Let me be clear off the top — I’m not going to get too deep into specific announcements. The 12 most important announcements from Google I/O 2015 as recounted by The Verge will have to suffice. Instead, I’m going to go deep on Google itself.
On to the update:
Android and Serving the World
I can’t find exactly where, but I’ve written in the past that I find it very valuable to watch events like Google’s I/O keynote or any other company’s various keynotes and product announcements. It’s not that I need to know what is announced right away — I can read a gazillion blog posts after the fact (see above) — but rather that I want to know how something is announced. What story is being told? How are new products being framed? What connection is there to the company’s overarching strategy, or mission? The answers aren’t always explicit — and rarely, if ever written about in the aforementioned blogs — but they are there if you watch closely.
My favorite example of this, at least when it comes to my writing about this aspect of presentations, was Apple’s 2013 iPhone introduction. In the runup there was feverish speculation about the rumored 5C, in particular about how much it would cost; you’ll recall most were convinced Apple had to price it hundreds of dollars below the top-of-the-line iPhone (oops!). Within minutes, though — Two Minutes and Fifty-Six Seconds to be exact — it was obvious that wouldn’t be the case:
After endless dithering, that’s how long it took me to know the iPhone 5C would cost $549. It was at two minutes, fifty-six seconds that Tim Cook said there would be a video – a video! – about the iTunes Festival. And it was awesome…
This was Apple, standing up and saying to all the pundits, to all the analysts, to everyone demanding a low price iPhone: No.
No, we will not compete on price, we will offer something our competitors can’t match. No, we are NOT selling a phone, we are selling an experience. No, we will not be cheap, but we will be cool. No, you in the tech press and on Wall Street do not understand Apple, but we believe that normal people love us, love our products, and will continue to buy, start to buy, or aspire to buy. Oh, and Samsung? Damn straight people line up for us. 20 million for a concert. “It’s like a product launch.”
This attitude and emphasis on higher-order differentiation — the experience of using an iPhone — dominated the entire keynote and the presentation of features, with particular emphasis throughout on the interplay between software and hardware.
One would — and should — expect a far different message from a Google keynote. They are a horizontal company motivated by both mission and business model to serve as many people as possible, the exact opposite of Apple’s approach. Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai highlighted this in his opening remarks (after a seven-minute video countdown — I am not joking):
At Google, we’ve always worked hard at building products for everyone in the world. We try to look at technology and see if by using technology can we make a difference to a fundamental problem in people’s lives. That’s how we did Google search. Google search worked the same for everyone in the world, whether you were a rural kid in Indonesia or a professor at a world class research center, you had the same search results at your fingertips as long as you had access to a computer and connectivity.
We went on to solve many more problems. We asked, Why does email have to be so slow? Why couldn’t you search through all of your email? That led us to Gmail. We noticed people were really interested in the real world around them. That led us to Google Maps and YouTube. Over time, we built two computing platforms. Chrome because we noticed browsers were very slow and not safe to use. Android, because the team noticed the fragmentation and how difficult it was to build mobile phones and the user experience was confusing and the developer experience was very difficult. We brought that together in the form of Android. Each of these products today work at scale for everyone in the world and we are privileged to serve over a billion users for each of these products.
It’s a nice sentiment, and no question the numbers are incredible; there’s just one problem: it’s all a bunch of BS, particularly the description of the latter products, nearly all of which had very strong strategic rationales, altruistic outcome or not. There’s no better example than Android, which was first and foremost a strike against Microsoft and Windows Mobile — and a devastatingly effective one, at that. True, Android has helped get billions on line — which is awesome — but I think it’s naive to think that had Google not made Android those billions would still be using feature phones; Android caught the moment, to Google’s great credit.
That said, Google hardly has an exclusive on keynote BS, and I wouldn’t mind Pichai’s speech so much had it not been for the hour that followed: a veritable smorgasbord of features and programs that seemed to exist simply because a company of Google’s size ought to do them. An operating system for the home? Sure! An Internet of Things language? Bring it on! Android Wear? We have apps! Android Pay? Obviously! A vision for Android? Not necessary! Just copy iOS (which, I might add, I have no problem with: it goes both ways, and, like I just said, many innovations are more discovered than invented — how else are you going to do copy-and-paste on a phone, or permissions?).
