In the eyes of the thousands of developers who are attending Google I/O 2013, the opening keynote will have been a riotous rollercoaster ride of new and exciting news. From a consumer’s perspective, though – and there were one million of them watching the live stream from home – the keynote was a bit disappointing.
This was a marked departure from other major developer conferences, such as Microsoft’s Build and Apple’s WWDC, where the keynote presentations are usually an orgy of consumer-oriented news. Why did Google decide to focus on developers on the one day of the year that the whole world is looking on? The short answer is that, for some reason, Google didn’t have many major products to show us. For the long answer, read on.
Despite Google I/O’s opening keynote being more than three hours long, there wasn’t that much to get excited about in the way of consumer-facing announcements. We heard about a new version of Hangouts, which attempts to unify Google’s messy gaggle of messaging services, and a new version of Maps.
Google+ also received a significant visual overhaul (but the average consumer still only seems to care about Facebook), and an automatic, in-the-cloud feature that makes your photos “awesome.” (In my opinion, the auto-adjusted photos don’t look very good).
There was also the new music service, All Access, but that’s not very exciting – it’s just Spotify, or Xbox Music – and it’s only available in the US to begin with, we won’t have that over here for some time yet anyway. For a complete rundown of all the announcements, check out our roundup feature on Wednesday’s keynote.
Google’s new Hangouts replaces the old Google+ Hangouts, Google Talk apps on iOS and Android, Gmail’s IM solution, and Google Voice. The new Hangouts is basically a threaded IM app, like Facebook Messenger, iMessage, or WhatsApp, but with integrated group video chat. You can call home/mobile phones and include them in Hangouts, too – and although there’s no SMS functionality just yet, it should arrive soon.
At first glance, this sounds like a much-needed fix: Google’s mix of messaging platforms has been an embarrassment for the company for years. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Google is incredibly late to the game, though. Beyond free group video chat, there isn’t really a compelling reason to use Hangouts, especially when you remember that it suffers from the same critical flaw as Google+: All of your friends use Facebook.
Perhaps more excitingly, Google Maps has been completely rebuilt. The new version – which isn’t widely available yet – is flatter, sleeker, and (amazingly) even more functional than before. On browsers that support it, it seems the interface is now powered by WebGL, allowing for incredibly smooth zooming and transitions between modes. Google Earth has been integrated, allowing you to instantly go from map view to globe view. Actually using the maps is a lot easier, too: To interact with a point on the map, now you just click it, and a card appears in the top left with all of the available options. Directions are now displayed in a clearer fashion, and the public transportation view is very impressive indeed, comparing all of the possible combinations of walking, trains, and buses.
The big omissions, though, were Android and Chrome. The Chrome team spent 45 minutes reminding developers of existing technologies such as HTML5, WebP, and WebM (VP9). The Android team announced a Google-branded Galaxy S4, but everything else was developer-oriented. Search, Google’s most important product, did unveil a conversational search tool that’s a lot like Apple’s Siri, but as we all know, the jury is still out on the actual usefulness of voice control.
Rather than be disheartened by the lack of consumer-oriented releases at Google I/O, though, we should actually be encouraged. Instead of trying to build cool stuff specifically for an artificially imposed Google I/O deadline, Google is now focusing on producing good products. We knew that things would change when Larry Page became CEO and promised more wood behind fewer arrows. The last 18 months have seen the shutting down and consolidation of dozens of Google’s weaker, non-core services, and coupled with yesterday’s relatively sedate keynote, with the growing maturity of Search and Maps and unified messaging, Google is signalling that its Wild West days are over.
Is it good that Google is focusing more on maturing its core products, instead of creating new ones? Almost since its inception, Google’s existence has been defined by its rapid release of new and exciting products. Gmail, Reader, Google+, Buzz, Talk, Voice, Maps – really, when you get a chance, take a stroll through the Wikipedia page of Google’s products; it really is quite amazing how many products Google has released in its 15-year history. Since Page took over in 2011, Google has released very few products and slowed down its acquisitions dramatically.
The plan, as far as we can tell, is to develop more core products that can earn money – advertising still generates somewhere in the region of 95 per cent of Google’s revenue, and in a high-tech world where startups can replace incumbents in just a few years, a lack of diversification is very dangerous indeed (just ask Microsoft).
At the same time, though, by consolidating rather than innovating, Google’s movements will be inherently slower and more measured. For developers and shareholders, this is a good move – for consumers who constantly crave new and exciting things, you may have to start looking elsewhere for your thrills.