Google’s I/O Conference Was Kinda Dull — and That’s Great

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Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Google I/O, Google’s yearly developer conference, has a checkered history. Traditionally, it’s been the site where Google has announced products that permanently changed the tech landscape: the Android OS in 2007, the Chrome OS in 2009, Google Drive in 2012. It’s also been the place where it’s shown off products that have, well, made less of a difference in the world: the short-lived social-messaging platform Google Wave, the orb-shaped Nexus Q, and — of course — the skydiving introduction of Google Glass in 2012, which arguably did change the world, by both ruining the public perception of augmented reality for a few years and giving us this beautiful picture of tech blogger Robert Scoble.

But recent years have seen the Mountain View company’s I/O conference become considerably calm. About as wild as it got today was some light Euro-trance playing as the crowd filtered in, and some confusion about whether there was enough almond milk for the coffee bar. Crazy stuff.

The Google of the late aughts and the turn of the decade was a different company than it is now. In 2011, Google needed to gamble on Chrome OS and the future of netbooks. It had to create a mobile OS, and then it needed to attract developers to actually make apps for its nascent mobile OS. (Not to mention that all it would take for Google to suddenly lose a significant chunk of revenue would be Apple deciding to use a different search engine.) It had to take wild swings, because it could feel that some sort of sea change was happening in computing, and it wasn’t quite sure where that was.

But the Google of 2017 is a different company. Under senior vice-president Rick Osterloh, Google has made impressive efforts in creating high-quality home hardware that splits the difference between the harsh lines of Amazon’s efforts and Apple’s minimalist-at-all-costs approach, and the Pixel was one of the best phones released in the past 12 months.

But even more important for Alphabet was hiring CFO Ruth Porat — who was essentially brought in to rein in Alphabet’s worst tendencies of making big bets that didn’t pay off:

The Google — or, I should say, the Alphabet — of 2017 is a company that will release continuous updates to its existing products. Android N’s update to Android O looks impressive (even if some of its biggest innovations — like notification dots and the long press to bring up different app options — will be familiar to any iOS users). But it’s not a brand-new invention of Android itself.

Your Gmail will get slightly smarter with machine learning. Google Assistant now has a computer-visual function, Google Lens, that’ll be able to recognize everything from a lily to an SSID number. Machine learning itself is going to work its way into pretty much every area of Google — including many areas where the end consumer may never directly experience its benefit. It’s halved its error rate in voice recognition in phones, in a little under a year. Google is also bringing Google Assistant to the iPhone.

Google Home now allows for hands-free voice calling. Google Photos will using machine learning to search through your photos and suggest the best photos to share with friends and family, and even print out a paperback or hardback photo album.

YouTube made a big push for your living room — and a play for live streaming, bringing out the Slow-Mo Guys to get pegged with water balloons for charity? (I may have dreamed this). Android Wear and Android Things continue to be things people can theoretically buy.

Chromebooks now own 60 percent of the education market, and Google was quick to point out that (unlike, perhaps, another recently announced OS aimed at the education market) they have a very well-developed app ecosystem.

Perhaps the biggest announcement was Android Go, a series of devices meant to run on less memory, storage space, and power. There’ll also be a Play Store meant to be use for the 512 KB to 1 GB of memory. It also puts users more in control of how much data they’re using — vital in countries where data charges can still be relatively pricey.

Daydream support will also be coming to Samsung and LG phones (surprising, considering that Samsung sells its own competing VR mobile headset). But the real announcement was what it’s calling a “stand-alone” headset, which allows for free movement around a room. (Oculus has been showing a somewhat similar prototype called Santa Cruz, and Microsoft and Acer have their own version coming out — with a tether — this holiday season.) All of these products will be hitting the market in 2017.

But Google really wanted to show off Project Tango, its long-delayed device that allows for phones to scan 3-D space. The real appeal of this? You can use GPS to get you to, say, Target, and then use Tango to help you find the project you’re actually looking for in the store.

Most of the stuff I listed above is great. But none of these things would get mainstream front-page headlines the way Google Glass did. The new version of Android will allow for better functionality. A lot of machine-learning-enabled additions to Google Assistant will make it more useful. Android Go is a noble (and, of course, profit-driven) motive to get Android into even more users’ hands. (Google already claims 2 billion Android users worldwide.) Its virtual-reality and augmented plays are interesting, but it remains to be seen how it will all work out (Google’s first attempt has struggled out of the gate.)

But it’s that Ruth Porat effect that really matters. Google is making long-term plays; it understands that the future is mobile, so it has to own mobile search. It understands that the future is machine learning, so it’s making aggressive plays to become the leader in machine learning — and integrating that machine learning into as many products as possible. Alphabet’s earnings reports have almost become boring. Apple and the other big-five tech companies can see their earnings swing back and forth, depending on market vagaries. Alphabet is slowly, somewhat dully, making a fortune, quarter after quarter. No skydivers in sight.

Google’s I/O Conference Was Kinda Dull — and That’s Great