None of these had a unifying vision, just a sense that Google ought to do them because they’re a big company that ought to do big things. A bit, dare I say, like Microsoft. Some time in I think 2001 Microsoft’s famous mission statement — A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software — was augmented by a new “vision” statement:
At Microsoft, we work to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.
Can you see that shift? Being big and serving everyone moved from being a result to being a reason, and over the next several years Microsoft would build or buy a whole host of products ever more removed from both their mission and their business model. In the entire Android section I saw glimpses of that same shift yesterday, and for Google’s sake, I find it very concerning.
Photos, Google Now, and the World’s Information
Fortunately for Google, the keynote took a significant shift in hour number two, and the agent was Pichai (this is a long and involved quote, but I’m including it for a reason):
Now, we want to talk about how we as Google are improving the experience on the smartphone. To do that, we go to the core of what Google set out to do. Our core mission is to “Organize the World’s Information and Make it Universally Accessible and Useful” and we’ve been doing that for a while.
Think about how far search has evolved from the ten blue links. If you’re on a mobile phone, you can ask a question like “What does Kermit’s nephew look like?” and you get the answer instantly on your smartphone, for you Muppets fans out there. In fact, you can even ask “How do you say Kermit the Frog in Spanish?” [A demo runs on screen].
In this query, what looked like a simple query, we understood voice, we did natural language processing, we are doing image recognition, and finally translation, and making it all work in an instant. The reason we are able to do all of this is because of the investments we have made in machine learning. Machine learning is what helps us answer the question “What does a tree frog look like?” from millions of images around the world. The computers can go through a lot of data and understand patterns. It turns out the tree frog is the third picture there [There are four different frogs on the screen].
The reason we are able to do that so much better in the last few years is thanks to an advancement in technology called Deep Neural Nets. Deep Neural Nets are a hierarchical layered learning system, so we learn in layers. The first layer can understand lines and edges and shadows and shapes. A second layer may understand things like ears, legs, hands, and so on. And the final layer understands the entire image. We have the best investment in machine learning in the past many years and we believe we have the best capability in the world. Our current Deep Neural Nets are over 30 layers deep. It’s what helps us when you speak to Google — Our word error rate has dropped from 23% to 8% in just over a year and that progress is due to our investment in machine learning.
Note the specificity — it may seem too much for a keynote, but it is absolutely not BS. And no surprise: everything Pichai is talking about is exactly what Google was created to do. It’s no different than Ballmer exclaiming how much he loves Windows: that was the product representation of Microsoft’s mission, a perspective that perhaps grants the deposed CEO just a hint of grace for his inability to move on.
The next 30 minutes were awesome: Google Now, particularly Now on Tap, was exceptionally impressive, and Google Photos looks amazing. And, I might add, it has a killer tagline: Gmail for Photos. It’s so easy to be clear when you’re doing exactly what you were meant to do, and what you are the best in the world at.
Google’s Turning Point
The keynote soon moved on to things like optimizing Android for developing countries, Android Studio improvements, Play Store improvements, and some cool initiatives around developer marketing (Google is also very, very good at helping sell stuff). Finally, Pichai came back to introduce Cardboard and Google’s approach to VR, plus a really neat classroom tool and JUMP, a tool to capture real world VR images.
The most important detail, though, was a small one: Cardboard now supports iOS. Indeed, so does Google Photos, on day one (and, via Google’s app, Google Now).
This is the exact right strategy for Google: as I noted at the top they are a horizontal company that for reasons of both mission and business model ought to serve every platform. Android, though, nearly choked that out. Things like turn-by-turn directions in Google Maps were exclusive to Android, because Android became more important than Google. And, in the long run, Google lost by losing Apple, their best and most profitable platform.
This is almost certainly why Andy Rubin was fired, and that decision may very well have saved the company. My argument in Peak Google was about future growth (or not); far more dangerous is an obsession with bigness that results in your losing what you have, simply because you forgot why you have it.
Google finally remembers, and that reality, far more than Android, makes them a true long-term threat to Apple and everyone else.
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