10 Observations About Google’s I/O Keynote

One of many giant Androids towering over the human attendees at Google I/O at San Francisco's Moscone Center

One of many giant Androids towering over the human attendees at Google I/O at San Francisco’s Moscone Center

If you’re looking for a good straightforward recap of the news which Google made during its I/O keynote on Wednesday morning, stop reading this post. Instead, head over to Mat Honan’s fine summary over at Wired. And then, if you’re still interested in the topic, come back here for my initial musings.

1. This was the most Android-centric I/O keynote I can remember.

Sundar Pichai

Sundar Pichai at Google I/O 2014

As important as Google’s mobile operating system is, it’s sometimes felt like a really important thing which wasn’t at the heart of Google’s overarching view of itself. That wasn’t true on Wednesday morning: Most of the news involved Android–even the news about Chrome. (See below.)

What changed? Well, Andy Rubin, the father of Android, stepped down from running it in March of 2013, a few months before that year’s edition of I/O. This year’s conference may be the first one to reflect the long-term vision of Sundar Pichai, the powerful Google executive who now runs both Chrome and Android, and who presided over the keynote.

2. We’re officially in the era of platforms of platforms.

For all the differences between the news at I/O and what Apple unveiled at WWDC, what Google and Apple are doing have certain similarities. Both are building software and services for an an array of devices–phones, tablets, laptops, TV streamers, and more. Neither is trying to put one operating system on everything–Google has Android and Chrome, and Apple has iOS and OS X–but they’re bringing their platforms closer together through services. Approach a Chromebook while you have an Android phone on your person, for instance, and the Chromebook will auto-log you in without requiring a password; it will also display notifications for phone stuff such as text messages.

If this is the way of the future for consumer computing platforms, who else besides Google and Apple has the resources, muscle, and gusto to even hope to compete? Microsoft is also a contender, but it has to run as fast as it can to stay in the race. And then there are Amazon and Samsung–although both companies are building much of their vision on top of Android.

3. Of course, it’s not clear how long this era will last.

It’s possible that neither Google nor Apple will be anywhere near as successful with wearables, automobiles, and other new frontiers than they’ve been with more conventional computing experiences. If it were easy to transfer success in one category over to another one, Google wouldn’t still be trying to figure out how to make Android make sense on a TV, four years after it made its first attempt with Google TV.

4. Android L looks beautiful.

Android LGoogle’s unveiling of this fall’s Android update emphasized “material design“–a sort of new-age skeuomorphism which aims to use layers, lighting, shadows, and fluid animation to make both Android and Chrome feel more real. My sense is that it was difficult to judge its subtleties via interfaces projected on enormous screens.

Overall, though, Android is looking classy and clever. It’s a real rival to iOS in the aesthetics department, especially since Apple is still in the process of refining the radical makeover that was iOS 7. Of all the things which have changed at Google over the past couple of years, few are as striking as the improvement in its design sensibility.

5. But device makers may ugly it up before it reaches consumers.

Phone manufacturers love to slather their own interfaces on top of Android, so unless you buy one of the few devices which run the OS in unvarnished form, you’ll get a version which departs from Google’s design vision. I acknowledge that hardware makers sometimes add worthwhile features to their Android hardware, but I’ve never, ever seen one which provides an experience that’s as coherent as the operating system in its pure form. Just thinking about what they might do to Android L makes my stomach hurt.

6. Google+ and Google Glass went unmentioned.

You can’t judge the importance of something by how much attention it gets, or doesn’t get, during a keynote. But Google didn’t see fit to devote any of the event’s almost three hours to either of these high-profile, often controversial efforts–if only to clarify what Google+’s future looks like.

7. I kind of like Android Wear.

Moto 36-I got to spend a few minutes wearing Motorola’s Android Wear-based Moto 360 smartwatch, which will ship later this summer. It was in a retail mode designed to explain the device’s features to shoppers, so my impressions don’t count for all that much. And I’m aware that expressing opinions about any current wearable device before Apple enters the market is a good way to look stupid in retrospect.

