What's next for Android? New gaming and social features could be on deck

Rumors point to Google announcing several new tablets and a new Android gaming service at this year's Google I/O.

Brace yourselves: Google will definitely announce a new flavor of Android at Wednesday's Google I/O keynote. It remains to be seen whether the new build will be a full version jump to Key Lime Pie or a more incremental update, but if rumors prove true, Google's mobile OS should move in a more game-oriented and social direction.

Google Games and Babel

One new feature that's been all but confirmed is Google Games--an Android gaming service similar to Apple's Game Center on iOS. Enthusiast siteAndroid Policemanaged to get their hands on an unreleased version of the Google Play Services app which makes references to a ton of gaming related settings. After doing a full teardown of the app's code, Android Police found that the upcoming Google Games will support achievements, leaderboards, matchmaking, and game invites. The service will also let you sync your game saves, allowing you to switch devices without losing having to start your games over from the beginning.

While I'm not the biggest fan of Game Center on iOS, a systemwide gaming service on Android would make it easier to find multiplayer games and keep trackof high scores without having to sign up for a third-party service like Gree. Because Google Play Services exists as a standalone app in the Play Store, it's possible that Google will release Google Games to older versions of Android. Of course, all of these fancy new functionalities meannothing if Google can't get game developers to integrate Google Games into their apps--something the company is devoting a number of developer sessions to at Google I/O.

Another rumor has Google working on a unified messaging service code-named, Babel. The service will reportedly combine Google Messenger, Google Talk, and Google Hangouts into a single application, and is expected to be unveiled alongside the next big release of Android.

Though Babel sounds promising, its final iteration must support more than just Google's range of chat clients if Android is to reallyreap its benefits. Google needs a response to Apple's iMessage and the unified inbox on Windows Phone 8, so incorporating SMS and third-party apps into Babel will be key.

New hardware

Ever the generous host, Google has a rich history of giving away free hardware to developers at I/O, and last year's event was particularly rich in schwag. In 2012, the big G unveiled (and gifted) the Nexus 7 tablet and the ill-fated Nexus Q media streamer to everyone in attendance, so we should definitely expect more surprises this Wednesday--though the company will certainly stop short of giving away thousands of free copies of Google Glass.

Unconfirmed reports say that Google might show off a Samsung-built Android tablet with an 11-inch, high-density display similar to the one on the Nexus 10. Other rumored specs for the tablet include an 8-megapixel camera, an 8-core A15 processor, and a MicroSD card slot.

An 11-inch tablet doesn't seem too far-fetched, and the rumored specs are definitely a step up from what's currently offered on the Nexus 10. That said, this is one rumor I hope doesn't turn out to be true--11-inch tablets are unwieldy, and the release of a larger Nexus tablet could signal that Google is planning to kill off the Nexus 10 after only seven months on the market. C'mon Google--maybe you'd sell more Nexus 10s if there were more tablet-optimized Android apps.

Another rumor has it that Google will use I/O to announce a Nexus tablet that's even cheaper than the $200 Nexus 7. Want evidence? Benchmarks from GLbench list an unknown Asus tablet with lesser specs than those on the Nexus 7--specifically, Android 4.1.1 and an older Mali chipset. The aging silicon alone would allow Asus to sell the mystery tablet at a discount.

A low-priced 7-incher makes sense when you consider that Amazon's similarly spec'd 7-inch Kindle Fire with Special Offers sells for $50 less than the 16GB Nexus 7. Google doesn't necessarily have trouble selling Nexus 7s--the tablet was back-ordered for the first few months after its release--but more-affordable hardware could prove enticing to people weighing the options when considering their first tablet.

What we hope to see

So that's what the rumor mill tells us about the next version of Android. But if you peer into Android itself, and consider what it offers compared to iOS and, yes, even Windows Phone, you begin to imagine features that are just begging to be announced at I/O on Wednesday.

For one, Google would do well to announce Native Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) support, which would allow third-party device manufacturers, like Fitbit and Jawbone, to create accessories that passively sync with Android phones. Indeed, if you've ever wondered why most fitness devices work with the iPhone and not Android, it's because it's incumbent on handset manufacturers like HTC and Samsung to add BLE support on their own.

Another place where smartphone OEMs have the upper hand is in the number of features they include in their devices. The Nexus 4, an Android "flagship" phone, is almost impotent next to feature-rich handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S4 and LG Optimus G Pro. Google shouldn't be afraid to experiment and add the coolest new features to the hardware it selects for showing off the most "pure" Android experience--even if these features don't prove particularly valuable to everyone.

Google could also stand to shake up Android's look and feel: The flat Holo theme introduced in Android 4.0 felt modern when it launched two years ago, but Google's recent app efforts on iOS have shown that the company is capable of sleeker, more beautiful interfaces. I'm a big fan of the redesigned Play store app, and wouldn't mind if other aspects of the OS resembled Google's digital storefront.

If we're lucky we'll see more design innovation on Wednesday, as these are problems that Google could easily remediate in the next version of Android. Android's competitors have stepped up their games in terms of both hardware and software, and Google needs to play hardball if it hopes to keep Android in a position of power.