This Wednesday, Google will open the doors to Google I/O, its biggest conference of the year. While aimed at developers, I/O is where Google announces stuff that any designer or consumer cares about–like the future of Android and Search.
Last year, I/O was a product blitz: It brought us the Google Assistant, the Google Home speaker, Google’s first phone, the Pixel, and an AI-driven messenger called Allo. That’s all on top of its big push into VR for the everyman, known as Daydream. It was Google’s most important year ever in hardware, and it made the search and advertising company look primed to take on the modern Amazon and Apple.
However, if rumors are to be believed, this year’s I/O will be filled with iteration rather than new product lines. We’ll definitely see the next version of Android, Android O, but the company’s next smartphone, the Pixel 2, is rumored to be delayed. But the fact that Google may not be launching a whole new VR headset or Home device doesn’t mean I/O will be any less interesting.
In fact, Google and Alphabet stand at a crossroads this year, facing major unanswered questions about their place on the internet, their approach to AI, and their role in your life. These questions are too big for any company to answer in any one presentation, but I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for answers all the same.
What Does The Future Of Apps Look Like?
I want you to imagine three vastly different futures for apps. In one, we keep tapping the endless icon screens on our phones. In another, we don’t need to download apps, they simply load as quickly as a web page. And in yet another, apps as we know them disappear entirely. We simply search for what we need and it appears.
So which future is Google pursuing? All three.
On one hand, it’s so Google of Google to do, isn’t it? Allow many teams with minimal management interference to pursue totally disparate modalities for our future. On the other hand, Android apps are going to be making their way to Chromebooks soon–and Samsung is touting phones that double as computers. Google is still planning to release an interactive jacket with Levi’s later this year. Virtual reality is out–and augmented reality is waiting around the corner.
Sooner or later, we sort of need Google to draw a line in the sand and let us know, “this is our plan for how apps will work in 2025–so let’s all try to move in this direction.”
Can Google’s AI Assistant Work As Well As Its Search?
Last year, Google debuted its AI assistant. It ran inside its new messenger, Google Allo (which nobody really cared about–and I dare you to find one person outside Mountain View who actually uses it). It also ran on the Pixel phone and Google Home speaker–which have found some traction, but the estimated numbers vary. Whether any of these discrete products endure is less important, in the long run, than the technology at the center of them all: the assistant, which is Google’s answer to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana.
Perhaps more than any other company, Google has the infrastructure to truly test the thesis of society’s Her moment: “Can one AI connect us across all of our devices?” Google is very good at infiltrating its competitors’ platforms with its irresistible services like Search, Google Maps, and Gmail. We’re already using Google Search across phones and desktops.
Could the company do the same for its AI assistant, turning it into the most ubiquitous–and therefore the most successful–embodiment of the burgeoning assistant wars? And will these assistants ever get good enough that we’ll regularly talk to our phones, our refrigerators, or our lights? The moves Google makes from here on out will do a lot to determine that.
Will Google’s Big Bet Hardware Ever Go Mainstream?
Some people claim Google can’t sell hardware. They’re wrong! Sure, the company has had big flops like the Google Glass, but Google has sold over 30 million Chromecast streamers and 10 million Cardboard VR headsets (though many Cardboards were given away for free), all while beating Apple’s entire Mac line.
Google just can’t seem to sell its expensive hardware, from phones to AR headsets–the sort of stuff that the average American family would need to add as a line item to the budget rather than an impulse purchase. This leaves premium devices like Google Home and Pixel in limbo. Are they hits? Flops? Or, more likely, would they be moderately successful devices for any company that isn’t one of the world’s largest and most powerful?
One thing is for sure: To average people, the Pixel is not the iPhone, and the Home is not the Echo. With premium hardware, Google is missing the mainstream inflection point it has so easily found with its digital services. What will it do from here? Does Google release a Home 2.0, or does it just silently keep adding more features and capabilities to the white obelisk? Does it change its marketing strategy? Does it just retreat back into Search and ads? I/O might give us a taste.
Does Google Know What To Do With Its Own AI?
Here’s a conundrum. We know AI, and neural networks, are the future of basically everything, right? They’re going to be key differentiators in technological paradigms that range from how cars drive themselves, to work and productivity, to how smartphone keyboards are debugged. But Google’s public presentation of its AI is often downright silly.
Before I/O, Co.Design broke news on Google’s new selfie app that turns your photo into a cartoon illustration. On one hand, what a neat mix of code and art! On the other, I can’t help but wonder if Google is building such platforms as a PR stunt rather than starting from the core of good design, where a technology is applied to a concrete user problem. Want more proof? Look at Google’s fix-your-sketch website or Google Allo asking you to play a trivia game through AI.
While nobody will use these inventions for more than a week, people will live with the tools that Google actually builds from this technology for years; stuff like better search results through autocomplete–in which Google uses AI, quietly, at its best. The company’s most important work is mostly invisible, saving us seconds a day here and there. It’s deeply intertwined with the way we use the internet today, and it’s subject to many pressing questions about the role of AI in our society, from politics to privacy.
But this sort of innovation–and the tough questions it raises–is a boring place to be as far as press conferences are concerned. So Google seems stuck in the middle, attempting to package its most important technological assets as apps we’ll all forget about in three months, just to keep us awake. There could be a more insidious play afoot–that Google, using these silly apps, is mastering AI while slowly desensitizing us to its presence.
What matters, and what Google needs to tell us now, is not just whether the next wave of AI is really that much more incredible (which is still yet to be proven by any Valley company). It’s whether that AI is transparent and responsibly designed enough that we should continue to pledge our technological souls to the company for the foreseeable future.
Can Google Crack Living Room VR/AR Before Anyone Else?
Ask almost anyone in the industry these days, and they’ll tell you that while virtual reality is fine, it’s augmented reality that we’ll eventually live in, with interfaces floating in front of our eyes all day, every day.
Whether you believe that’s the shape of things to come or not, Google is operating in the thick of it with Daydream VR and Project Tango AR. And the company is far ahead of Amazon and Apple in both areas–at least technologically. My question is, can Google use this lead to give us the iPhone moment of these new mediums? Daydream had some great ideas, but it’s still very hard to use compared to your average smartphone. Tango shipped in its first phone this year, but it is still mostly a mass market tech demo.
Truth be told, the VR/AR question teases a larger problem at Google and Alphabet. Whether it’s the electronic clothing of Project Jacquard, or the contact lens health device of Verily, or the self-driving cars of Waymo, there’s a lot of incredible technology that’s been built inside Mountain View, and yet all of it may be mainstreamed by a competitor first. Consider how Uber has poached Waymo technology, and that Apple is working on health tracking technology to challenge Verily.
No, Google wasn’t the first company to index the web, or give us email, or provide driving directions on a trip. But Google shouldn’t give up such early R&D advantages across so many industries. That’s especially the case now that the company finally “gets” design, meaning it’s beginning to understand the nuances of making good tech into a great product. Can it turn its strongest initiatives into functional products before its competitors do?