Google is done playing catch-up. Today they're setting the agenda:
With Android Froyo,Google TV, mobile ads and streaming media, Google isn't just
matching Apple—they're taking the lead. The
Google I/O conference has been dizzyingly dense, with announcements from nearly
every corner of Google's ever-expanding apparatus. The meatiest news comes direct
from Google's most intense battlefronts: Android Froyo (version
2.2); a bevy of clever new cloud services; and a mobile ad platform paired with Google TV marching
into battle with competing products from Microsoft, and much more pointedly,
Apple. Google's last 18 months have been a period of frantic catchup, in
which we saw Android reach feature parity with iPhone OS, the Android Market
explode, and Google's confidence slowly build. Apple had been setting the terms
of the battle, baiting Google into action. The competition was fierce, but the
fight was on Apple's terms.
Google's tired of that. In the space of two days, they've
leapfrogged Apple spectacularly: They've matched Apple's mobile OS in
predictable ways, and embarrassed it in others (Flash on mobiles may not be as
horrific as Apple has implied); they've invaded the living room with a
dedication and vigor that makes Apple TV look like a jokey experiment; they've
steamrolled the mobile ad market with as solid a platform as Apple's and, more
importantly, hundreds of thousands of advertisers; they've taken massive steps
into the cloud, and into streaming—the kind of stuff nerds talk about, but didn't
expect to see so soon.
"We discovered something cool:
It's called the internet."
We've spilled a lot of ink over Android's lack of media syncing, and
what seemed like an half-assed online sync system. The pieces just didn't add
up to a whole. There was no need to sync to a desktop for most of your data,
but there was no easy, slick way to transfer media. Apps were handled
exclusively on the phones' App Market apps, which was a pain. The experience
was broken, so people complained. Why couldn't we just have an iTunes-style
app, at least?
Well, now we know. With Android Froyo, apps are synced wirelessly
between your desktop web browser and your phone, music is streamed from your
home PC to your handset over 3G, and instructions—map directions, search terms,
web pages and potential all kinds of other stuff—can be zapped to your handset
from a desktop browser. Sync as Apple defines it suddenly looks tired and
clumsy. The new sync is instant, it's less
redundant, it makes sense. And the new
sync belongs to Google.
It's the Ads, Stupid
Aside from the requisite technical hiccups, Google's presentation
today was surprisingly assured. And never was it more assured than during the
AdSense mobile presentation. Here we saw Google reveal something a lot like
what Jobs showed with iAds, right down to the "users don't like to leave
their apps" mantra.
Apple's presentation was about a new ad platform, which let's be frank: Ugh. You've got a
pretty framework for ads, Apple? Users don't care because, well, we hate ads.
Devs weren't too excited, because Apple's system was new, unproven and, well,
not terribly interesting.
presentation was more shrewd: They didn't have to linger on the mechanism of the ads, because for Google,
AdSense mobile is just a bridge for their hundreds of thousands of preexisting
advertisers, to every phone the company touches. When focusing on these gadget
and product side of things, it's easy to forget that Google is foremost an
advertising company. Apple can present pretty ad platforms all they want, but
Google has a proven record of selling.
Apple TV, Blindsided
Apple TV withered not for lack of potential, but for lack of ambition.
It's as if Apple decided to invade our living rooms, built the box they need to
do it, then gave up when it wasn't a wild, immediate success. In doing so, they
squandered a multi-year head start.
Google TV is a markedly different product than Apple TV—more like TiVo's
latest box than Apple's crippled Mac Mini—but that's only because Google is
taking a much more aggressive tack. Instead of a single box to supplement your
TV, Google wants to take it over. They
want to combine TV and the internet in a real way, not with token widgets or
content stores. They want app devs, hardware partners, content partners and
search traffic, which for us, translates to apps, tons of hardware choices, a
multitude of viewing options and areal window to
the internet. Where Apple TV had iTunes, Google TV will have Amazon, Netflix,
YouTube and Hulu. Where Apple TV had a walled-off repository of downloaded,
paid content, Google will have a massive selection of content, free and paid,
complementing your regular TV channels, not stubbornly isolated from them.
Google Comes of Age
In the past, Google has always been late to the party—and they rarely
outpaced Apple. The iPhone set the tone and terms for the mobile wars, with
iTunes and the App Store looming large over every newcomer, including Android.
Apple TV came out in 2007. The iPad is the standard to which every new tablet
will be measured. Through their successes, Apple has defined a vision: It's a
company that loves control, that changed the meaning and importance of
"apps," and which sees itself dominating nearly every aspect of its
users' technological lives. It's a vision that ignores the cloud, except when
it can't. And it's a vision that has an expiration date.
Google, too, has a hunger for domination, but they've finally got vision
of their own to accompany it: A vision of cellphones and desktops connected
seamlessly—revolutionarily, magically—over the internet; a vision
of media that streams when you need it, and disappears when you don't; a vision
that sees TV as an extension of
the internet, not simply a dumb screen.
Google's got a ton of work to do. Android is fragmented, and huge share
of the handsets people own today will never take advantage of Froyo's new
features. Any new TV product takes years to filter into the average living
room. Media streaming is an inevitability, but the infrastructure isn't there
to fully realize it, and what Google showed off today doesn't address
everything. (The is no video component to their new Simplify Media-based
music streaming software, for now.) But listening to Google's newly
emboldened Vic Gundotra after a particularly uninspired series of Jobsnotes,
peering into each company's future, I see Google stepping out ahead—and with
one impressive lead.
Send an email to John Herrman, the author of this post, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
great is Google's Vic Gundotra? Well-spoken, quick on his feet,
and able to take swipes at Apple without seeming snide. (It helps that he chose
to attack Apple primarily on a feature-to-feature basis, although there were
plenty of references to philosophical differences, too.) Somehow Gundotra
managed to give an entire presentation filled with attacks on Apple—notably the
iPad compared to the iPhone, although that could have been simply because the
iPad is the fastest Apple Touch device—without seeming whiny or overreactive.
That's a coup.
While the entire I/O keynote today was extremely strong, Gundotra was
sorely missed when he handed over the mic to other Googlers as they described
Google TV. Google is staffed by nerds and it's to their credit that they put
those nerds out in front of the public. But the near disaster of the Google TV
demo showed, when a live demo goes off the rails, you need someone with the
charm to recover gracefully. Gundotra is that person. (Even though he
mispronounces "Froyo".) – JJ