building out a broad ecosystem of consumer technology in a way that most other companies can't," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.
The new "All-Access" music service will compete with upstarts like Pandora and Spotify, while moving ahead of giants like Apple and Amazon that are also working to develop similar services. Subscribers will pay $9.99 a month to play tracks from Google's online library and also receive personalized recommendations for songs and playlists.
While the new service has some compelling features, analysts said it may not be a revolutionary improvement on competing programs. But Forrester analyst James McQuivey said it's important for Google to enter the market. "If Google failed to make a play for the music business," he said in an email, "it would later regret it because its customers would remain forever tied to another digital service."
In a flurry of other announcements, Google executives unveiled some dramatic upgrades to several core products.
One new capability for its Internet search service provides spoken answers to conversational questions, both on mobile devices and desktop computers using Google's Chrome operating system. The voice feature appears to go beyond the capabilities of Apple's vaunted Siri. It even displayed an album of her own photos when Google Vice President Johanna Wright asked, "Show me my pictures from New York last year."
Google also showed off new features for its maps service that can provide personalized landmarks, travel routes and recommend restaurants and other businesses when a user is signed into Google.
The company's struggling social networking service, Google+, is also getting a new design, along with tools that can automatically select the best photos from a large group, after rejecting blurred images and duplicates. Other tools will automatically adjust color and lighting and smooth out wrinkles in a person's face.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.