Hey Google, Where’s the Beef? – PC Magazine
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Google I/O in the year of 2016 will likely be remembered as one of the strangest technology conferences of the decade. For one thing, it’s unusual for attendees to receive swag bags with water bottles and sunscreen. I can’t remember having to bring an umbrella (not for rain, but for shade), a jacket, and extra deoderant to any tech event. But stranger still was that after Google’s top leaders presented their vision for the year, the most tantalizing bits were still to come.
What We Saw
As many of our readers can see from the flurry of activity across Twitter and our own homepage, Google had a lot to talk about. The company announced the Google assistant, a new interaction for Google search that builds on the company’s seeking skills and machine learning, to deliver a seamless chat-bot experience. One of the first places the Google assistant will appear is in Allo, yet another new messaging app, which will be a companion to Duo, a barebones video chat app.
The Google assistant is meant to be an ambient experience, and to bring that to the home, Google announced the aptly named Google Home. This device, shaped like a cylinder that bulges like a pear, brings room-filling Bluetooth audio and speech recognition into your living room. Just ask it a question, and Home will respond. It will even interface with IOT products, so you can scream and have your lights turn on. At last.
Android was not forgotten. Android N, the latest version of the mobile operating system will bring new features like split screen and enhanced security to smartphones. It will also bring virtual reality in the form of Daydream.
Android on your wrist is also getting a refresh with Android Wear 2. This long-awaited update brings numerous tweaks to Android wearables, but the most important feature is independence. Wear 2 apps can operate independently from your phone, making Wear far more useful than before.
Meanwhile, Android is coming to an entirely new venue with Google Play on Chrome OS. Chromebooks and desktops can finally run Android apps natively through a clever integration on the computers.
What We Didn’t See
None of what I listed above was made available to the public at I/O, and developers can only try out some of it.
Wear 2 is available to developers, but barely had a presence after the keynote. The Google Play integration for Chrome OS will roll out to developers soon and will be made available at a later date. Android N, which has been available as a developer preview for months, is still being tinkered with—although an open beta is available. Both Allo and Duo are nowhere to be seen in the Play store, and the Google assistant is still forthcoming. Google Home, the only piece of new hardware announced at the show, will be launching nebulously later.
Daydream is open to developers, but requires specific phones. We’re told that many Daydream-ready phones will be available before the end of the year, but no word on who is making them. Google confirmed that it would be building first-party Daydream headsets (the bit that holds the phone on your face) and remotes (the bit you hold in your hand), but without a timeframe. Third parties are invited to this party too, but again: no partners or dates announced.
Not For You
There’s a lot of ink being spilled about how Google I/O 2016 was a failure. Some pieces focus on the long lines, the outdoor venue, a lack of swag, and the fact that attendees are walking away with only a vague roadmap for future platforms and products.
But that’s unfair, really. A conversation I had in one of the (admittedly, quite long and hot) lines is a sobering reminder that while Google I/O is where the company chooses to announce phones, smartwatches, and products that regular people will use, it’s still a developer conference.
A fellow attendee noticed I was press, and we got to talking about how we thought the event was going. “Well,” he said. “Firebase is obviously the biggest story of the show.”
Regular folks probably haven’t heard of Firebase, but it’s hugely important to developers. It includes tools and platforms that developers can use to build better apps faster, and basically do the business of mobile software development. For developers, the changes in Firebase earned tons of applause.
Here’s a full disclosure: when Google execs start talking about developer tools and showing off new code and new APIs, most journalists take that opportunity to start filing stories about the products announced in the first 90 minutes of the show. That’s not because they’re not interested, it’s just that the millions of readers out on the Web (you guys) probably aren’t all that interested in the updates to Android Studio. In fact, the announcements made about additional machine-learning tools being made open source and the availability of purpose-built machine-learning hardware is probably much, much more important than Wear 2.
Then there’s the human issue. This came up on the last day of I/O, at a large session about Google’s roadmap for machine learning. In the last four years, presenters said, machine learning and neural networks have become a larger and larger part of Google’s operation. Most regular users have seen these in the super-smart self-sorting Google Photos app or the remarkable advancements in natural language processing. There’s also those creepy/beautiful Deep Dream images, but I digress.
At the machine-learning session, product managemen director Chennapragada discussed some of the challenges of integrating machine-learning tools like voice search into actual products. She is, after all, the one who showed off Google Now’s contextual awareness at last year’s I/O.
“When we started working on Google Now, we realized it was really important to pay attention to the ‘wow’ to ‘WTF’ ratio,” said Chennapragada. Great moments are great, but when you ask Google to get you home, and it gives you driving directions to the Marianas Trench, your product is in trouble. “Credibility creates trust,” Chennapragada continued.
It’s possible, and I would say likely, that Google recognizes that people are going to be suspicious of the Google assistant. Placing it in Allo, a standalone app, isn’t just creating “yet another chat app,” it’s sequestering the experience so people can opt in and discover the benefit. Google Home not only needs to work perfectly, but perhaps Google is concerned that people will be understandably creeped out by a machine talking back to people like it knows them.
Hopefully Google hasn’t forgotten the lessons from Google Buzz. Turning on a radical new product that has anything to do with private information without warning is probably not a good idea.
I could be wrong about all of this, of course. Maybe Google has been caught totally flatfooted by chatbots and Alexa, but I don’t think that’s the case. We’ve been hearing about machine learning, natural language, and a more ambient approach to search from Google for years. The Google assistant isn’t really a product, it’s the culmination of all those efforts up to this point. It’s a very different way to use Google, and maybe even the Internet writ large. Google, it seems, is about to change the game, and is going to get us there only one step at a time.
Hey Google, Where’s the Beef? – PC Magazine