But what I saw left me cautiously impressed. The fit and finish of Motorola’s hardware looked quite good, and it didn’t feel preposterously bulky on my wrist. (I tweeted out a photo and mostly got pushback from folks saying the watch looked bizarrely huge, but in real life, it was O.K.–and if a smartwatch’s screen is too small, it’s bad for navigation and text legibility.)

As for Google’s Android Wear software, it’s basically a pint-sized version of Google Now which doesn’t require you to remove your phone from your pocket or purse. As a wrist-worn interface, that makes sense to me. I’m not predicting that Android Wear devices will be the next big thing, or even the next medium-sized thing; I could, however, see them being genuinely useful to certain types of folks, including me.

8. Google didn’t say anything about home automation.

We know that it cares about the subject: That’s why it spent $3 billion for Nest, which in turn is paying another $555 million for Dropcam. I’m curious: Is Nest entirely responsible for Google’s plans for tying together smart household devices, or will Google also announce a separate Android-centric answer to Apple’s HomeKit at some point?

9. Android Auto looks nice, but I’m sorry it exists.

The same thing goes for its fraternal twin/arch enemy, Apple’s CarPlay. Both are predicated on the notion that you want a car infotainment system which is hardwired to talk to phones which run a particular mobile operating system. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you’re so enamored with Android or iOS that you’re sure you won’t switch platforms at any point during your ownership of a particular car. Lemme know when the entire industry settles on one standard for car-to-phone integration. (For now, some makers plan to support Android Auto and CarPlay–even in the same car.)

10. Running Android apps on a Chromebook is a tacit admission that the Web can’t do everything.

In the past, Google has promoted its Net-centric Chromebook platform with the slogan “Nothing but the Web.” Maybe it needs to update that to “Nothing but the Web, plus a few native applications.” During the I/O keynote, the company showed three Android apps running on a Chromebook: Evernote, Vine, and Flipboard. It was a very brief part of a very long event, so it was short on explanation, but the company doesn’t seem to be opening the floodgates: Those are the only three Android apps which it’s saying are on their way to Chrome OS.

I’ll be happy to see them–especially Flipboard–and am not such a purist that I’m offended by the notion of Chromebooks running apps that aren’t cloud-based. Still, it seems like the end of the nothing-but-Web dream.  Turns out that good old fashioned software has its place, too.

I/O, which concludes today, is the final big event during developer conference season. (Apple’s WWDC, Microsoft’s Build, and Facebook’s F8 are the others.) Between them, this year’s editions of all four introduced a bevy of wildly ambitious new initiatives. As the results reach consumers in the months to come, they should make for unusually interesting times. More thoughts to come…


3 comments

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  1. Gregg June 26, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    This was a great summary, don’t let Matt Honan have all the glory. :P

    Regarding #9: Personally, I welcome Android Auto. My assumption is that it will allow automakers to offer a middle ground between a bare-bones radio interface, and a $2000 proprietary interface like Audi’s MMI or Mercedes’ COMAND. In other words, you can have a relatively inexpensive screen in your car, as long as you’re willing to provide your own device to make it work. The prospect of vendor lock-in would be a small price to pay in such a scenario.

    My own car has a beautiful 8.5″ touchscreen but no nav, and to add it now would cost me over $1k and require the dashboard to be ripped open. If I could just throw my phone’s Google Maps to that screen, it’d be perfect.

    Great to see Technologizer back “on its own” — thumbs up.

  2. Dave June 27, 2014 at 6:13 am #

    They did briefly mention Google+ (sort of) during the TV segment when describing the feature that can make a slideshow of any Google+ photo album when the TV is “idling”

  3. Dave June 27, 2014 at 6:23 am #

    It was interesting to see the lack of time on G+ and glass, though.

    I think G+ was more taken for granted. It will be one of the things that ties the various hardware and platforms together (like the TV/picture album thing). Google has some services that will smooth the experience between platforms and pieces of hardware: G+, hangouts, search, Now cards, etc. G+ is the photo album/social interaction piece of that puzzle.