Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. One of the most anticipated tech events of the year, the first day of the annual Google I/O Summit, occurred on May 18th. This analysis only covers Day 1 of the three-day event. As many industry followers know, Google I/O is like Christmas in July-ish. You get to know about all the cool stuff Santa Google is carrying in his bag.
Or at least that's the dream.
Unfortunately, this year, it was not the time for true innovation. It was, for all means and purposes, a "let's-catch-up-with-the-times" event, sprinkled with some cool app ideas.
So here it is folks. Covering the most important announcements from the I/O event, with our own twist.
Google Home device, aka Amazon Echo's younger brother
Google Home. Read Amazon Echo, but in a white finish. And in a weird, oval-ish shape with 4 lights above it, and a tilted shape so you can't even put a bottle of beer on top of it. A device which is only capable of doing SOME of the same things Echo is known for: it tells you the weather, plays music, connects with some (unspecified) smart devices in your home. And, as of right now, NOT A SINGLE THING MORE.
Granted, the market is still new to this concept of a home hub and personal assistant, but there is no doubt it has great potential. Google sees this copy-cat device as an opportunity to bridge the gap between offline and online worlds by releasing a physical object which allows customers to talk to and at Google without resorting to a smartphone or computer. So the idea definitely has potential.
So what's the problem? The problem is that Google launched this product and had no good additional value prop over their Amazon competitor. Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, even acknowledged Amazon during his speech, but failed to acknowledge that Amazon's Alexa is still better than what Google has to offer.
Remember when Amazon launched their new phone in 2014 and nobody bought it? Remember why? It had no value add. For all that the Amazon phone had to offer, it was neither better (from a hardware perspective) nor more impressive (software-wise) than an iPhone or a Samsung phone. Google apparently didn't learn from that lesson.
As an end user, I wouldn't even consider buying the Google Home. In its current shape,l it doesn't even match Echo in terms of breadth of functionality, 3rd party IoT integration, or functionality.
The only notable comparative advantage Google Home has over Echo is that it is designed with multi-room support. Not that I necessarily wish to creep my wife out by playing loud music from the living room into the bedroom while she's asleep. But that room-to-room connectivity when you own more than one Google Home device is pretty nifty.
Overall ... C'mon Google. I know you can do better. Maybe next year.
Daydream and the incursion into the VR world
Everyone knows virtual reality is a big deal this year. Samsung just announced their own attempt to become relevant in this field by releasing the Gear 360 Virtual Reality camera just weeks ago.
At the event, Google executives talked about "built-for-VR" devices, which — by the way — Google really cannot control. They cannot even control when phone manufacturers push out the Android upgrades to users' devices (I am still waiting for Verizon to update me to Marshmallow a year after the OS was launched). And as such, Google cannot guarantee or promise that manufacturers will make the changes to the physical smartphones to enable the VR experience Google is recommending.
The only phone Google has any power over is their flagship Nexus 6P, which predictably will become the first phone to receive the "Daydream Certification" with the new release. For now, the only other tangible thing Google is offering is a set of guidelines on how to build the next VR-ready phones on Android. We will see if manufacturers will implement these suggestions or not.
Second, there was talk about enabling a VR mode inside of Android N (more on that below). This is what Google can really control and be innovative at. The new version of Android will include a VR mode that will act as its own separate ecosystem with a home screen, VR-enabled apps, etc. Some of Google's own apps will be available right off the bat in a VR mode when Android N is launched. These include Google Play Store, Street View, Youtube, and others.
Lastly and predictably, Google talked about launching its own VR device. Unfortunately, we cannot really tell you anything more about it since, well, the device is at the drawing stage. Literally, all Google had to offer is a drawing of the device:
The obvious question everyone has on their mind is, how does this device compare with Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony Play Station VR or Samsung Gear VR? We simply don't know, and based on the elusive description of what the Google VR device could potentially do for a user, we won't get an answer for a long time.
Again, just like with Google Home, other competitors have already released their first iteration of a VR device long before Google, with the giant tech company playing catch up.
Allo - a chat app with an embedded search function
Google got people excited with the announcement of a personal assistant app named Allo. When I hear "personal assistant," I get my hopes up. I think of an integrated application which can easily feed me quick info I request through the app, but also push down contextually-relevant information based on my location.
For example, while I'm walking on the street, a great personal assistant app would interrupt my music with an announcement such as, "Codrin, you're walking on Broadway. A new wings restaurant has opened and it's one block away. Read the reviews here if you want to try it out." That would be a bad-ass personal assistant. An app that does the thinking for me and provides personalized information that I can act on without having to think about it in advance.
So when I hear "personal assistant," I think, "Oh goodie." Now back to Google. That is certainly NOT what you're getting.
On the one hand, Allo is just another chat app in a world where I already use Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, and Hangouts. Sure, it has cooler emoji than other apps. But the "assistance" this app is providing is basically predictive text snippets.
The use case is this: a friend is in Paris and is sending you a picture of the Eiffel Tower. Instead of you typing, "That's awesome, I hope you're enjoying Paris," or, "I wish I was with you in Paris," you get to tap on one of these predefined answers. Which brings SOME convenience to users for sure, but is it revolutionary? Hardly. Personally, I wouldn't even switch from Hangouts (which I use every day of my life) to Allo if this is the primary "personal" assistance that I'm getting.
One cool feature about Allo is the ability to use the hashtag @google to get info on certain events, dates, stats. Where you would normally quit the chat app and go online to google the answer, when @google is entered in the chat box both you and the person you're chatting with will see the answer to whatever question you ask next, provided that Google can actually interpret it correctly. An example would be:
"Hey bro, let's have some drinks tonight."
"Where should we go?"
