Delusions of Grandeur May 2013

This was my first year attending Google I/O. I don’t have a WWDC ticket this year, so it was bittersweet being back in Moscone West. Since MartianCraft does a fair amount of Android consulting, it makes sense for me to be there.

There I was, watching an insane bouncy graphic pulse a countdown towards the 5th Google I/O. It was an experience. The atmosphere at first glance was eerily similar to WWDC. Excited developers, cheering loudly and making a raucous noise. But the similarities ended the moment the countdown concluded and the show began.

A different culture.

Google I/O is a different conference from WWDC even though they often get compared as equals. Many in the greater Apple development community focus too much on drawing sharp contrasts between the culture and identity of each. There is no question they are different. But I don’t assert that one is better and one is worse. I prefer one to the other, but I attribute much of this preference to familiarity. I know WWDC, but I do not know Google I/O, so I’m not focusing on the differences in this recap.

I was in the room, not casually watching it streamed through a computer. Most of the initial reactions I’ve read about the keynote focused on Page’s spontaneous appearance at the end and I feel many have missed some of the bigger picture.

I’ll state up front that I was not impressed, but saw a ton of potential. I want to see Google become a proper competitor to Apple. Not a copycat, not a clone. Google has an identity, but struggled to show it yesterday as they stumbled through their public exposition.

It was clumsy.

The show was not polished. Not at all. Their Senior and Executive Vice Presidents, with the exception of Vic Gundotra, had clearly not been rehearsed enough. They were nervous, at times difficult to understand because they were mumbling. Demos failed. And instead of moving on, they sat painfully attempting to recover for what seemed an eternity. Many of the presenters had no stage awareness. They would perch behind desks or oversized podiums. Not moving, often not even speaking to their audience, but staring directly into the prompter. A few of them even turned their backs to the audience.

The staging was also comical in its scale. Speakers would get lost with oversized, over-done graphics. It was distracting and felt incredibly impersonal. There were two notable exceptions: Gundotra’s presentation on Google+ and Page’s impromptu lecture at the end.

Technology from the future.

Despite the lack of polish and staging, the technology displayed at times was breathtaking. Leveraging Google’s massive network of data centers to cull through your photos and pick the best ones. They even processed them, automatically. It was impressive and useful to many people. Then there was “Okay, Google”, the voice interface to Google search. It demoed flawlessly, quickly and accurately. Neither ideas were original, but they spoke to Google’s core strength: parallel processing on a massive scale, delivered quickly to millions. I can see myself using “Okay, Google” over time because I expect it will work reliably. Compare that to Apple’s Siri, where I’m surprised when it works.

There was plenty to like on the developer side as well. A universal game service that runs on iOS, Android, and the web. (presumably the desktop, considering the web hooks) A software translation service that automatically provides results at the click of a button. Beta testing and user tracking built in, not to mention a consolidated tracking interface where you can track web and app traffic side by side. And then they brought Hangouts to mobile devices for persistent conversations.

All of this technology shares a common thread: they’re web services. Google excels at them. As good as Apple is at delivering tangible products you lust, Google is equally good at providing web services you depend on. And this was apparent in the enthusiasm shown by executives for particular products. Maps & Search received the coveted placement in the order of the keynote. Android, and the impressive Google+ demos were bookends to a romanticized and overly-dramatic discussion of the future of the web.

The amount of time devoted to Maps felt out-of-place and overhyped. It was an impressive 5-minute tech demo of WebGL crammed inside a 30 minute explanation of a product that already existed (the new mobile maps app) and a future product that was both available today and impossible to distinguish from the current version at first glance. There was an embarrassing attempt to discuss design and intention with the new Maps UI. My favorite moment was a road highlight that was so subtle, the feature had to be toggled several times before the crowd noticed the difference.

Wither design.

Facebook is amassing design weapons of mass destruction. Microsoft is seeking a unified interface system across their desktop, tablet and mobile devices. Amazon and Apple already have established credentials in the design of their products. Isn’t it time we stop giving Google a pass for willfully ignoring the design of their products?

Battery life, internationalization and the web as a universal “write-once, run everywhere” platform were the often repeated themes of the conference. Not once was design discussed. No stage time for Matias Duarte, one of the great mobile designers of our time. The only designer given stage time was a maps designer trotted out to run the aforementioned Maps demo behind that embarrassing podium on stage. Particularly awful considering the new Google Maps showed a tragic lack of design consideration.

There was a lack of taste in how the products were presented, as well. If Google is serious about making the technology disappear, they have to stop paying lip service to design. Their technology is certainly impressive and it’s clear they have talented designers in house. But the importance of design needs to bubble up into management. If they want to ship products, instead of merely services, then they have to consider the design in addition to the technology.

What happened to Android?

As I mentioned at the beginning my reason for being at I/O was to hear about the latest and greatest in Android. There were a few gems, like the aforementioned game service and the updates to the developer’s portal. No new version of the OS, just an early beta of a promising Android-specific development tool. And that was it. About 30 minutes into the keynote, Android became just another platform that was mentioned in support for their other products, alongside iOS and the web.

