We’ve had just about 24 hours to let Google’s IO 2013 keynote marinate, and aside from being terribly busy with all that was announced I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since then. We hear you: most consumers feel the Google IO keynote came off as uneventful and lackluster. But if you take a step back and read between the lines, you might find that Google IO was actually quite refreshing.
Before you decide to jump down my throat, please hear me out. I’m not saying I wasn’t initially disappointed with the lack of new device announcements (we did get a Nexus-fied Galaxy S4, though) and the introduction of Android 4.3, but I’ve been able to take a look at this from a different perspective. Google made significant, key advancements despite the fact that another .1 wasn’t added onto Android’s version number.
Innovation without fragmentation
The biggest expectation many had was the introduction of Android 4.3. Hell, a last minute Google blunder hinted we might be seeing it at IO as a developer page mentioning the new version of Android went live (and was subsequently taken down). Three hours later, and we were effectively disappointed. Google didn’t say a word about Android 4.3, or any new version of Android for that matter. So what gives, El Goog?
Well, if you were paying attention you’ll realize that we got a lot of great new stuff. For starters, Google Play Games is going to add achievements, multiplayer, and leaderboards to many new games. Google didn’t need an entirely new version of Android to add that — all it took was a silent update to the Google Play Services framework. In fact, many games are already boasting the new features in a wave of updates that have gone out yesterday and today.
Google Hangouts was introduced and will replace Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, and maybe even Google Voice once the new SMS-based features arrive. This is Google’s all-in-one chat solution that will include video, and will be cross platform. This was important, and all it took was an app download from the Google Play Store.
Then there was Google Play Music All Access, Google’s new music streaming service that will give you all-you-can-eat tunes for a monthly fee. It came with a brand new update to Google Play Music, and it has replaced the likes of Pandora and Spotify for many people, including yours truly. Again, all of that was accessible with a simple app download from the Google Play Store.
Starting to notice a pattern here? What I’m getting at is quite simple, really. Google addressed the one issue that has been played up by the tech world since the beginning of the platform’s inception — that’s right, I’m talking about fragmentation. There was never an easy way to tackle this problem. Google tried to do it by getting OEMs and carriers to commit to updates for their products at least 18 months after launch.
Unfortunately, that was more of a loose pledge than a requirement — Google can’t force OEMs and carriers to support their products any more or less than they want them to. And it’s not just because these folks don’t want to, but because their hands are being tied by many other factors. Software testing cycles are sporadic and unpredictable, and what may seem like an easy task is actually a very complicated one. Different OEMs have different skins, and said skins are impacted by updates to the OS in different ways. Carriers have to worry about their network, and are forced to add more time to an already timely process.
While it may not be immediately obvious, this is probably the best way Google could tackle fragmentation (even if it wasn’t intentional). By not announcing and releasing a new version of Android, and instead opting to update apps in order to add new features, Google has found a way to slow down the Android development software cycle and allow OEMs to catch up.
It’s fundamentally different to Apple’s approach in that Google didn’t have to sacrifice its level of progression in order to get most or all of its users these new features. Continued innovation without fragmentation is the ultimate goal, and thanks to Android’s design it’s possible to at least alleviate the pains that come with the natural downsides of the software cycle. Users should be happy that Google is finding a way to do that without having to leave out a huge chunk of its user base.
It’s not just about Android
Let’s not forget that Android isn’t Google’s only concern. As such, it’s imperative to remember that Google IO isn’t, and has never been, totally about Android. It isn’t even about Google Chrome/Chrome OS specifically. So what is it about, you ask? It’s the web, plain and simple. It’s about using all platforms and avenues to our advantage for the sole goal of improving people’s lives.
Yea, sure, Android is pretty big and important, and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that Google still makes most of its money based on searches and advertising. But the fact of the matter is everything Google announced to this point will impact each and every one of us in different ways (some more appreciated than others).
The evolution of Google Maps is important, is it not? Both the web-based and Android versions of the app are getting upgrades sometime soon. It will change the way we explore the world, whether you’re looking to discover new places and learn new things, or if you simply want directions to your local mini market.
Google showed off new conversational voice searches for desktop browsers, and while it doesn’t seem like that directly affects Android, you’d be surprised to learn that it actually does. With the Knowledge Graph and these new voice-based searches, Google has made a statement — it will cement its position in advancing search technology, and that can only help anyone who uses Google Search (including those of us who use Google Now) in the long run. It means a bigger investment in the aforementioned Knowledge Graph, and more intelligent search features. Whether you’re on Android, iOS or just any old browser, that’s a pretty big deal.
Continuing on the “web helps life” point, Google Play for Education is a very significant initiative that will help get our young ones deep into technology at early ages. The impact of said initiatives might not be appreciated for years, but when more and more young engineers sprout from our colleges with a keen interest in web technology (and technology in general) it will pay off. This keynote made a statement that was far more important than you and I realize.
Focus on developers is key
Remember ahead of the Google IO keynote when Android boss Sundar Pichai warned us that Google IO would be less about product launches and more about helping developers? Well, he wasn’t bluffing, and you should be thankful for that. Let’s not forget that IO is, and most likely always will be, a developers’ conference. It’s an event to help developers harness the power of the web, whether it be with Android, Google Chrome, or other platforms.
This ties back into my first point in a way. Without developers, Android is nothing. All the innovative apps and games you enjoy on a daily basis are because of the very people who this event was meant for, and it’s in Google’s best interest to treat them that way. “But consumers are important too,” you’re probably thinking. You’re right, but what you don’t know is that, by helping developers, Google’s directly addressing consumer needs as well.
Those of us who have been with Android since the beginning know it more than anyone else. The Android Market, as it was once called, wasn’t always a bustling metropolis of apps. We were happy to have the hundred or so apps there were, and each day we wished for more and more. It’s because of Google’s major focus on helping developers that we have close to a million apps close to five years later.
You need look no further than Google Glass as an example. Most people probably wouldn’t buy Google Glass with limited functionality and the current crop of apps, but with the new Glass Development Kit developers will be able to make the kinds of apps that would entice you to spend who knows how much on a pair. As such, Glass won’t be a ghost town by the time it makes its way to the store shelves of retailers everywhere.
Most people I know yawned and shrugged off the developer-centric announcements Google made in its keynote. Most people don’t care about stuff like Android Studio and the IntelliJ-based IDE, new Google Play Services APIs and features for hooking into Google location services, and more. But the fact is it’s those tools and services which allow our beloved developers to create the feature-rich apps we’ve come to know and love. That’s what IO is for, and we should begin to understand that more clearly after this week.
So what about consumers?
Google never said it was going to stop paying attention to the people who have driven over 900 million device activations to date. Things are still being worked on behind closed doors and Google just doesn’t feel the need to reveal them right now. Whether they drum noise up on the web, with a specialized event, or possibly even a separate consumer-centric blowout show at another point in the year, you know Google is going to deliver the goods sooner or later.
We will get Android 4.3. We will get new Nexus devices. We will continue to see innovation from Google in a way that gets consumers excited. But yesterday and the rest of this week wasn’t about any of that, and it’s time for us to come to grips with that.
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