"@google - what's the closest bar to 101 N Wacker Street?"
Google: "Closest bar is X and is open till 1 am tonight."
Cool? For sure. Is it worth switching chat apps? Far from it. I do want to see the stats during next year's I/O event and see how many of Google Hangout's users converted to Allo. But we won't. Because it's really hard to imagine they will be something to really brag about.
Duo - exactly like FaceTime with just one extra cool option
I wonder if Google's executive team had a meeting 9 months ago where they brainstormed about what they're going to show at the I/O event, and someone said, "What if we build a video calling app?" And someone else said, "What a great idea. Nobody ever thought of that except for Steve Jobs almost ten years ago."
And the brainstorming committee approved the project and now we have Duo.
Seriously, that's basically what Duo is - an Android version of Apple's FaceTime, with only one cool added feature built in: "Knock, Knock." As someone is calling you, the Knock, Knock feature allows you to see a preview of that person before the call is connected. Is that cool? For sure. Is that going to put a dent in Apple's iPhone sales and bring more people to Android based smartphones? Unlikely. At best, it's putting Google in the same boat with Apple with a hip twist.
I really chuckled when I saw the introduction to this video app labeled, "Meet Duo, a new way to video call." Sorry Google. This can only be construed as "new" by people living under an (Apple) rock.
Android N - the yet-to-be-named new version of Android and its much-needed updates
Various beta versions of Android N have already been released to the public before this week, specifically to Android developers. So despite taking a significant chunk of today's conference prime time, most of the things covered were not new. Nothing really major coming in with this new version - just a lot of small enhancements here and there (significant in and on themselves!). Operative word here - small enhancements.
- You can now reply to notifications from the notification bar, just like Hangouts for Android already allows you reply to a chat. Same thing expanded to other apps within the Android ecosystem.
- Multi-window and split-screen functionality is coming to Android N. Some apps have been doing this since 2012, but people with short memories got very excited at this "innovative" announcement.
- Users can switch to the previous app by double tapping on the "recent" button in Android N. I guess it's better than the double tapping on the home button and then selecting the app like you do on iOS, but as you can see — not truly significantly better.
- Remarkable improvements in performance and graphics are expected with Android N, hopefully bridging the gap between Android and iOS (this enhancement is the definition of Google catching up with Apple).
- Android N is also implementing a series of security measures to boost the system's overall encryption protocols. We all know from the FBI-Apple saga that Apple got there (truly secure OS) long before Google.
As we said, Android N has a series of small improvements that is bringing the Android OS more in line with iOS 9 (one can hope). But overall, there was nothing to write home about.
Oh, and Android N doesn't have a name yet. Traditionally, Google named various Android versions based on sweets and treats (Kit Cat, Marshmallow — you get the point). So, rather than calling the new version Android Nutella (which would have made this writer very happy), Google is opening the floor to naming ideas. Users can go online and submit proposals for what "N" should stand for.
Using Android apps without downloading them
Decent idea. Google spoke about it last year as well. Google will allow developers to modularize their apps in a such a way that users could access parts of an app without actually downloading the app. This sounds great, especially for people with 16 GB of data who are painfully aware of their smartphone's memory limitations.
On the other hand, this doesn't really mean Google's trying to replace apps. As one author put it, this initiative will simply give you "a taste of apps without the commitment."
Additionally, this is not something that Google is extending to all apps on their Play store as a generous gift to the world. Instead, developers will need to make changes to the code base to allow users to use functionalities that are currently run on a native app without downloading the app.
For the majority of the apps, it's not clear to me how much of a true added value this would provide over the already-established mobile websites that most respected companies have. I also don't know how this would work for mobile games or banking apps.
I guess, for now, the thought process is that if developers enable this mode it would allow users to see how awesome the app would be, and then maybe drive app downloads as a result. One can argue that's what m.web does today for most companies.
Google takes advantage of Firebase acquisition
The new firebase expanded to become a unified app platform. This news seems to be very well received by the developer community.
This comment on hacker news explains how some developers feel about the news.
Firebase is an incredibly powerful tool, and in a sense is a "democratizing force" in web development. Now anyone can build a complete web application without needing to know anything about setting up servers, content delivery networks, AWS (which is still quite difficult to use), and scaling. I teach kids as young as 10 years old to build iOS apps and websites with Firebase - they can develop locally and push to Firebase hosting with a single command. After exploring this new update, I can say with confidence that literally everything is easy-to-use now.
When Steve Jobs would come and address a crowd of stakeholders and Apple enthusiasts alike, you knew you were about to be wowed. You never knew what he was about to share with you, but you could bet your life it would be something truly interesting. You could even go inside the conference venue and say, "I don't know what Steve will show us today, but I know I will want one."
Apple and Google are interchangeably the single biggest company in the world - meaning they're either on the first or the second position, constantly alternating. So when you think of Google, it's not unreasonable to have an expectation similar to what we had towards Steve Jobs.
One may not necessarily hope to see something as amazing as what Jobs offered on a stage once a year. But we could at least hope to be wowed. To Google's credit, they did bring a robot on the stage at the I/O event, but even that idea was not fully fledged and had no clear purpose as of yet. The rest of the announcements, as we could see above, were not that innovative.
By in large, Google's "big things" for 2016 were tied to playing catch up with other competitors, both on the hardware side (Amazon Echo, Oculus Rift) and the software side (Apple's IoS).
I am by no means discounting the importance of these achievements - as an Android user myself I kept thinking, "It's about freaking time."
But c'mon Google - you can do better that. I know you can. Hopefully, you'll use the time until the next I/O event to prove that to the world.
This article was published on May 19th, 2016 at 11:22 a.m. CST.