We’re still reeling from last night’s Google IO keynote event, in which the company unveiled several new products and tried to bore us to death with live, on-stage Java debugging. You can read about all the new gear here, but what does it mean for Google’s broader strategic position? Here’s five takeaways about what the event revealed about the company’s plans and position.
1) Google is worried about mobile web apps
One of the slow-burning trends in the mobile industry as of late is for “web apps” or “websites” as they used to be known. The idea is pretty simple: rather than take the time to produce separate apps for iPhone, Android and the various smaller platforms, it can be much easier to produce a mobile-friendly website that will work across devices. Sure, things can’t be quite as swish, but it’ll be a lot cheaper and is perfect for companies like newspapers and publishers, as all you need to do is display text and not interact with, say, the camera or other hardware.
So what’s interesting is that Google announced a new “design framework” called Polymer, which developers can use to not just make their apps slick, but also web pages. The example shown was a Google search page running in the Chrome browser, that was able to retain slick animations – and run up to 60fps. The line between apps and websites is going to blur – and Google has realised that if it can’t convince you to build an app, it can at least make your website better for users.
2) Google is terrified of the ‘fragmentation’ problem
One of the major criticisms from developers of Android compared to iOS is the problem of fragmentation. When a new iPhone update comes out, within weeks a huge percentage of the iOS user-base will have upgraded their phones to the latest version. With Android however, upgrading is not so consistent due to the myriad of handsets and carriers. Over time this has led to “fragmentation” – which means that if you build an Android app you have to make sure that not only does it work on many different screensizes, but also that it will work on a huge number of Android iterations – which can be time consuming.
Google knows that this is a chink in its armor – which is why it announced “Android One”. This is essentially a new set of standards which means that if a device is part of “Android One” it will receive the latest OS updates as quickly as possible. Apparently this will even work with custom apps and stuff – so if the user has, say, a future Samsung device, they should be able to upgrade Android whilst keeping all of the extra Samsung apps.
3) Google+ is dead
It seems that rumours of its demise are…. well, bang on. The unsocial network received (at my count) maybe two or three mentions throughout the entire presentation last night. It seems the earlier suggestions that only its peripheral features – photo uploading and as an identity provider (so you can login with G+) are being used in future Google products. Which is a very long way from a few years ago when the company were insisting on integrating it with everything.
As if to underscore this, it wasn’t part of the keynote but Google snuck out the news that it is changing how search results are displayed on Google search, removing mentions of Google+ circles and Google+ profile pictures from links where they would have previously appeared.
4) We might finally get viable car/wearable/TV platforms
This was some good news for consumers. After years of other manufacturers pissing about half-heartedly, there is now viable app platforms in the car, on TV and on wearables. For the last few years these product categories have been a testing ground for the future, but have lacked a player with enough power to make these much-hypothesised devices work properly.
Take cars, for example. Though car manufacturers have been working on in-car tech for a while, each car company has had separate car platforms, with different methods of input and a distinct lack of an eco-system for apps and the like.
Take the Peugeot 206, for example – the on-board computer can do some interesting stuff but to get it online you can’t use your phone… you have to buy a separate internet dongle for £200 that plugs into the car’s USB port. Similarly, is anyone going to bother to build a Peugeot app? Why would (say) Spotify bother when on their own Peugeot doesn’t represent that many cars.
Its the same with TV: Though Smart TVs are starting to take off, the big problem is that Samsung apps are not compatible with LG and Sony TVs – and vice-versa. So if you were a content provider, would you really have the time and resources to code an app for each one?
What Android TV/Auto/Wear means is that app developers can finally do the sensible thing and code an app once, with the expectation that it will work fine across a broad range of devices. Cumulatively, all of the Android devices will reach the critical mass needed to make development work – which should quicken the pace of integration, and will mean that your future car/TV/watch will stay up-to-date with the latest apps and services. Brilliant.
5) Google is now the grey face of corporate America
When Google started, it said its motto was “don’t be evil”, and whilst the company has been less willing to shout about that over recent years following privacy/competition/censorship/etc concerns, what was interesting about the keynote was the numerous protesters it attracted – all supporting different causes.
Whilst it perhaps isn’t surprising to see protests during major presentations from tobacco companies and big oil… isn’t Google a little more surprising? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised to see people unhappy with Google’s investments in military robots, or its lack of activism over net neutrality. The Google brand does such a good job as presenting the company as cuddly and friendly – though I guess in reality one of the largest companies in the world is really just a part of corporate America.
By James O'Malley | June 26th, 2014