Google’s big device giveaway at IO 2016 [OPINION] [UPDATE]


Google’s annual developer conference – the huge event called I/O that we’ve been covering the last few days – has a history of being predictably unpredictable, and delightfully so. That’s largely due to Google’s knack for announcing revolutionary new products year after year, and then giving them away for free to every single developer that attends.

It all began with this “Oprah Moment” on stage in 2009:

Since then the giveaways have become a Google IO tradition of sorts, with attendees annually anticipating what awesome goodies Google will be giving away. Here is a look at Google IO giveaways from years past:

So what was the big giveaway for 2016? There wasn’t one… and that’s perfectly fine by me.

Google I/O is a developer conference and initially the giveaways aligned with the purpose of the event. Android was relatively new, smartphones were still an emerging technology, and building a competitive advantage was dependent on getting great content on the Android market. Putting devices directly into the hands of developers helped create the momentum that has made Android the world’s leading mobile platform today.

This train of thought could extend to every year of Google IO. To encourage adoption and development of platforms like Android Wear, Chrome OS, and Virtual Reality, Google gave away the Moto 360, Chromebook Pixel, and Google Cardboard. As this strategic decision grew into a perceived tradition, it created expectations from a much broader interest group.

Before long, getting a ticket to Google I/O became less about developers and more about the free stuff. The surging popularity of Android meant the true developers were far outnumbered by opportunists, some just innocent fanboys eager to become ultimate early adopters, with others more sinisterly seeking a quick buck by flipping the goods on eBay.

Buying a $900 ticket to Google IO became a frenzied disaster, with so many people lining up to shout the figurative “take my money!” that acquiring a ticket became next to impossible. Google has recently improved their purchasing policy, replacing the “on your mark, get set, go” free-for-all with a random lottery format, but it’s still the Hunger Games of tech conferences and the odds are never in your favor.

The bottom line is that Google IO is a developer conference and the “tradition” of device giveaways has in some ways shifted the focus away from developers and towards consumers and press. Making their biggest splashes at Google IO is a great way to reward developers for their investment in the ecosystem, but the unintended consequences directly undermine the initial intention.

Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely LOVE the giveaways from a personal standpoint. I wish 2016 attendees went home with a Google Home console, Daydream VR headset, or maybe the first Tango phone. But we didn’t.

As an attendee it’s disappointing, but if the device giveaways were a primary factor in someone deciding to attend Google IO, then they probably shouldn’t be attending Google IO. Considering this year’s departure from giveaway norms, maybe next year people will think twice about spending the $900 and it’ll make room for a developer whose motives are developer-centric.

Our full-time Android developer, Steve Albright, wasn’t able to attend Google I/O this year. He lives and breathes Android and has built awesome apps for us like Phandroid News and EarlyBird. He’s currently working on a brand new app that you’ll see us launching in the coming weeks. It would have been great to have him at the event, learning how to integrate new features like Firebase Analytics, discussing specific topics with Googlers who have authoritative insight, and meeting colleagues with whom he regularly communicates but rarely sees due to the work-from-home nature of his position. With any luck, my current state of empty handedness will lead to Steve attending Google I/O 2017.

There are sure to be a wide variety of opinions on this topic and I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. I can sympathize with people spending $900 in hopes of getting hardware only to be the first group in almost a decade to leave disappointed. But hardware giveaways were never promised. They were always a perk. A fun surprise, however clouded that fun became by the fog of entitlement that swept over the IO keynote speech.

For whatever reason it happened, the lack of a device giveaway at Google IO 2016 is better for everyone in the long-run. The balance has been restored. Maybe developers will enjoy a more sane shot at attending the conference and future giveaways will once again be a welcome surprise and not an expectation. More importantly, the absence of a giveaway will no longer be seen as a crime against conference-kind, but instead just another detail of an otherwise awesome developer event.

UPDATE: Just minutes after this post went live, I/O attendees received an email detailing a giveaway for $500 worth of Google Cloud Platform credits. In addition to the $500 credit, folks will gain an extra $300 in trial credit to build and develop using the same cloud resources that Google apps and services are built upon.

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Rob Jackson
I'm an Android and Tech lover, but first and foremost I consider myself a creative thinker and entrepreneurial spirit with a passion for ideas of all sizes. I'm a sports lover who cheers for the Orange (College), Ravens (NFL), (Orioles), and Yankees (long story). I live in Baltimore and wear it on my sleeve, with an Under Armour logo. I also love traveling... where do you want to go?

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