Not only were product images shown running on iOS, several of the demos were done on iOS devices! It’s certainly laudable that they support a range of platforms for each of their services. I’ll consider their game service first, simply because I could support multiple platforms with the same service. However, I found it odd that the live demos occurred on a rival platform. What signal does that send to your devoted Android developers in the audience?

Another telling sign was the the newly crowned chief of Android, Sundar Pichai, delegated the duties of explaining the new platform features to someone else. Only to return and speak for over 30 minutes on the importance of the web as a platform. It was an amusing show of favoritism. And it made for an odd introduction to the keynote. Gundotra came out to introduce Pichai who then quickly introduced Hugo Barra to discuss Android. It was pretty clear that Android is not a priority for Google.

I don’t blame them, really. Android was never a good fit for Google and I can’t imagine they make very much money from it. The Motorola acquisition has yielded nothing, while Samsung continues to dominate the Android landscape.

Chrome is the future.

In contrast to Android, it was Chrome’s name that Google couldn’t speak enough. It was Chrome they touted in video form when discussing penetration in schools. In Chrome Google has a superior product to its competitors. And also in Chrome where Google is presenting their boldest vision of the future of computing. Then consider that their “gift” to each conference attendee was an overpriced computer that can only run a web browser.

I’m having a hard time understanding the Pixel, especially a logical reason for why Google would give away 6,000 of them to developers. Developers need a truck, not a smart car. The Pixel is a beautiful piece of hardware in many aspects. But it’s a bimbo. I can think of no reason why I would ever pack the Pixel for a trip. My iPad is smaller and more capable. Why didn’t this version of the Pixel ship with a development environment? Why not the fancy new Android studio? It was a wasted opportunity from a company that can’t figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

In my opinion, Chrome is the future of Google. It makes sense. Just as the objective-c runtime is to Apple, Chromium is Google’s runtime. However, that future isn’t forcing everything into a browser window. A modern operating system needs to do more. It needs to group tasks, and switch quickly between multiple applications. It needs a way to focus on a particular task, without excess visual clutter getting in the way.

Imagine for a moment that there was a task focused operating system that allowed developers to write native applications in HTML, CSS and Javascript. Imagine that runtime was also forked from Webkit but was severely inefficient and lacked the finesse of the Chromium. And now imagine that the chief designer of this fictional platform now works for Google putting lipstick on a much less sophisticated platform.

Google missed their chance at WebOS the first time it was available. If I were a betting man, I’d say that Andy Rubin had something to do with it. He’s now gone. WebOS is open-source and I imagine Duarte would enjoy taking a second crack at what he started with WebOS. But now, his vision wouldn’t be hampered by a runtime with performance problems. Look no further than the Hobbit WebGL demo shown running on the Nexus 10 in a Chrome browser tab. Chrome is powerful technology, it just needs to escape the browser to become something more. I want to see Google build a mobile Chrome OS, in the image of WebOS.

It’s a pipe dream, for sure. But Google has the raw material in front of them and Android has grown out of their control. They need a platform that is uniquely theirs and reeks of their core strength.

A bizarre coda.

A lot has been said about Larry Page’s closing remarks. Yes, it was an unceremonious end to a drawn out affair that left many open questions. It was Google’s opportunity to make a statement and set the tone for the rest of the conference. A moment for them to clarify their vision. On paper it probably looked brilliant: Page, struggling to speak, in a very spare and raw moment on what defines Google. It could be built upon Page’s undisputed role as a pioneer in the history of modern computing. He’s a visionary and an idealist. The room erupted when he walked on stage and for 15 minutes of rambling, the auditorium was breathless. As he walked on stage, it appeared to be a brilliant move.

Then Page started speaking and the whole thing slowly derailed. Instead of a moment that would rise above the bore of yearly product updates, it served to articulate just how out of touch Google is with itself. They paraded VP after VP to discuss products without an ounce of cohesion or overarching strategy. It was as though each of them met only once a year to discuss what they’ve worked on. Then their boss gets on stage and completely failed to tie any of it together.

Will the real Google please stand up? If Page is too embarrassed to own up to how they make money, why don’t they start charging customers instead of selling them? I’d love to use the photo galleries in Google+, but until they start charging me I don’t know what else they’re doing with my photos on their massive super computer. Instead of thrusting sub-par iPhone wannabes upon us, why not focus on what you’re good at and build from there.

And the next time you kidnap me for over three hours, make sure your SVP of design gets up and reminds us why we should care about all this gee-whiz tech that you’re so eager to show off.

The verdict.

Google I/O has been an interesting experience. Google has a healthy community of developers and they have their own unique voice. I hope to return next year and meet more of them. My only request of Google (other than bringing back WebOS from the dead) is that they cater food for the next keynote. Three hours was a bit long to go without a burrito.